The health risks of obesity are well known, with increased risk of cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes, stroke and certain cancers. But what is not so well known is how it affects women’s sex drive and satisfaction, something researchers from the University of Pennsylvania set out to explore.

In a study, published in JAMA Surgery this month, Prof. David B. Sarwer, of the University’s Perelman School of Medicine, and colleagues conducted a study with women who underwent bariatric surgery.

They examined sexual functioning and sex hormone levels, as well as quality of life, body image and depressive symptoms.

Obesity is a huge challenge in the US – more than 33% of adults and 17% of young people were obese in 2009-2010, according to the Prevalence of Obesity in the United States 2009-2010 study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

In numbers, these statistics sound even more scary – 78 million adult Americans and 12.5 million children and young people.

Bariatric – or weight loss – surgery may sound extreme, but a recent report published in the BMJ, showed it to be more effective at reducing body weight than non-surgical measures. This finding is supported in Prof. Sarwer’s research, which studied 106 women who underwent this surgery.

Prof. Sarwer’s team analyzed data from a cohort study and found that the women lost an average of 32.7% of their initial body weight in the first year and an average 33.5% at the second postoperative year.

And during these years of sustained weight loss, the women reported additional benefits, including improvements in body image and increased sexual satisfaction.

The researchers claim:

Two years following surgery, women reported significant improvement in overall sexual functioning and specific domains of sexual functioning: arousal, lubrication, desires and satisfaction.”

As well as this, participants were seen to have increased levels of reproductive hormones.

The researchers point out that 2 years after surgery, woman also saw improvements in most reproductive hormone levels. They also reported improved body image and depressive symptoms at both postoperative periods.

The study concludes:

“These results suggest that improvements in sexual health may be added to the list of benefits associated with large weight losses seen with bariatric surgery. Future studies should investigate if these changes endure over longer periods of time, and they should investigate changes in sexual functioning in men who undergo bariatric surgery.”

The American Psychological Association states that obesity and depression often go hand in hand – saying that obesity in women is associated with a 37% increase in major depression.

So it is perhaps unsurprising that the study shows “that women who underwent surgery experienced significant improvements in health-related quality of life, as well as weight-related quality of life, body image, depressive symptoms and most domains of romantic relationship satisfaction.”

The researchers do, however, point out the limitations of their study, including the absence of information about menopause or menstrual status – factors known to influence levels of sex and reproductive hormones.

They call for further research to investigate if the positive changes continue over longer periods of time and to investigate changes in sexual functioning for males following bariatric surgery.