Erectile Dysfunction: The role of Nutrition

man and woman sitting on sidewalk

What is ED?

ED is the inability to create or sustain an erection.  It can be extremely debilitating and can have negative consequences on a man’s mental wellbeing.  ED can also be a common symptom of other medical conditions.  About 1 in 5 men suffer with ED with this figure predicted to increase by 2033. It is linked to varying conditions from dementia to cardiovascualr disease and can often be the first symtpon to a larger medical condition.

What causes ED?

A number of things can be the cause of ED.  It can have psychological roots, such as performance anxiety, stress, lack of desire, insecurities or depression/anxiety.  ED can also be a side effect of conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity. As many will know, it can also be a side effect of medications that impact libido.

The first thing to be aware of is blood flow.  An erection is created by blood flowing into the penis.  The second thing is testosterone.  Creating testosterone is important in maintaining libido and as a result erections.  The third thing is feeling relaxed.  When the stress hormone cortisol is rushing around the body it switches off our reproductive system.

Let’s focus on blood flow for a moment.  In the wall of your blood vessels is a chemical called nitric oxide (NO).  When activated it relaxes the blood vessels allowing more blood to flow to the penis.  When you have endothelial dysfunction, ie an unhealthy cardiovascular system, you have less NO, which means less relaxation, less blood flow to the penis leading to poorer erections.  This is confirmed by studies showing the more severe the cardiovascular disease the more severe the ED.  Combine this with the hardening of arteries and clogging of arteries with cholesterol and sugar seen in diabetes, pre-diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases, we can see why it’s a perfect recipe for ED.  Men may think “I don’t have those conditions, that’s not relevant.”  These conditions are on one end of the spectrum.  Perhaps you’re on that spectrum and yet to be diagnosed? It is believed that atherosclerosis (where arteries get clogged with fatty substances) affects all veins and arteries the same, however smaller arteries are likely to become more obstructed than larger arteries, and you’ve guessed it, the arteries responsible for blood flow to the penis are smaller than the average artery in the body.  Not only that but insulin is associated with decreased NO availability.  Hence why ED is associated with diabetes.  If you are insulin resistant, or “pre diabetes”, due to your lifestyle and high sugar intake (alcohol, refined grains, sweets, low exercise, caffeine, stress), then there is less insulin to stimulate NO release which dilates the blood vessels allowing blood to flow to your penis. In short a high sugar diet overtime will prevent effective blood flow to the penis leading to increase in ED.  So if you suffer from ED from time to time, get your blood sugar levels and cholesterol levels checked.

Testosterone deficiency

It plays a key role in your sex drive and sperm production.  It also plays an important role in muscle and bone strength but that’s a conversation for another time.  From the age of around 30, testosterone levels in males naturally decrease, this is an inevitable part of ageing however the western diet tends to speed up this process. Stress is a big enemy to your sex life.  If you’re making stress hormones you’re not making sex hormones, it’s as simple as that.  Alcohol and fat tissue increases an enzyme called amylase, amylase creates oestrogen INSTEAD of testosterone! That’s right alcohol can literally demasculinise you. Deficiencies in vitamin D, zinc and selenium can all negatively impact your bodies ability to create testosterone.

How to create testosterone?

Testosterone is created from cholesterol.  That’s right, cholesterol can be good for you!  Good cholesterol (HDL) comes from nuts, beans, legumes, seeds, and fatty fish.  Whereas the cholesterol that can be problematic (LDL) comes from animal sources such as dairy, red meat, deep fried and processed foods.  It’s important to be aware of this, so you can moderate your intake of these potentially erection preventing foods.  Addressing the nutrient deficiencies above utilising nutritional interventions (before reaching for those “testosterone boosters”)

What should I do?

The first thing is to find balance in your diet.  Fill you daily meals and snacks with unsalted nuts and seeds to ensure you’re getting a regular intake of zinc, magnesium, and LDL cholesterol.  Brazil nuts contain a healthy dose of selenium, 3 of those a day will be sure to boost your libido. Selenium toxicity is a thing so don’t overdo it with the brazil nuts.  Make sure you eat fatty fish at least twice a week, that’s salmon, anchovies, sardines, mackerel or herring.  Reduce, limit or eliminate artificial sugar.  If you struggle to lose weight, suffer from hanger, unbalanced moods, fluctuating energy levels and crave sugar, it’s likely you have unbalanced blood sugar levels due to a high sugar diet.  We need to increase your insulin sensitivity, do that by exercising regularly and reduce sugar.  That’s right, time to finally give up on pepsi.  Making sure you’re getting in enough magnesium and b vitamins to support your stress response is important as well. Deficiencies in these minerals and vitamins can exacerbate stress and anxiety symptoms. Fill your diet with dark leafy greens, wholegrains and legumes to hit your required intake. Last but not least vitamin D. Be sure to get some sunshine or if you live in the UK, during the winter months the NHS reccomends supplementing. I tend to prefer vitamin D in droplet form.

This has been a very brief tutorial on the relationship between diet and erectile dysfunction, I hope it’s been of use to you. If you still feel a bit at loss with it all don’t hesitate to get in touch!

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