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What ED reveals about your health

5 minute read
Man speaking to his doctor for a story about what erectile dysfunction can reveal about your health

Erectile dysfunction isn’t just a bedroom problem — it can be a sign that something bigger is going on in your body. Get the facts so you can get back in action.  

Jennifer Howze

By Jennifer Howze

That thing that you’ve heard can happen to anyone has just happened to you. Erectile dysfunction (ED) is actually really common. And while people often associate it with older men, it can happen at any age. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, more than 50% of men ages 40 to 70 experience ED at some point. And it’s completely normal to feel like someone quite literally stole the man from your hood. In other words, ED can feel like a lot. (We can help with that.)

Lack of an erection every once-in-a-while may be nothing to worry about. However, a regular occurrence could be an early warning sign of an underlying health problem. Take a few minutes to learn about 4 common conditions that are linked to erectile dysfunction — and what you can do to lower your risk.

ED warning sign #1: You might have an anxiety disorder

When you’re worried about something, jumping into bed probably isn’t at the top of your list. In fact, anxiety can cause erectile dysfunction even when nothing is physically wrong with blood flow to the penis. All those stress thoughts interfere with the brain signals that sustain an erection.

Feelings of fear or dread from an untreated anxiety disorder could spill over into other areas, including the bedroom. And it’s no secret that erectile problems themselves cause anxiety.

Counseling is a vital resource in these cases, says Ryan Smith, MD. He’s an associate professor of urology at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and serves as the urology residency program director. (Schedule a virtual visit with a licensed therapist to discuss any mental health concerns. Start here.)

“Referral to a mental health professional can help with anxiety reduction and assist with integrating treatments into a sexual relationship, among other benefits,” says Dr. Smith.

It can also make sticking to a treatment plan easier, he says, and can be used alongside medication.

Man holding up erectile dysfunction medication
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ED warning sign #2: You might be at risk for heart or vascular problems

When blood’s not flowing to the penis properly, it could mean that it’s not flowing well in other parts of the body as well. That could be a red flag for undiagnosed coronary artery disease, high blood pressure or even high cholesterol. Because the arteries in the penis are small, blockages can appear there (and cause ED) well before they show up in the heart or brain.

“Studies show that people who have [organic] ED have a heart attack within 3 years,” says Richard R. Augspurger, MD. He’s a urologist and medical director with Optum. He’s also the former medical director of Urology Center of Colorado in Denver.

We know that sounds scary — but remember there is a lot you can do to make sure you’re not one of them. Step No. 1? See a provider about your symptoms and get your blood pressure and cholesterol checked. If either (or both) is elevated, you can get on a treatment plan. Bonus: Bringing those numbers down can have an upside in the bedroom.

Research has shown that medications called statins can improve erectile function for men who have high cholesterol. There are also non-medication ways to control cholesterol and blood pressure: eating a diet high in fiber and low in red meat and full-fat dairy; exercising more; and losing some weight.

ED warning sign #3: Your blood sugar needs monitoring

More than half of men with diabetes experience erectile difficulties. Blood sugar levels disrupt the chain of events for achieving and maintaining an erection by damaging the small blood vessels and nerves in the penis.

“Erectile dysfunction is one of the most common complications of diabetes, and diabetes is a risk factor for erectile dysfunction,” says Dr. Smith.

But remember: The efforts to keep your numbers in check are still 100% worth it: Men who improve their blood sugar levels may be less likely to experience continued, severe erectile dysfunction.

A blood sugar test will determine whether you’re at risk of developing diabetes. If you already have diabetes, be sure to monitor your blood sugar and see your doctor immediately if you’re struggling to regulate it. Do the same if you’re experiencing regular erectile dysfunction.

ED warning sign #4: You need more self-care

Many of the usual ways we look after our physical and mental health boost sexual health as well. These include regular exercise, plenty of sleep and a balanced diet.

But it’s also just as important to pay attention to how you’re doing emotionally. Maybe you’re not giving yourself enough downtime with friends and family. Or maybe you’re not carving out time for that trip to the gym or that morning appointment with your meditation app. Any or all of these things can dampen your mood — and your sex life.

To improve physical health, you can enlist expert help: If you smoke, talk to your doctor about a plan for quitting — because, yes, smoking increases your risk for ED. The same is true for obesity — it leads to ED more than aging does, research shows.

Talk to a registered dietitian/nutritionist about ways to change your diet and make it healthier. Consult your doctor, too. And if you are taking other medications, ask your doctor if your medications can be adjusted to help improve your erectile function.

If none of these warning signs seem to apply to you, you may be a good candidate for medication. You can get assessed by an Optum doctor and have prescription medication delivered right to your home. 

Additional sources
Facts about ED: Cleveland Clinic. Erectile Dysfunction
ED and depression: Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center: (2015) Halt the ED-Depression Spiral.
ED and coronary artery disease: Indian Heart Journal (2013) Association Between Erectile Dysfunction and Coronary Artery Disease and Its Severity
ED and statins: World Journal of Men’s Health (2019) Statins and Erectile Dysfunction
ED and diabetes statistics: Diabetes Medicine (2017) High Prevalence of Erectile Dysfunction in Diabetes: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of 145 Studies
Stress and ED: Andrologia (2014) Stress Management and Erectile Dysfunction: A Pilot Comparative Study