Diabetes is thought to be the leading physical cause of erectile dysfunction after cardiovascular disease.
On this page we will speak about what diabetes is, the different types, why it can cause erectile dysfunction, how to reduce the chances of it happening and what to do if it happens to you.
How does diabetes affect the body and impact erections?
“Diabetes prevalence in the UK is estimated to rise to 5 million by 2025,” according to Diabetes UK. This represents a large portion of the population.
But what actually is diabetes? Diabetes occurs when glucose, or blood sugar, becomes too high in the blood. Glucose is a type of energy found in food.
Insulin helps the cells absorb glucose, which needs to happen. If the body doesn’t absorb glucose properly, it will float around in the bloodstream which can have severe health repercussions. Diabetes happens when the body doesn’t make enough insulin, or is unable to utilise the insulin it has produced.
Unfortunately, diabetes cannot be cured. However, with the right treatment it can be managed and many people living with the condition do lead varied, active lives. There are two types of diabetes, and they are as follows:
Type 1 Diabetes
Type 1 diabetes is the least common of the two conditions, making up for roughly 10% of all cases. It is a chronic condition whereby the pancreas does not produce insulin in large enough quantities to fulfil its function, or none at all.
It is largely the consequence of hereditary factors or viruses, and there is thought to be little action people can take to prevent the condition from occurring.
Symptoms can include the increased desire to drink water, urinating more often, hunger, unexpected weight loss, changes in mood, fatigue, weakness or changes to the vision.
It can be treated by taking insulin replacement several times daily in accordance with glucose intake. Despite active research, there is still currently no cure.
Type 2 Diabetes
Type 2 diabetes makes up for 90% of all cases. Type 2 can be caused in the same way as Type 1, when the body produces little or no insulin. It can also be caused because people’s bodies become ineffective at using the insulin they do produce.
The symptoms of Type 2 diabetes may not present themselves for several years, before it’s too late. The symptoms of diabetes are largely the same whether Type 1 or 2.
Type 2 diabetes can be ‘acquired.’ Lifestyle factors like a poor diet and lack of exercise can put someone at a high risk of developing the condition.
How is diabetes related to erectile dysfunction (ED)?
For men, erectile dysfunction is a common symptom of diabetes. It is more commonly observed in those suffering with Type 2, but can occur in those suffering with Type 1 too.
The link between the two conditions surrounds the blood, our intricate network of vessels, and the broader cardiovascular system.
When glucose is present in the blood for long periods of time and cannot be absorbed into the cells, which is normally managed by the hormone insulin, it can cause lasting damage to the nerves and vessels. This is just one reason as to why it’s highly important for people living with diabetes to keep their blood glucose levels under control.
The reasons as to why damage to the vessels occurs is not yet fully understood. The nerves and vessels are responsible for transporting blood, and oxygen, across our entire bodies.
Erections happen in moments of arousal. Blood vessels in the penis dilate, which allows for increased blood flow. This causes an erection. However, if nerves or blood vessels become damaged as a consequence of diabetes, this becomes a much harder task for the body to fulfil.
How do I keep my blood vessels healthy if I have diabetes?
The good news is that nerve and vessel damage isn’t an inevitable side effect of diabetes. There are some steps people living with diabetes can take to ensure it doesn’t happen, which can in turn help reduce the chances of erectile dysfunction developing.
- Blood glucose levels - the primary way to avoid lasting nerve damage is to ensure that blood glucose levels are kept within the optimal ranges. This can typically involve calculating how much sugar is consumed, and supplementing this with the necessary amount of insulin to ensure energy is properly being transported into our cells.
- Eat well - Eating healthily is likely something people with diabetes already know they must do. Doing so consistently can vastly help to reduce high blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
- Exercise - Regular exercise will help to ensure blood is properly pumping throughout the body, and can help keep the cardiovascular system in check.
- Reduce stress - Stress can raise blood pressure. You can help to reduce nerve damage by trying to avoid as much stress as possible.
- Don’t drink or smoke - Drinking and smoking can lead to several serious health conditions, and can contribute toward blood pressure and nerve damage. If you do smoke, whether you have diabetes or not, it’s advisable to quit. And it’s also recommended to keep alcohol consumption within sensible limits. Less than 14 units a week is the lower risk guideline set in the UK, but there is no ‘safe’ level of consumption.
What should I do if I have diabetes and erectile dysfunction?
If you have diabetes and have started to develop erectile dysfunction, it can be distressing. But there is action you can take.
The first piece of advice is to have an open and frank conversation with your sexual partner, and consult with your doctor if the problem persists. Nerve damage is progressive, so it’s worth speaking to your doctor before it becomes worse.
If you have erectile dysfunction and diabetes, there may also be a chance that your ED has nothing to do with diabetes at all. This will be particularly likely if you’ve consistently kept on top of your glucose levels and have sought to live a healthy life in the aftermath of your diagnosis.
Your ED could be a symptom of a separate condition, or might have something to do with performance anxiety or another underlying mental health problem. In any case, speak with your doctor who can provide you with guidance.
You can also speak to your doctor about any diabetes medication you take, and whether this could have any influence on erectile dysfunction. If it is the case, they may be able to look into alternative treatments in place of those which are causing erection problems.
A doctor may recommend medical treatments, the most commonly prescribed being PDE5is. These treatments work to dilate the blood vessels in the penis which increases blood flow. Viagra, the most well-known ED drug, is in this family of treatments.
Talking therapy may be something you wish to consider. Erectile dysfunction can be severely detrimental to a man’s emotional wellbeing, and talking it through with a professional can help.