08/28/2012 07:58 EDT | Updated 10/28/2012 05:12 EDT

Getting Your Sex Life Back in Gear After 50


Hope Springs, the new movie starring Meryl Streep as an intimacy- and sex-starved 60-year-old wife, has already probably fueled knowing nods among older men and women.

Streep plays Kay, whose three-decades-old marriage to Arnold, played by Tommy Lee Jones, has gone the way of separate bedrooms. They haven't had sex in five years and not even Kay's donning an alluring negligee can sway her hubby from his sole-occupancy mentality.

The couples counselor they visit gets them to talk about their feelings and gives them "intimacy" homework assignments to reignite a spark to their seemingly long lost sexual flame.

Trust, communication, and getting out of comfort zones are important factors for restoring libido. But Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is an approach that has addressed these issues for centuries.

TCM, a 2,000-year-old system that uses a mind-body approach to illness and disease, recognizes that decreasing vitality -- including sexual energy -- is part of aging. But there are certain TCM protocols that any couple can follow to help get physical forms of affection back on the schedule. Here are three problems and solutions for a healthy love life makeover.

1. Discomfort during or after sex. If a woman's hormone levels are low, which is typically what happens when she gets older, sex doesn't feel good. In fact, dryness in the vagina and vulva -- some women describe it as feeling akin to sandpaper -- can be downright painful, even causing a burning sensation.

TCM defines dryness as a yin deficiency, also known as lack of moisture. The tissues of the vagina and vulva depend on estrogen for nourishment. As early as perimenopause, when estrogen levels slowly begin to decline, most women begin to experience some form of genital dryness. And by the time they've completed menopause, a lack of estrogen may have made their vaginal lining extremely thin, delicate and sensitive.

Solution: To supply estrogen to these tissues and plump them up with moisture, women can use a natural low-dose estrogen vaginal cream or suppository. The best form of estrogen to use is estriol, an estrogen that's much weaker than estradiol and other estrogens typically used in hormone replacement therapy. For women concerned about taking hormones, a hydrating aloe vera lotion or vitamin E applied locally may help.

As part of an herbal program, women can also take Chinese ginseng (also called Panax ginseng or Korean ginseng). Chinese ginseng, which is warming and promotes circulation in the entire pelvic region, is often used to treat or prevent vaginal dryness and tissue atrophy.

2. Lack of energy and libido. Being tired is one of the most common reasons older people don't have sex. TCM refers to fatigue as lack of chi or vital force. Although getting more sleep can help, an herbal program can also assist in restoring libido.

Solution: One of the best herbal aphrodisiacs is reishi, a mushroom that TCM calls lingzhi, the "mushroom of immortality." Reishi taken daily can gradually intensify one's sexual chi. Extensive research also associates this mushroom with helping build up the adrenal glands -- exhausted adrenals are usually tied to burnout -- and enhancing immunity.

Cordyceps is another Chinese herb, often used in combination with other ingredients, to elevate libido and strengthen chi.

3. Lack of time and an imbalanced lifestyle. Even older people can sublimate their sexual energy into other activities. But because sex is healing and comforting, as well as being pleasurable, it's important to fit it into the schedule.

Why does sex get shortchanged? Blame it on putting work and achievement before physical gratification. In my clinical practice, I've observed that women don't allow themselves quality time to bond with their mates.

Solution: For a woman to experience satisfying sex, feeling relaxed and safe is important. If those qualities are in short supply at home, it's important to restore them.

The best way is balancing female yang energy -- passion and activity -- with the quiet of yin. Getting acquainted with your yin is basically taking time to smell the flowers. Indeed, a TCM practitioner would advise frazzled older patients to head to the country and be part of nature. It's no wonder why gardening is so popular -- it's an activity that naturally puts you in a yin mood.