June is Men's Health Month, and a good time to examine the common male condition known as erectile dysfunction, or ED. According to the American Urological Association, more than 25 million men in the U.S. suffer from some sort of ED, but because the level of distress is so variable with this condition, only 5 percent of them have sought treatment.
Symptoms and Causes
Commonly called male impotence, ED is the inability to achieve or maintain penile erections sufficient for intercourse. ED often has a psychological component, and counseling with a psychotherapist or sex therapist often resolves the problem. ED can also be a symptom of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, both of which can impair blood supply to the penis. In addition, many medications, including those prescribed for high blood pressure and mental health conditions, can interfere with sexual functioning. Tobacco, cocaine, stimulants and alcohol may also play a role.
Suggested Lifestyle Changes
Bear in mind that some of the problems leading to erectile dysfunction may lend themselves to the following non-drug (and cost-free) solutions:
- Stop smoking. Nicotine can reduce genital blood flow and impair potency.
- Check your meds. ED and sexual dysfunction are unfortunate side effects of many drugs. Consult with your pharmacist or doctor regarding substituting alternate medication without these effects.
- Limit alcohol consumption. Alcohol’s depressive effects can have a negative impact on sexual functioning.
- Shape up. ED is often linked with restricted blood flow to the penis. Keep your heart and arteries in good condition by maintaining a healthy weight, and following a diet high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Avoid saturated fats and trans fats. Regular aerobic exercise can both improve blood flow to the genitals and reduce the stress that can contribute to ED.
- Deal with anxiety, depression and stress. These feelings may undermine desire and potency. Practice a daily stress-reduction technique such as breath work, meditation or yoga. Talk with your partner openly and honestly about your needs – and their needs – to help ease relationship tensions and avoid resentment and misunderstandings.
- Don’t worry about your age. Sexual activity needn’t end because of age – that’s a myth you can discard.
- Ginkgo. This herb may improve arousal in both men and women, perhaps by increasing blood flow to the genitals. It should not be used by those on blood thinners such as coumadin.
- Yohimbe. This comes from the bark of an African tree, Pausinystalia yohimbe, is the basis of several pharmaceutical drugs used to treat impotence. It contains an alkaloid, yohimbine, which previously was the only drug listed in the Physician's Desk Reference as a sexual booster. This herb, however prized as an aphrodisiac, can have some side effects (agitation, anxiety and insomnia) that make many men prefer not to use it. Yohimbe bark and extracts are occasionally available in health food stores, but I do not recommend them.
As an alternative, try taking ashwagandha or a standardized extract of Asian ginseng. Ashwagandha, from the roots of a plant in the nightshade family called Withania somnifera, is reputed to be a mild aphrodisiac and has long been popular in India. Asian ginseng, or Panax ginseng, is a good general stimulant and sexual energizer. For either, follow the dosage on the package, and give it a six or eight week trial to have an effect. Both ashwagandha and Asian ginseng are generally safe (but Asian ginseng can raise blood pressure and cause irritability and insomnia in some people).
Learn more about the causes of erectile dysfunction from our experts' panel.