About one-third of women given a placebo pill to treat a low libido reported improvements in their sex lives, a finding researchers say is evidence of the powerful and somewhat mysterious mind-body connection surrounding arousal and desire.
After drugs like Viagra and Cialis revolutionised the treatment of male sexual dysfunction in the late 1990s, a flurry of clinical trials were conducted in women in the hopes that the drugs could do the same to revive a woman's flagging sex drive.
The drugs flopped in women. But recently, researchers went back and looked at the old data on Cialis and found that not only did about 35% of women given the placebo pill experience significant improvement in psychological aspects of sex such as desire, many reported improvements in the physical aspects of arousal, including better lubrication, more frequent orgasms or more easily attainable orgasms, according to the study.
"Everything across the board improved in some women," said study author Andrea Bradford, a post-doctoral fellow at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
The study is published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine.
In the original study, 50 women aged 35 to 55 who were diagnosed with female sexual arousal disorder were given either Cialis or a placebo for 12 weeks. The women, most of whom were married, were asked to have sex at least three times a month. "Many went above and beyond," Bradford noted.
Women also had to keep a diary of how often they had sex and how satisfying it was.
Bradford suspects the improvements were due to several aspects of the study - the hope that the pill might be working plus speaking with medical professionals about sex, thinking about sex and trying to have better sex.
"I think just the act of attending to their sex lives was very therapeutic for some women," Bradford said.
Over time, the frequency with which women had sex dropped some, but they continued to report better sex lives overall. "It was quality over quantity," she said.
When sex is no longer satisfying, women tend to avoid it, noted Aline Zolbrod, a Boston-area clinical psychologist and sex therapist. Without at least giving it a try, there's little hope sex will get better.
'Just try it'
"I love this study," Zolbrod said. "It does what we'd like to get our patients to do, which is to start having sex again. Instead of getting into bed and sighing, 'Oh, this is never going to work,' instead they are getting into bed and thinking, 'Let's see what happens.' When you have that attitude and you have sex almost once a week, for some women it really did the trick."
The ages of 35 to 55 can be difficult for women, who may be balancing careers, family responsibilities and assorted worries that seemingly leave little time to feel erotic, Zolbrod said.
Many women, even those who don't have sexual dysfunction, may be able to learn a bit from the study, she added.
"Just try it. Hope for good things. Don't avoid it. Go in with good expectations. And communicate a little bit about what makes you feel good in your body," Zolbrod said. "Maybe we should all be in a research study. It might help."