You say you're taking daily doses of Wellbutrin and Effexor. Effexor is the likely culprit, since Wellbutrin is actually "pro-sexual." Wellbutrin increases dopamine, a neurotransmitter beneficial for sex; Effexor increases serotonin, a neurotransmitter that is negative for sex—in that it can decrease libido or ability to experience orgasm.
If you can decrease the dose of Effexor without an increase in other symptoms, that may help. Decreasing the dosage may mean other symptoms comes back, or that orgasm is still out of reach or diminished. In those cases, I offer Viagra, used off-label for women. A number of clinical trials have shown Viagra to be helpful when SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, a class of treatments for depression and other disorders) lead to an inability to experience orgasm.
A newer SSRI, Pristiq, is reported to have fewer negative sexual side effects. I've seen that to be true, but also have worked with patients who found that health insurance was not supportive, since newer drugs are often more expensive. It may be worth exploring!
Another alternative that works for some women is to take a 'drug holiday': skip the daily dosage of the SSRI on a weekend day when they are more likely to be sexual. This doesn't work for everyone. Some people have withdrawal symptoms or other unintended side effects with the 'holiday approach.'
I encourage women in my practice to consider using a vibrator, which can increase sensation and sometimes lead to orgasm. At midlife, it's important to stay sexually active (that 'use it or lose it' thing), so it's worth the effort to experiment.
I see how frustrating this dilemma is for women to manage through! I wish you patience and perseverance to find the right balance of overall health and intimacy for you.
You say you've had itchiness and dryness and get bladder infections fairly regularly. Those symptoms are completely consistent with the absence of circulating estrogen to the genitals. Until recently, this condition would have been called vulvovaginal atrophy; its current name, genitourinary symptom of menopause, does a better job of describing that it affects both the urinary system and the genitals.
Women have estrogen receptors throughout their bodies, but they're most concentrated in the vagina, vulva, and lower urinary tract. In the absence of estrogen, symptoms in that area are more notable. That's the bad news.
The good news is that there are steps we can take to keep our tissues healthy and vital. See our website's suggestions for vaginal comfort, and I encourage women to consider, with their menopause care providers, the use of localized hormones.
You've noted that in addition to vaginal dryness, you're now using drops for dry eyes, a treatment for dry mouth, and more hand lotion than ever before. Yes, dryness is generalized in menopause, because the estrogen receptors we have from head to toe (and especially in genital tissues) have far-reaching influence! As we lose estrogen, we lose moisture in all kinds of tissues.
Systemic estrogen is a possible solution; it can make remarkable improvement. Every woman is different, though, in the extent of the effect, so a three-month trial might be considered to see if there is a notable benefit.
Otherwise, it sounds like you're taking advantage of the topical solutions available to you—moisturizers for every body part! This is a good time of life to develop a good hydration habit, too, if you don't have one already.
Your primary care provider will continue to be your health resource for the spectrum of things that can happen at any age and especially at midlife: hypertension, sinus infections, asthma, joint injuries, and so on. A menopause care provider is a specialist; gynecology is typically also supported through health insurance (but individual plans vary). Some insurance plans require that your primary care provider provide a referral for "menopause care," which I recommend begin as soon as women are aware of symptoms of perimenopause.
When you're reviewing options for menopause care, look for certification by The North American Menopause Society (and get help from the NAMS website to find a practitioner with the NCMP credential). Certification means a health care provider has completed extra training to gain competency in menopause. (Those who are "members" of NAMS have access to the specialized information the organization provides but are not certified.)
You say a prescription for estrogen seemed to increase your libido at first, but that effect has diminished. No, you haven't become immune to estrogen. Unfortunately, libido is a bigger and more complicated issue than just one hormone. Many women don't find any improvement in libido with estrogen; I tell patients it certainly won't make it worse, and it may make it somewhat better. And it's not uncommon for the initial effect perceived from a new treatment to wane over time.
You also ask whether where you apply the estrogen cream makes a difference to its effect on your libido. The medical answer is that because its effect depends on its entering the blood stream, it can be applied to skin anywhere it is likely to be absorbed. If you have pain with intercourse or dryness because of menopause, applying the cream to genital tissues may help, but that's a different issue than libido.
Women's libido is complicated (several hormones and numerous neurotransmitters in the brain are involved, as well as emotional and psychological factors), and the treatment options for low libido are currently limited. We offer a number of suggestions on our website, but I also encourage women to talk frankly with a menopause care specialist.
