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Last updated May 6, 2020. 3 minute read

Erectile dysfunction and diabetes: are they linked?

Diabetes means that the body has an issue making or responding to the hormone insulin, which helps drive blood sugar into cells. As a result, sugar stays in the blood. Over time, this can damage nerves and blood vessels, raising your risk for a range of health problems—from ED to heart disease to stroke.

Self Written by Michael Martin
Reviewed by Dr. Mike Bohl, MD, MPH

Diabetes—the inability of the body to properly process blood glucose or sugar—is an increasingly common condition. It’s highly treatable, and in the case of type 2 diabetes, often preventable. But untreated, it can have serious health repercussions, including ED.

Vitals

  • Diabetes is a condition in which blood sugar levels in the body are consistently too high.
  • Over time, high blood sugar can damage blood vessels and nerves, which can cause problems in getting an erection.
  • Untreated diabetes can have other serious health consequences.
  • If you’re experiencing ED, talk with a healthcare provider about your diabetes risk.

What is ED?

Erectile dysfunction, or ED (the malady formerly known as impotence), is when you can’t get or maintain an erection strong enough for satisfying sex. That can include erections that don’t last as long as you want or aren’t as firm as you’d like. ED is the most common sexual dysfunction: Experts believe more than 30 million American men have experienced it (Nunes, 2012).

ED and diabetes

Diabetes is on the rise. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 100 million Americans have diabetes or prediabetes, a condition that can develop into type 2 diabetes (CDC, 2017), which is associated with a poor diet and unhealthy lifestyle.

It’s a serious condition. Diabetes means that the body has an issue making or responding to the hormone insulin, which helps drive blood sugar into cells. As a result, sugar stays in the blood. Over time, this can damage nerves and blood vessels, raising your risk for a range of health problems—from ED to heart disease to stroke.

It’s estimated that 35% to 75% of men with diabetes experience ED, compared to 26% of the general population, and ED tends to show up ten years earlier in men with diabetes (Chu, 2001). 

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Other causes of ED

A healthy erection requires healthy blood flow. Erectile dysfunction can be related to health conditions that compromise blood flow by impairing circulation or causing blood vessel damage or nerve damage. In addition to diabetes, these can include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • High cholesterol

The blood vessels in the penis are smaller than in other parts of the body, so ED symptoms sometimes occur before more serious problems such as a heart attack or stroke. When an otherwise healthy man in his 20s experiences problems with erectile function, it could be cause for concern. Talk with a healthcare provider as soon as possible—more than your sex life could be at stake.

In some cases, a hormone imbalance (such as low testosterone, commonly known as “low T”) can cause ED. Your healthcare provider can check for this with a simple blood test.

ED can also occur as a side effect of certain medications. Be sure to tell your healthcare provider about all the medications you’re taking. If ED is a potential side effect, they might be able to adjust your dose or substitute another prescription. 

Lifestyle factors such as having overweight or obesity, being sedentary, or excessively using alcohol, recreational drugs, or tobacco can contribute to ED. So can psychological issues such as anxiety, depression, or performance anxiety.

Erectile dysfunction can also result from physical conditions in which the body’s nerves are damaged or don’t function properly, such as nerve and spinal cord injuries and multiple sclerosis.

Treatment options for ED

Your erections will be best when you’re healthy. Making simple lifestyle changes, such as getting regular exercise, eating a healthy diet, quitting smoking, and limiting your alcohol consumption might help improve ED. If you have diabetes, follow your healthcare provider’s recommendations on keeping your blood sugar in a healthy range—including diet and exercise—and comply with any prescribed medications. 

ED can be treated with oral medications, which are safe and effective for most guys. These include sildenafil (brand name Viagra), tadalafil (brand name Cialis), and vardenafil (brand names Levitra and Staxyn). 

Some men have found natural remedies to be helpful for ED. Research has found that certain supplements (such as DHEA, L-arginine, L-carnitine, yohimbe, and ginseng) may improve erection quality. Finally, devices such as cock rings and penis pumps may help you maintain an erection sufficient for sex.

If you’re experiencing ED, talk with a healthcare provider. They’ll help you find a solution—and stay on top of any other health problems that might be contributing factors.