Causes of Erectile Dysfunction
Lifestyle Factors That Can Cause ED
Medically reviewed by Dr. Larry Lipshultz M.D
Many men are surprised to learn that their lifestyle habits and nutrition can have a significant impact on erectile dysfunction (ED). Whether or not you smoke, drink alcohol, or get enough physical exercise, as well as maintaining a healthy weight, controlling stress, and making healthy food and beverage choices can have an effect on your ability to achieve and maintain an erection. Learning lifestyle factors that can cause ED might be the motivation you need to make some healthy changes.
When considered together, choosing good habits that make up a healthy lifestyle can go a long way toward prevention of erectile dysfunction. In fact, a study from the University of California, Los Angeles, reports that a multifaceted approach is necessary to maintain and maximize erectile health and supports attention to each of the lifestyle and nutrition issues presented here.
What Effect Does Alcohol Have on Erectile Function?
If you enjoy one or two drinks a day, you are not likely to experience any harm to your sexual health. In fact, such moderate drinking may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease and stroke. Greater intake of alcohol, however, can lead to a variety of health problems, and among them may be erectile dysfunction. Conversely, avoidance of excessive alcohol can preserve normal endothelial function, and moderate alcohol use may have a favorable impact on blood flow and vascular health as well as erectile function.
Investigators have found that alcohol abuse in men can disrupt testosterone production and shrink the testes. When the body breaks down alcohol, it may also disrupt normal sperm structure and mobility.
In a study of alcohol consumption and erectile dysfunction in Chinese men, researchers gathered information from 816 men aged 31 to 60 years who were currently sexually active. They found that compared with men who never drank alcohol, men who consumed three or more drinks a week were more likely to have erectile dysfunction, and that erectile difficulties were more common among men who smoked than those who never smoked.
What Effect Does Diet Have on Erectile Function?
Men who typically consume foods that promote inflammation and contain cancer-promoting substances; that is, a high-fat diet, lots of red meat, and one that is low in fiber, fruits and vegetables, and whole grains, have a higher risk of developing erectile dysfunction than men who do not eat these foods.
On the positive side, a diet that is rich in antioxidants, which can be found in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts, boosts production of nitric oxide and prevents its breakdown.
In particular, eating foods that contain folic acid, vitamin C, and vitamin E support the pathways that lead to the release of nitric oxide and promotion of erectile function. Prevention of erectile dysfunction includes eating foods and taking supplements that contain omega-3-fatty acids, as the omega-3s stimulate the release of nitric oxide from the endothelium.
Reducing your intake of sugar, fat, and simple carbohydrates also reduces the side effects that sugar and fatty acids have on endothelial nitric oxide production, which is critical for erectile function.
What Effect Does Exercise Have on Erectile Function?
Exercise, or the lack of physical activity, can impact erectile function in several ways. Daily moderate exercise stimulates the production of nitric oxide, while maintaining normal body weight also promotes nitric oxide stimulation by insulin.
The cardiovascular system is intimately involved in the development of erectile dysfunction, so if you have problems with circulation and heart disease, erectile dysfunction can be an early warning sign of such problems. Engaging in regular aerobic exercise, such as walking, biking, and other cardiovascular activities, reduces the risk of heart disease and enhances blood circulation.
In a large study from Harvard University, researchers evaluated the lifestyle habits of 31,742 men ages 53 to 90 years, none of whom had prostate cancer. Researchers found that 33 percent of men reported erectile dysfunction within the previous three months, but that men who exercised 3 to 5 hours a week had 30 percent less risk of having erectile dysfunction. Given that the risk for erectile dysfunction goes up 5 percent a year after age 50, this study showed that men who exercise regularly can gain 10 more years free of erectile dysfunction.
Exercise can also impact a man’s erectile function through its effect on prostate health. Men who are physically inactive are more likely to develop prostate cancer. Case in point: a study published in November 2009 reported that men who regularly engaged in moderate exercise appeared to have a lower risk of developing prostate cancer. Men with prostate cancer generally experience erectile dysfunction as a result of treatment for the disease so anything that can lower the risk of prostate cancer will, by association, impact on erectile function.
Cardiovascular exercise is not the only type of exercise that can benefit erectile function. Exercises called Kegel exercises can strengthen the pelvic floor muscles. These exercises can be done anywhere—while sitting in your office, driving your car, standing in line at the bank—because they involve voluntarily squeezing or contracting certain internal muscles and then releasing them. Performing this exercise several times a day for just a few minutes may make a significant impact on the prevention of erectile dysfunction.
What Effect Does Smoking Have on Erectile Function?
Scientists have found strong evidence of a link between cigarette smoking and the development of erectile dysfunction. Cigarette smoking causes constriction of blood vessels, which restricts blood flow throughout the body, including the penis. It also aggravates atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), which increases the risk for erectile dysfunction.
In a study conducted at the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, researchers evaluated the association between cigarette smoking and erectile dysfunction in 7,684 men ages 35 to 74 who did not have vascular disease. They found that an estimated 22.7 percent of cases of erectile dysfunction might be attributable to smoking. The likelihood that a man would develop erectile dysfunction increased as the number of cigarettes smoked increased, and the association was even stronger among men who had diabetes.
In another study, scientists noted that cigarette smoking, hypertension, and diabetes are significant risk factors for erectile dysfunction. Of 658 men with erectile dysfunction, 40.1 percent were smokers.
What Effect Does Stress Have on Erectile Function?
Stress is your reaction to anything that happens to you or occurs in your environment that requires you to make an adjustment or to respond. Everyone experiences stress, but not everyone responds to a given situation in the same way. Although a small or moderate amount of stress can be healthy because it keeps you alert and ready to face challenges, too much stress or chronic stress can cause a wide variety of physical and emotional problems, including erectile dysfunction.
Erectile dysfunction can result when men experience stress related to their job, relationships, financial difficulties, or other issues. In fact, losing an erection, even if it happens only occasionally, can be stressful, and men can then begin to expect failure, which feeds their self-doubt and their stress level, setting up a vicious cycle and reinforcing their erectile dysfunction.
Even if stress is not the main cause of a man’s erectile dysfunction, it can exacerbate the problem. For example, if a man is experiencing erectile dysfunction following a prostatectomy, feeling anxious about his condition and perhaps worrying about how it is affecting his relationship with his partner can make the problem worse.
What Effect Does Pornography Have on Erectile Function?
Some research has suggested that the significant rise in the percentage of men younger than 40 who are experiencing erectile dysfunction, lack of libido, and other sexual challenges may be partly due to the corresponding increase in the availability and participation in pornography on the Internet. Men who seek sexual arousal from viewing pornography on the Internet have virtually unlimited access to a wide range of sexual arousal opportunities, which can ultimately result in sexual dysfunction.
For example, a team of researchers at the Naval Medical Center San Diego reported that men who view Internet pornography may have high expectations about sexual satisfaction and then become disappointed when those expectations are not met when dealing with real-life partners. That disappointment may manifest as erectile dysfunction, loss of libido, and other sexual problems.
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