“It is like a firstborn son—you spend your life working
for him, sacrificing everything for him, and at the
moment of truth, he does just as he pleases.”
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love In The Time Of Cholera
Two weeks ago, my blog dealt with the relationship between overeating/obesity and urinary incontinence/pelvic organ prolapse in females. In fairness to the male gender, today’s essay will be how overeating/obesity affects our manhood and vitality. What we eat—or don’t eat—can directly affect our sex lives! While the achievement of good sexual function is predicated upon many factors, it must be recognized that the particular diet we choose plays a definite role in its attainment.
Sexuality is a very important part of our human existence, both for purposes of procreation as well as pleasure. Healthy sexual function involves a satisfactory libido, the ability to obtain and maintain a rigid erection, and the ability to ejaculate and experience a climax. Although not a necessity for a healthy life, the loss or diminution of sexual function can result in loss of self-esteem, embarrassment, a sense of isolation and frustration, and even depression. Therefore, for many of us, it is vital that we maintain our sexual health.
On a functional level, sexuality is a very complex event dependent upon a number of systems, including the endocrine system (which produces sex hormones); the central and peripheral nervous systems (which provide nerve control); and the vascular system (which conducts blood flow). A healthy sexual response is, at its physical essence, largely about adequate blood flow to the genital and pelvic area. Increased blood flow to the genitals from sexual stimulation is responsible for the penis going from a flaccid to an erect state. Blood flow to the penis is analogous to air pressure in a tire: if there is not enough air, thereby causing the tire to be improperly inflated, the tire works less optimally and may even suffer a flat!
The penis is a rather amazing, multifunctional organ that has a role as a urinary organ allowing directed urination that permits men to stand to urinate, and a sexual and reproductive organ that when erect, allows the rigid penis the ability to penetrate the vagina and function as a conduit for release of semen into the vagina. No other organ in the body demonstrates such a great versatility in terms of the physical changes between its “inactive” versus “active” states! The penis has an abundant supply of vascular smooth muscle, and like every other muscle in the body, “use it or lose it” is relevant when it comes to the sexual domain. Disuse atrophy can occur if the penis is not used the way it was designed to be, and this often results in patients complaining of penile shrinkage.
Erectile dysfunction is a common problem, occurring in millions of American men. About one-third of the male population over age 60 is unable to achieve an erection suitable for intercourse. However, erectile dysfunction is NOT an inevitable consequence of the aging process as there are many elderly men who have intact sexual function.
Diminished blood flow occurs most commonly on the basis of an accumulation of fatty plaque deposits within the walls of blood vessels. As we age, physiological and lifestyle factors combine to increase this plaque build-up, causing a significant narrowing of many of the body’s blood vessels. The resultant decrease in blood flow to our organs negatively affects the functioning of all of our systems, since every cell in our body is dependent upon the vascular system for delivery of vital oxygen and nutrients and removal of metabolic waste products. Pelvic atherosclerosis, the accumulation of fatty deposits within the walls of the arteries that bring blood to the penis, will compromise blood flow to the genitals and incite sexual dysfunction.
The presence of erectile dysfunction can be considered the equivalent of a genital stress test and may be indicative of a cardiovascular problem that warrants an evaluation for arterial disease elsewhere in the body (heart, brain, aorta, peripheral blood vessels). In other words, the quality of erections can serve as a barometer of cardiovascular health and those who can get hard attacks are unlikely to get heart attacks. The presence of sexual dysfunction is as much of a predictor of cardiovascular disease as is a strong family history of cardiac disease, tobacco smoking, or elevated cholesterol. The British cardiologist Graham Jackson has expanded the initials E.D. (Erectile Dysfunction) to mean Endothelial Dysfunction (endothelial cells being the type of cells that line the insides of arteries), Early Detection (of cardiovascular disease), and Early Death (if missed). The bottom line is that heart healthy is sexual healthy.
Many adults in the USA are beset with Civilization Syndrome, a cluster of health issues that have arisen as a direct result of our poor dietary choices and sedentary lifestyle. Civilization Syndrome can lead to obesity, high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, and can result in such health problems as diabetes, heart attack, stroke, cancer, and premature death. The diabetic situation in our nation—often referred to as “diabesity” has become outrageous and it probably comes as no surprise that diabetes is one of the leading causes of sexual dysfunction in the United States.
