Roughly half of men with diabetes face this problem
It's an all too common problem: Roughly half of men with diabetes—and up to 25 percent of men overall—experience erectile dysfunction (ED) at some point in their lives. And it's a complicated problem, too, with diverse physical origins and complex emotional ramifications. Yet diabetes-related ED needn't be a no-sex sentence for men. There are ways to avoid this disorder and to treat it at any age. While much of the research on ED is still in its infancy, here is what science has to say so far.
What It Is
People sometimes refer to ED as "impotence," although the two aren't really the same condition. ED is the physical inability to develop or maintain an erection that is rigid enough for sex. Impotence is a broader term. While one cause of it is ED, impotence may also involve a lack of sexual desire, an inability to ejaculate, or problems with orgasm.
To understand what happens in ED, it's helpful to know some anatomical basics. When aroused by either sensory or mental stimuli, the brain sends a signal through the nerves to the penis, causing the muscles there to relax. This opens up space for blood to flow in and engorge the penis. A membrane within the penis traps blood inside to help maintain the erection, which subsides when the penile muscles contract, forcing blood back into the rest of the body. Any number of things can go wrong in this process, leading to erectile dysfunction.
Why It Happens
Diabetes not only makes men more likely to have this problem, but the risk of developing it also increases with the duration of diabetes. ED in men with diabetes is thought to be somewhat different from the condition in the general population.
Diabetes is known to sabotage two body parts that provide essential components of an erection: nerves and blood vessels. Studies suggest that diabetic nerve damage (neuropathy) is the most important risk factor for ED in people with diabetes. If pelvic nerves that trigger penis muscles to relax are impaired, there may be a break in the chain between brain and penis, disrupting erection. Some researchers suspect that an inadequate supply of oxygen to the nerves causes this damage.
At the same time, people with diabetes are susceptible to a type of blood vessel damage known as endothelial dysfunction. A recent study found that men with ED are at a greater risk of heart disease, which is also associated with endothelial dysfunction. If blood vessels aren't in good working order, the penis may not get enough blood for an erection.
Another risk factor is that men with type 2 diabetes may produce less than normal amounts of testosterone, a condition called hypogonadism. A 2007 study found that one-third of men with type 2 diabetes had low testosterone levels. Those men were also more likely to have ED, though the link may have to do with weight, not diabetes per se. Being overweight or obese is a risk factor for hypogonadism.
How to Prevent It
Getting blood glucose under control is a good anti-ED tactic. Men with diabetes and poor blood glucose control are two to five times as likely to have ED as those with good control. One study in a group of men who had had type 1 diabetes for up to 15 years with minor complications found that intensive blood glucose control lowered the risk of ED compared with conventional treatment. A study in men with type 2 diabetes found that lowering A1C (average blood glucose in the past two to three months) below 7 percent and reducing blood pressure through a combination of medication, diet, and exercise improved sexual functioning.
Other risk factors for ED include high blood pressure, increasing age, overweight, imbalanced blood fats, and smoking. While you can't do much about getting older, other countermeasures are effective: One study found that, at least in people without diabetes, physical activity reduces the risk of ED.
Beyond just physical problems, ED is associated with depression and anxiety. ED can drive a wedge into personal relationships, creating distance between partners. If you suspect this might be an issue, try to talk it out, or seek out professional help. You may be surprised how much the emotional factors are affecting your life.
How to Treat It
Erectile dysfunction started to become a household term after scientists discovered a drug to treat it. Nowadays, as anyone who watches TV can attest, there are several different medications for ED. Fifty to 70 percent of men with type 1 or type 2 diabetes respond to a class of drugs—including sildenafil (Viagra), vardenafil hydrochloride (Levitra), and tadalafil (Cialis)—called phosphodiesterase-5 inhibitors.
When these drugs don't work, there are other options. Medications that dilate blood vessels, such as alprostadil, can be injected or deposited in the penis; they work in more than 80 percent of men with diabetes. Beyond that, penile implants can be an effective surgical solution. Implants are either malleable rods, which can be manually adjusted to the desired position, or inflatable cylinders that fill with fluid when a pump under the skin of the scrotum is pressed.
And yes, this may all seem easier said than done, when it comes to a condition that is more often than not the subject of jokes—or the cause of embarrassment. Talking to your doctor is the first step in dealing with this complication, which can wreak havoc on your quality of life. Keeping diabetes in check and enjoying a healthy lifestyle can make a huge difference in reducing ED risk, but if that isn't enough, there are successful treatments. Sex brings a range of physical and psychological benefits, whether you have diabetes or not. Preventing or reversing ED isn't just about sex—it's a step toward better health and a more satisfying life.