Erectile dysfunction (ED) isn’t something that men and women usually talk about at dinner parties or on soccer game sidelines, unless it’s the punch line of a joke or mentioned with a snicker. But it is a problem that affects 40% of men by age 40 and 70% of men by age 70, so odds are pretty good that many people around the table or soccer field are intimately aware of how upsetting this condition can be.
Sex is far from trivial, but many people think of ED as “just” a bedroom problem. Not so. We now know that it can be an indicator of a major cardiovascular problem. And we also now know that the solution could be as simple as taking a certain vitamin—vitamin D. Here’s why…
COMMON PROBLEM, EASY FIX?
Lots of things can cause ED, including anxiety or other psychological issues, hormone imbalances, or anything that gets in the way of blood flowing to and filling the penis. Medication, diabetes or blood-vessel malfunctions all have been implicated in ED. More times than not, though, the culprit is atherosclerosis—the buildup of plaque inside a blood vessel. You already know that plaque can lead to catastrophic events, such as heart attacks and stroke—well, it can also cause an ongoing malfunction, such as ED.
Several studies have shown that people with more plaque in their coronary arteries tend to have less vitamin D in their blood. Since the inside of blood vessels is lined with cells that bind to vitamin D, scientists have theorized that vitamin D helps protect against plaque buildup and promote blood vessel function. With this information in hand, a team of Italian researchers examined whether vitamin D deficiency could be at the crux of ED in men whose problem was traced to interruption of blood flow in the penis.
They recruited 143 generally healthy men between the ages of 30 and 60 who were seeking treatment for ED and gave them ultrasound exams to measure blood flow in the penis. Based on the results of those exams, the men were put into one of three groups—those who had arteriogenic ED (caused by interruption in blood flow)…those who had borderline arteriogenic ED…and those who had nonarteriogenic ED (ED caused by some other issue).
None of the men had heart disease, and all were given blood tests to measure blood sugar, cholesterol, hormones that affect sexual function and 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels, which indicate how much vitamin D is circulating in the body. Finally, the men answered five questions about their ED to gauge how big the problem was for them.
Of all the blood test results, the only one that differed among the three groups was vitamin D measurements. Researchers found that the lower the vitamin D level, the worse the ED, regardless of cause. However, men with arteriogenic ED had more severe ED than the other men, and they had the lowest levels of vitamin D. In fact, 61% of these men were vitamin D-deficient and an additional 30%, although not vitamin D-deficient, had lower-than-normal levels of the vitamin.
This study didn’t look into whether taking vitamin D supplements could improve ED, but other studies have shown that replenishing vitamin D levels can improve vascular function. Vitamin D deficiency is a major problem in America and in northern latitudes in general because people living in these areas do not absorb enough from sunshine—the main natural source of vitamin D. Diet is not a main source of vitamin D, which is mostly gotten from vitamin D-enriched foods, such as breakfast cereals and dairy products, and fatty fish, such as salmon, tuna and mackerel. So, what to do about it? For better cardiovascular health and a better sex life, men should be sure to get their vitamin D levels checked when they go in for physicals and consider vitamin D supplementation if their D levels are low.