Obesity (external fat) is associated with internal obesity and fatty matter clogging up the arteries of the body including the pudendal artery, which supplies blood to the penis. Additionally, obesity can have a negative effect on our sex hormone balance (the balance of testosterone and estrogens), further contributing to sexual dysfunction. The fatty tissue present in our obese abdomens contains abundant amounts of the enzyme aromatase—functioning to convert testosterone to estrogen—literally emasculating us! High blood pressure will cause the heart to have to work harder to get the blood flowing through the increased resistance of the arteries. Blood pressure lowering medications will treat this, but as a result of the decreased pressure, there will be less blood flow through the pudendal arteries. Thus blood pressure medications, although very helpful to prevent the negative affects of hypertension—heart attacks, strokes, etc.—will contribute to sexual dysfunction. High cholesterol will cause fatty plaque buildup in our arteries, compromising blood flow and contributing to sexual dysfunction. Tobacco constricts blood vessels and impairs blood flow through our arteries. Smoking is really not very sexy at all! Stress causes a surge of adrenaline release from the adrenal glands. The effect of adrenaline is to constrict blood vessels and decrease sexual function. Hence, the physiologic explanation for the common occurrence of performance anxiety. Interestingly, men with priapism (a prolonged and painful erection) are often treated with penile injections of an adrenaline-like chemical to bring down the erection.
Obesity is stealing away one of our most precious resources—the ability to obtain and maintain good quality erections. Remember the days when you could achieve a rock-hard erection—majestically pointing towards the sky—simply by seeing an attractive woman or thinking some vague sexual thought? Chances were that you were young, active, and perhaps had an abdomen that somewhat resembled a six-pack. The loss in function is often so gradual and insidious that it barely gets noticed. Maybe it takes a great deal of physical stimulation to achieve an erection barely firm enough to be able to penetrate. Maybe penetration is more of a “shove” than a ready, noble, and natural access. Maybe you need “daddy’s little helper”—a little blue pill (Viagra), or yellow pill (Cialis), or orange pill (Levitra), to get the blood flowing.
If this is the case, it is probable that you are carrying extra pounds, have a soft belly, and are not physically active. When you’re soft in the middle, you will probably be soft down below. A flaccid penis is entirely consistent with a flaccid body and a hard penis is congruous with a hard body. Perhaps when you are standing naked in the shower and you gaze down towards your feet, all you see is the protuberant roundness of your large midriff, obscuring the glorious sight of your manhood. Perhaps you’re wondering where your penis is hiding. In most cases, the abundant pubic fat pad that occurs coincident with weight gain obscures the penis, what I like to refer to as the “turtle effect.” If your pubic fat pad makes your penis difficult to find, your man-boobs are competitive with your wife’s breasts, and your libido and erections are just not performing up to par, it may be just time to rethink your lifestyle habits!
So, where does this leave us? It leaves us with what should by now be obvious: a healthy lifestyle is of paramount importance towards the endpoint of achieving an optimal quality and quantity of life. Intelligent lifestyle choices, including proper eating habits, maintaining a healthy weight, engaging in exercise, adequate sleep, alcohol in moderation, avoiding tobacco and stress reduction are the initial approach to treating many of the diseases caused by poor health decisions. Sexual dysfunction is in the category of a medical problem that is brought on by unwise lifestyle choices. It should come as no surprise that the initial approach to managing it is to improve lifestyle choices. By simply improving one’s daily habits, Civilization Syndrome can be ameliorated or even prevented, and the various medical problems that often follow, including sexual dysfunction, can be mitigated.
In terms of maintaining good cardiovascular health—and thus healthy sexual function—eating properly is incredibly important, obviously in conjunction with other smart lifestyle choices. Maintaining a healthy weight and fueling up with wholesome and natural foods will help prevent the build-up of harmful plaque deposits within blood vessels that can lead to compromised blood flow to the penis as well as every other organ. Poor dietary choices with a meal plan replete with calorie-laden, nutritionally-empty selections (e.g., fast food or processed or refined anything), puts one on the fast tract to clogged arteries that can make your sexual function as small as your belly is big!
If you want a “sexier” lifestyle, first start with a “sexier” style of eating that will help you feel better, look better and optimize your sexual, emotional and psychological well-being. Smart nutritional choices are a key component of sexual fitness. Exercise is a fundamentally important component of maintaining good sexual health and partners well with healthy eating. At times, even with the achievement of a very healthy lifestyle, erectile dysfunction can still persist. Under these circumstances, there are numerous excellent treatment modalities available, and the reader is referred to the following links below for more information.
I have done a number of educational videos on the subject of erectile dysfunction. These are intended for mature adults only as they contain language and images of a graphic and sexual nature and viewer discretion is advised.
Introduction to erectile dysfunction: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AQW1HFwBuPc
Penis size: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g65bq7CuUyI
Causes of erectile dysfunction: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f6N34G11Saw
Treatment part 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fuhPGharax0
Treatment part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rd47zIQEGcA
This is just a taste of what you will find in Promiscuous Eating: Understanding and Ending Our Self-Destructive Relationship with Food. The website for the book is: http://www.PromiscuousEating.com. It provides information on the book, a trailer, excerpts, ordering instructions, as well as links to a wealth of excellent resources on healthy living. It is also available on Amazon Kindle.
Andrew L. Siegel, M.D.