We hear a lot about the importance of physical, mental, and spiritual health, but conversations about sexual health can feel a little taboo. But sexual health is equally important for a person’s well-being, whether you’re trying to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections or worried about physical problems related to sexual health.

Our friends affiliated with the Mayo Clinic Executive Health Program shed some light on ways to stay healthy – sexually.

One of the most common sexual health ailments for men is erectile dysfunction (ED). Dr. Scott Collins, director of the General Internal Medicine Men’s Health Clinic at Mayo Clinic, says studies show about 52% of men suffer from ED. The good news is, there are treatment options that are available for a variety of causes of ED.

“We can help everyone,” Collins says. “It just depends on what the individual wants to do. We can help any patient get an erection; some people will respond to pills, some people need injections, and some people need a penile implant. Everyone can be helped. The options vary.”

Collins explains that many people think ED is uncommon and they are the only person experiencing it. There’s also a fear that common treatments won’t help them. But he is quick to say he sees several patients with ED in his clinic each week and the hesitancy is often unfounded. 

Low libido: It’s complicated

Another complaint that brings patients to Collins’ office is low libido. Like ED, Collins says it can have many causes. 

“It can be very complicated,” he says. “I always want to make sure that the testosterone values are OK. But there can be so many dynamic relationship factors, past traumas, guilt about this or that. We go through these things very thoroughly with the patient and look for those areas that can impact the libido and target that.”

Libido is an issue that affects women as well as men, and Dr. Carol Kuhle, who holds a doctorate in public health and serves as director of the Menopause and Women’s Sexual Health Clinic at Mayo Clinic, touched on some of the reasons.

When it comes to libido, Kuhle says there are two types of drivers: an innate drive often seen in younger people and receptive drive when a person is open to sex but not driven to participate.

“We decide that we’re going to participate because we enjoy our partner, and then we feel aroused,” Kuhle says. “It becomes a spontaneous drive to continue with a sexual activity. What we’re trying to get at with this particular cycle when we talk to the patients is, how are you functioning? Are you able to lubricate? Are you able to enjoy sexual activity? You’re able to have an orgasm or not?”

Like men’s questions about libido, low libido in women also can also have several causes.

“Cancer is huge,” Kuhle shares. “A woman who has had their ovaries out, or they’ve had pelvic radiation, both impact what happens with the vagina.

“We can also review experiences that we’ve had,” she continues. “If there’s been sexual abuse or negative experiences, it’ll get encoded in the brain, and it can immediately impact what’s happening.”

As women age, estrogen production decreases, which can affect libido as well as physical ramifications for sexual activity. 

“Estrogen is a driver, not only for libido, but it also has a physiologic impact at the vagina,” Kuhle says. “The vascular, muscular connective tissue will change over time. There’s actually decreased touch perception, so women will say, ‘It takes me longer to have an orgasm. It’s not as strong as it used to be.’ Oftentimes that’s because of lack of estrogen.”

Kuhle is quick to note that sex should not be painful. 

“Sex should not hurt,” she says adamantly. “Some believe their role is to be sexually available for their partner, and often they don’t tell their partner when something is uncomfortable. The reality is, their partner doesn’t want them to hurt. If there is consistently pain in sexual activity, see your doctor.”

It’s important to be well-informed about all aspects of sexual health and what it takes to have a fulfilling sex life. Similarly, it’s important to be aware of factors that can complicate your sexual health. Don’t let embarrassment keep you from bringing up concerns or asking questions of your doctor or other health care providers.

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