Maintaining Your Sexual Health

It's good to note that nearly every symptom or problem that affects your sexual health is treatable, reversible, or even avoidable. But, as with any area of your health maintenance, you can't count on someone else — your doctor, minister, therapist, or partner — to protect and manage your sexual health. That job is yours.

Essential

A multivitamin-mineral supplement may be an easy and inexpensive way to promote your sexuality — and your general health. Vitamin E has been shown in some studies to increase sexual desire, and zinc may help foster sexual arousal (oysters are high in zinc). Selenium is another mineral that is the subject of ongoing studies of sexuality.

If you, like the vast majority of men and women in this country, intend to remain sexually active throughout a long and healthy life, what can you do to ensure that you maintain your sexual health through the years ahead? For starters, you have four very basic tools at your disposal for monitoring and maintaining your sexual health:

  • Monitor your sexual health and pay attention to changes in your sexual responses and feelings.

  • Maintain an open dialog with your health care professional about sexual problems and solutions.

  • Protect yourself from pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease while still in perimenopause.

Vaginal Health

Frankly stated, an active fulfilling sexuality requires a healthy vagina. Your vagina is maturing along with the rest of your body, and it's worth your while to pay some special attention to caring for this sensitive (and vital) part of your body. Don't worry — you don't need a special course in maintenance and repair to keep this part of your sexual being in order. Some very simple techniques and common-sense practices can help you maintain your vaginal health.

First, if your sexual life involves new partners, always practice safe sex. This isn't the 1960s, and casual unprotected sex with strangers never again will be in fashion. Don't count on your judgment or gut reaction to determine whether or not someone's infected with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Assume that they are — no matter who they are — and don't allow a sexual partner's semen, blood, or other body fluids to come in contact with your vagina, anus, or mouth. Your vaginal tissues are becoming thinner and easier to tear, and your immune system might be stressed by shifting hormone levels. That puts you more at risk than ever for contracting a sexually transmitted disease. Talk to your partner about his or her sexual history, use condoms, and get blood tests. Safe sex practices may not seem sexy, but they're basic to survival.

Next, take steps to reduce vaginal dryness. Your vaginal secretions diminish along with your estrogen level, which can contribute to dry, inflexible vaginal tissues and painful intercourse. Your vagina's pH balance will shift with your hormone levels, too, and that can contribute to increased irritation and bacterial infections. Estrogen therapy is one way to combat vaginal dryness, but it's not the only method for keeping vaginal tissues moist and pliant.

Over-the-counter vaginal moisturizers such as Astroglide, K-Y Jelly, and Vagisil Moisturizer can help fight off dryness. (Ask your doctor or pharmacist for other vaginal moisturizing products.) Avoid vaginal deodorizers and deodorized products, scented toilet tissues, and chemical-laden bath soaps and soaks. Perfumes and chemicals can further upset the pH balance in your vagina and contribute to local irritation and dryness. Water hydrates all of your cells; drink between thirty-two and sixty-four ounces every day to keep your skin, hair, bones, and other body tissues fully moisturized.

Alert

Ten percent of new HIV/AIDS cases are in people over fifty. Because older people are not routinely tested for HIV and are not as familiar with how it spreads, they are at higher risk for having undiagnosed cases. They may mistake symptoms for the aches of getting older and are often embarrassed to discuss this with their medical provider. Use safe sex practices with any new partners, and ask your partners about their HIV status.

Improve Sexual Response with the Kegel Exercise

You've probably heard of the Kegel exercise; many women use them to return the strength and condition of their vaginal muscles after childbirth. Other women use the Kegel exercise to improve their ability to control stress incontinence. Kegel exercise has also been shown to offer women another important benefit: Strengthening vaginal muscles can increase sexual health and pleasure.

The exercises strengthen the pelvic floor muscles that extend from the pubic bone to the tailbone and surround your vaginal opening and the opening to your urinary tract. Strengthening these muscles enables you to contract your vaginal opening, increasing the amount and intensity of the contact between your vagina and your partner's penis. Kegel exercise also increases the blood flow to (and the sensitivity of) your genital area. Practicing them regularly can increase the physical sensations of intercourse, making sex more pleasurable for both you and your partner.

Fact

Obstetrician/gynecologist Arnold Kegel developed the exercise named for him in the mid-1940s as a non-surgical solution for his patients who were battling incontinence. He later realized that the exercises helped new mothers recover from the physical effects of labor and vaginal childbirth. Today, many women do the Kegel exercise to make their vaginal muscles stronger and more resilient in preparation for childbirth.

You can find your vaginal muscles the next time you urinate. When you begin urinating, squeeze your muscles to stop the flow. Try to start and stop the flow several times, in the same sitting. The muscles you're contracting are those of your pelvic floor musculature — the same set of muscles that you exercise with the Kegel exercise. Once you learn to identify and contract that muscle, you can do your exercises anywhere. (And once you've identified them, don't use them to stop your urine anymore — that can be bad for your bladder.) Contract the pelvic floor muscle and hold it for a count of five. Breathe normally and repeat the contraction, hold, and release ten times. Do this exercise every day — do a dozen repetitions when you're sitting and waiting for a red light to change, or when you're on hold for a phone call. After a month or two of practice, you should notice that you have more control over your bladder and some improved sensation during sexual activity (even masturbation).

Talk about S-E-X

As your sexuality matures with you, you might experience any or all of the problems or issues discussed in this chapter. And, in most cases, you may need to talk to a medical professional, therapist, or other counselor or consultant to find the best resolution for those problems. If you aren't comfortable discussing medical or emotional aspects of your sexuality or sexual health, that discomfort can make your situation seem even more frustrating and hopeless. Your ability to talk about issues — ranging from painful intercourse to a lack of response to stimulation — is crucial to establish a trusting relationship with your health care provider, and to become comfortable discussing your sexual health with that person.

Begin by talking to the health care professional or counselor you trust most. If that person can't provide the professional assistance you need, he or she can refer you to the appropriate source for that help.

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