• Shy Krug, Ph.D., CST

The key to arousal is the heart (the literal one, not the figurative one)


If you hear someone talking about the role of the "heart" in a sexual experience, you might quickly assume the "heart" is simply a euphemism for "emotions", "love", or "affection". While these are all factors that can certainly relate to an individual's or couple's sexual experience, the literal "heart", the fist-sized muscle in your chest, is actually a critical player as well.


Before going into the details of why, let's first talk briefly about the mechanisms involved in arousal, for both men and women. During sexual arousal, the neurogenic and endothelial cells in the clitoris and labia or penis release nitric oxide causing dilation of the arteries of the smooth vascular tissue. (The mechanisms of arousal for men and women, and even the specific tissue of the genitals, are much more similar than many people realize!) With the increased blood flow, which causes expansion of of the tissue of the clitoris and labia or penis, the veins, which usually carry blood flow away from these areas, become compressed which prevents blood from leaving. This process, also called arterial dilation and venous occlusion, results in an increase of blood flow in and decrease in blood flow out, and produces engorgement. This is what causes physiological arousal for men and women.


As physiological arousal is linked to regulation of blood flow to the genitals, it becomes clear that how your heart and vascular system function plays a direct role in sexual arousal. In fact, erectile dysfunction may even be an early warning sign for heart disease. It's also why medical conditions like heart attack, stroke, coronary artery disease and cerebrovascular disease, have high correlations with sexual dysfunction for both men and women. It also means that lifestyle choices can play a significant role in how well our bodies operate during sexual activities. Factors such as smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, lack of exercise, or poor diet, are not simply bingo buzzwords your doctor of healthcare provider throws at you. These are factors that can impact how effectively your heart and vascular system function and how your body releases nitric oxide.


As we look at ourselves from a holistic perspective, while also recognizing the many systems involved in healthy sexual function, tending to heart and vascular health is a central factor in maintaining sexual health over the lifespan. As I discussed here, tending to all the factors related to sexual health is important, especially as our physiological and hormonal functioning evolves over the lifespan. As we are sexual beings from birth till death, we must also remain active in the maintenance of our physical and emotional health if we are to promote our sexual health over the lifespan.