One of my female clients, who is also a friend, confided in me about trouble she and her husband were having in the bedroom. She said he was shy about it, but she convinced him to go to the doctor to seek treatment. She asked my opinion because she knows that I have a background in health science and that I have also talked in my fitness classes about finding alternative treatments to pharmacology.
So I dove into the research, and here is what I found: What you eat and how much you move are important contributing factors to erectile dysfunction (ED).
ED is a highly prevalent condition among men as they age and has a significant negative impact on not only the quality of life of the man, but their partner as well. As always, we initially look for the easy answers like taking a pill (Viagra, for example) but prevention is a much a wiser method not only for your penis but for your heart too!
A penile erection is the hydraulic effect of blood entering and being retained in sponge-like bodies within the penis initiated by sexual arousal. So, the health of the blood vessels in the penis is an important factor in having a healthy erection. Two of the largest causes of ED are cardiovascular disease, where there is damage to the blood vessel endothelial lining, and diabetes, which also has a negative impact on blood vessel health.
But both of these conditions can be prevented by better diet and regular exercise. Dr. Stephen Kopecky is a cardiologist at the Mayo Clinic at Saint Marys Hospital in Minnesota. He published a large meta-analysis in the Archives of Internal Medicine in 2011 which found that men with ED who made lifestyle changes such as eating vegetables and exercising more often were 2.5 times more likely to see improvements in their sexual function within at least six weeks, when compared to those who made no changes.
ED is considered to foreshadow coronary artery disease by a couple of years. The arteries in the penis are one to two millimetres in diameter, while the arteries in the heart are three to four millimetres. It makes sense that the "clogging" problem would show up in the penis first.
"If men lose weight and get their cardiovascular risk factors under control that within about two years it's equivalent to taking 25 mg of Viagra daily in terms of the improvement in erectile dysfunction," Dr Kopecky wrote in an e-mail exchange with me. "And they are less likely to die of a heart attack which is the added bonus."
This is good news: A healthy diet and regular exercise can mitigate the problem of ED and also reduce your chance of coronary artery disease. Here's how to start:
Eat more vegetables: Make the main part of your plate consist of fresh vegetables. Chop up veggies and have them ready to eat in your fridge so when you are hungry, it's easy to access them. Try to eat veggies at every meal. Pack a lunch for work and include fresh veggies and fruit.
Cut back on processed food and sodium: When you shop at the grocery store, go to the fresh produce section and stay out of the aisles where canned and processed food are. Read labels and keep track of sodium intake. Hypertension Canada has recommended no more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day, the equivalent of less than one teaspoon of salt.
Find a physical activity that you enjoy and do it everyday: One study included in the review found that intervals of bicycling starting at 45 minutes per day for the first two weeks, then increasing to 60 minutes per day, showed positive results on ED in just eight weeks.
You are more likely to stick to exercise if you enjoy it. Do what you feel is fun and sweat. This healthy lifestyle will make you feel better both mentally and physically – and could improve your erectile function.
Lori Kirwan is a Toronto fitness instructor and trainer with a Ph.D in Exercise Physiology from University of Toronto. In her current work at the Madonna-owned Hardcandyfitness.com in Toronto, Kirwan has developed her own signature classes including high-intensity training (Tornado), athletic reformer training (Transformer) and a fun, challenging power yoga to the heavy beats of electronic music (Electric Yoga). You can follow her on Twitter at @lorihardcandy