You say you've completed five years of regular tamoxifen, and your doctor has suggested Vagifem 10 mcg to address symptoms of dryness and itchiness. Vagifem 10 mcg is a very, very tiny dose of bioidentical estrogen, delivered as a tablet to dissolve in the vagina. I have many, many breast cancer patients who use it or other "localized estrogen" or "vaginal estrogen" options. Like you, they've had significant issues without it; over the counter creams, lubricants, and moisturizers may have had some benefit, but over time they've not done enough.
From what we know, localized estrogen doesn't enter the blood stream and get disseminated throughout your system; it is absorbed only in the genital area where it's needed. I like Vagifem because the dose is very low and there appears to be consistent absorption. But it is still estrogen, and there is sometimes reluctance to add this to a woman's regimen, especially after breast cancer.
There is a new non-estrogen treatment option for this condition. Called Osphena, it is a SERM (Selective Estrogen Receptor Modulator), the same class of medication as tamoxifen. They both target tissue and affect estrogen activity: tamoxifen targets breasts to block; Osphena targets the vagina to activate. Osphena is oral, daily, and in my practice has been well tolerated and effective. While it's been on the market for two years or so, it has not specifically been trialed in breast cancer patients (and nor have other medications, a reality I hope will change—and soon). There's not yet data on safety for women like you, but other SERMs on the market are favorable for breast health, it makes sense to think this one may be, too.
We don't have all the answers yet, unfortunately! Ultimately, the decision comes down to quality of life for you, and I'm glad it sounds like you have a health care provider who is helping you consider your options.
You say you can hold one bead, but not two. The only thing you're doing wrong is expecting too much too soon! It takes time to increase muscle strength, and if you only recently bought the weights, you likely only need more time.
Start by using the weights for a few minutes while sitting; go to standing as you're able. You can also increase the time as you're able, and if you're using Luna Beads, you can increase the weight, too, by interchanging beads. Each step can take weeks, and not everyone can build enough strength to get to the maximum weight.
If you've had surgery or radiation, your vagina may be too short to hold both beads. If vaginal depth is causing problems for you, dilator therapy, which also requires patience, can help to restore capacity.
Take your time, grant yourself patience, and stick with it!
The short answer is yes, Kegel exercises, which strengthen the pelvic floor, do help prevent and then counter incontinence. The exercises need to be done consistently, and they need to be done "correctly," which means flexing the right muscles. You can read how to do the exercises on your own on our website, but there are also tools available that can help.
I saw in my practice last week two women who said their incontinence was 80 percent better after six to eight weeks of daily use of the Intensity pelvic tone vibrator. The Intensity uses electrical pulses to contract the muscles of the pelvic floor; the vibration leads to orgasm, which also contracts those muscles.
Simpler options for targeting the right muscles with Kegel exercises are vaginal weights (like Luna Beads) or BFIT Classic Vaginal Weights; Luna Beads are the most popular option at the MiddlesexMD shop). Any of these options inserted in the vagina as directed will help you assure you're flexing the pelvic floor as you intend. With Luna Beads, you can increase the weight for more resistance as you build muscle tone.
The key in any case, with or without tools, is to be faithful in doing the exercises! It's definitely worth it--for lots of reasons that keep you active and enjoying life.
You ask whether there's an over-the-counter hormonal cream to restore vaginal elasticity. You're finding intercourse painful and experiencing dryness.
Vaginal moisturizers will help to retain some moisture, but none of them will reverse the process—which is, medically speaking, atrophy given the loss of estrogen. The combination of moisturizers and lubricants will keep things comfortable for a while, but most women eventually need more.
Localized estrogen or the new pharmaceutical Osphena are effective; either requires a consultation with your health care provider. I'm not aware of any hormone-based medication available over the counter and, in fact, encourage a consideration of your medical history and current factors before use.
You ask whether there's a downside to using saliva as a lubricant. What makes it good for digestion makes it not so good as a lubricant: The enzymes that help break down food can be irritating to the delicate vulvar skin. As we lose estrogen, the vulvar tissue gets more fragile and delicate; what once was fine may become uncomfortable.
I also hear from many women that water-based lubricants don't last as long as they'd like them to; they prefer a silicone or water/silicone hybrid lubricant for staying power through more foreplay.
That said, if it works for you and your partner, you can keep using saliva for some or all lubrication. Just be aware of the potential for irritation, and wash with a warm cloth after sex to minimize exposure.