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Although diabetes and erectile dysfunction (ED) are two separate conditions, they tend to go hand-in-hand. ED is defined as having difficulty achieving or maintaining an erection. Men who have diabetes are two to three times more likely to develop ED. When men ages 45 and under develop ED, it may be a sign of type 2 diabetes.
Diabetes occurs when you have too much sugar circulating in your bloodstream. There are two main types of diabetes: type 1 diabetes, which affects less than 10 percent of those who have diabetes, and type 2 diabetes, which accounts for over 90 percent of diabetes cases. Type 2 diabetes often develops as a result of being overweight or inactive. Approximately 30 million Americans have diabetes, and about half of them are men.
An estimated 10 percent of men ages 40 to 70 have severe ED, and another 25 percent have moderate ED. ED tends to become more common as men age, though it isn’t an inevitable part of aging. For many men, other health conditions, such as diabetes, contribute to the likelihood of developing ED.
The Boston University Medical Center reports that about half of men who are diagnosed with type 2 diabetes will develop ED within five to 10 years of their diagnosis. If those men also have heart disease, their odds of becoming impotent are even greater.
However, the results of a 2014 study suggest that if you have diabetes but adopt a healthier lifestyle, you may reduce your diabetes symptoms and improve your sexual health. These lifestyle habits include eating a balanced diet and getting regular exercise.
The connection between diabetes and ED is related to your circulation and nervous system. Poorly controlled blood sugar levels can damage small blood vessels and nerves. Damage to the nerves that control sexual stimulation and response can impede a man’s ability to achieve an erection firm enough to have sexual intercourse. Reduced blood flow from damaged blood vessels can also contribute to ED.
There are several risk factors that can increase your chance of diabetes complications, including ED. You may be more at risk if you:
If you notice a change in the frequency or duration of your erections, tell your doctor or make an appointment with a urologist. It may not be easy to bring up these issues with your doctor, but reluctance to do so will only prevent you from getting the help that you need.
Your doctor can diagnose ED by reviewing your medical history and assessing your symptoms. They will likely perform a physical exam to check for possible nerve problems in the penis or testicles. Blood and urine tests can also help diagnose problems such as diabetes or low testosterone.
They may be able to prescribe medication, as well as refer you to a healthcare professional specializing in sexual dysfunction. Several treatment options exist for ED. Your doctor can help you find the best option for you.
If you haven’t experienced any symptoms of ED, but you have been diagnosed with diabetes or heart disease, you should discuss the possibility of a future diagnosis with your doctor. They can help you determine which preventive steps you can take right now.
If you’re diagnosed with ED, your doctor will likely recommend an oral medication, such as sildenafil (Viagra), tadalafil (Cialis), or vardenafil (Levitra). These prescription medications help improve blood flow to the penis and are generally well-tolerated by most men.
Having diabetes shouldn’t interfere with your ability to take one of these medications. They don’t interact negatively with diabetes drugs, such as Glucophage (metformin) or insulin.
Although there are other ED treatments, such as pumps and penile implants, you may want to try an oral medication first. These other treatments typically aren’t as effective and may cause additional complications.
Diabetes is a chronic health condition that you will have for life, though both type 1 and type 2 diabetes can be well-controlled through medications, proper diet, and exercise.
Although ED can become a permanent condition, this typically isn’t the case for men who experience occasional erectile difficulties. If you have diabetes, you may still be able to overcome ED through a lifestyle that includes sufficient sleep, no smoking, and stress reduction. ED medications are usually well-tolerated, and can be used for many years to help overcome any ED problems.
There are several lifestyle changes that you can make to not only help with diabetes management, but also to lower your risk of ED. You can:
Control your blood sugar through your diet. Eating a diabetes-friendly diet will help you better control your blood sugar levels and lessen the amount of damage to your blood vessels and nerves. A proper diet geared at keeping your blood sugar levels in check can also improve your energy levels and mood, both of which can help reduce the risk of erectile dysfunction. You may consider working with a dietitian who is also a certified diabetes educator to help adjust your eating style.
Cut back on alcohol consumption. Drinking more than two drinks per day can damage your blood vessels and contribute to ED. Being even mildly intoxicated can also make it hard to achieve an erection and interfere with sexual function.
Stop smoking. Smoking narrows the blood vessels and decreases the levels of nitric oxide in your blood. This decreases blood flow to the penis, worsening erectile dysfunction.
Get active. Not only can adding regular exercise to your routine help you control your blood sugar levels, but it can also improve circulation, lower stress levels, and improve your energy levels. All of these can help combat ED.
Get more sleep. Fatigue is often to blame for sexual dysfunction. Ensuring that you get enough sleep each night can lower your risk of ED.
Keep your stress level down. Stress can interfere with sexual arousal and your ability to get an erection. Exercise, meditation, and setting aside time to do the things that you enjoy can help to keep your stress levels down and lessen your risk of ED. If you’re developing symptoms of anxiety or depression, consult your doctor. They may be able to refer you to a therapist who can help you work through anything that is causing you stress.
Written by: James Roland and Adrienne Santos-Longhurst
Medically reviewed on: Oct 21, 2016: Peggy Pletcher, MS, RD, LD, CDE
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