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Nov 25, 2020
9 min read

Foods for erectile dysfunction: what the science says

You can’t fix erectile dysfunction with any given foods. It’s possible that your diet may have an impact on your erectile function, though. Eating a diet that’s high in certain vitamins and minerals may lower your risk of ED. Conversely, eating a diet that’s full of sugar and trans fats puts you at higher risk of developing certain health conditions that make ED more likely.

Disclaimer

If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

We want to be clear from the start: You’ve probably heard the saying, “One burger won’t make you fat just like one salad won’t make you thin.” Foods for erectile dysfunction are similar. Healthy dietary choices are playing the long game. They’re important. They may help you prevent conditions that can lead to erectile dysfunction. They’ll benefit your body in countless other ways. But they’re certainly not going to work the same way as pills like Viagra.

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Vitamins and minerals for erectile dysfunction

No food can fix erectile dysfunction (ED). A healthy diet may help prevent certain conditions that can contribute to ED. And while certain vitamin deficiencies have been associated with increased difficulty achieving or maintaining an erection, restoring that vitamin isn’t going to give you an erection like Viagra. Improvements are typically limited to people with existing vitamin deficiencies. More research is needed to determine how effective correcting these deficiencies is at improving ED.

For some compounds reported to help with ED, the connection isn’t yet supported by research in humans. That’s the case for lycopene, which helps improve erectile dysfunction in rats, and omega-3 fatty acids, which improves blood flow in rats. Researchers believe omega-3s may have promise as an ED treatment because of this study, but a direct connection between these fatty acids and erections has not been made in rats, let alone in humans (Gao, 2012; Shim, 2016).

The connection between nitrates and erections also isn’t clear. Most of the penis is made up of spongy tissue. When the brain sends signals to form an erection, the blood vessels leading to the penis relax and allow blood to flow into this spongy tissue. Blood fills the tissue, causing the penis to expand and harden from the pressure. A compound called nitric oxide (NO) helps these muscles relax (Burnett, 2007). Although your body can convert nitrates into NO, dietary nitrate intake has not been connected to any improvements in ED (Weitzberg, 2010).

Vitamin B3

Also called niacin, this B vitamin may help those with moderate or severe ED. One study that looked at people with ED and high cholesterol found that 1,500 mg of niacin daily for 12 weeks significantly improved erectile function for participants with moderate to severe ED. However, the vitamin B3 supplements did not substantially help individuals with mild-to-moderate ED (Ng, 2011).

This study also looked at supplements. There’s currently no study showing that niacin you get through food can have the same effects as niacin you get through a supplement such as a multivitamin. Our bodies absorb nutrients through food and supplements differently, so we cannot say that the findings from studies on supplements hold true for vitamins from food (Ng, 2011).

Vitamin D

Vitamin D deficiency can increase your odds of having erection problems. Researchers conducted one study that included 3,400 participants. They found that individuals with vitamin D deficiency were 32% more likely to have trouble getting or maintaining an erection than those with normal levels of the sunshine vitamin (Farag, 2016). In another small study, researchers gave supplements to men with vitamin D deficiency. They found that their erectile dysfunction improved significantly, as did their testosterone levels—another measure that correlates with improved erections (Tirabassi, 2018). 

But that doesn’t mean that vitamin D will give you an instant erection. The men in the study all had low levels of vitamin D to begin with. If you think you might have low vitamin D, you can ask your healthcare provider for a simple blood test. If you’re deficient, your best bet for improving your levels is consuming fortified dairy products rather than taking supplements (Itkonen, 2018).

Folic acid

Low blood levels of folic acid, also known as vitamin B9, are associated with moderate-to-severe erection issues (Karabaken, 2016). Researchers have also found that many people who experience ED, premature ejaculation, or both, have low levels of this vitamin (Yan, 2014). But the only research we have showing that folic acid helps improve erection problems has been in animals (rabbits with diabetes, to be exact) (Shukla, 2008). If you’re concerned that you might have low folate levels, your healthcare provider can do a quick blood test to check. If you’re looking to up your folate intake, asparagus, eggs, and leafy greens are all good dietary sources of folate.

Flavonoids

There is some evidence that a higher intake of certain flavonoids is associated with lower rates of ED. Flavonoids, a category of naturally occurring substances present in certain fruits and vegetables, are divided into many different types. But one study found that high dietary intake of three specific types was most strongly associated with fewer erection problems: flavanones, anthocyanins, and flavones. When the researchers looked at foods the men were eating, they found that high fruit intake (which provides both anthocyanins and flavanones) was associated with a 14% reduction in ED risk (Cassidy, 2016). 

Different fruits provide different flavonoids. Anthocyanins are present in red, purple, and blue fruits and vegetables, while flavanones can be found in citrus fruits such as oranges and lemons, as well as grapes. The primary dietary sources of flavones are celery, parsley, red peppers, chamomile, and mint (Khoo, 2017Panche, 2016).

That said, there’s no evidence that scarfing down oodles of apples and bananas will magically alleviate your ED. However, a balanced diet does contribute to reducing your risk for conditions like diabetes and high cholesterol, which themselves are known to play a role in the development of ED.

L-arginine

L-arginine may help with ED, but the results of studies are mixed. A meta-analysis that looked at ten different studies with 540 patients found that dosages between 1500 mg and 5000 mg produced significant improvements in ED over placebo. Participants submitted self-reported scores of sexual satisfaction and erectile function (Rhim, 2019). But one small study found this amino acid to be no more effective than placebo in treating erectile dysfunction (Klotz, 1999). 

Caffeine

We know that caffeine improves blood flow, and we know that improved blood flow can improve erections, so does that mean that coffee is the missing link? Not exactly (Adebiyi, 2004).

Efforts to evaluate caffeine intake and ED have demonstrated some connections. In one study, men who drink the equivalent of 2–3 cups of coffee a day—that’s a caffeine intake of 170–375 mg/day—have lower rates of ED. But the evidence wasn’t super clear, and the results didn’t hold true for people who had diabetes (Lopez, 2015). So don’t expect your doctor to write you a prescription for a cappuccino any time soon.

Health conditions and ED

Erectile dysfunction is a complex condition. Certain medical conditions, including diabetes and high blood pressure, increase your likelihood of developing erection problems (Selvin, 2007). And since  ED is essentially a vascular disorder, having to do with the blood vessels and how blood flows through the body, any condition that disrupts that blood flow may contribute too (Ibrahim, 2018).

Studies have found an association between atherosclerosis—the buildup of junk on your blood vessel walls—and erectile dysfunction (Tsujimura, 2017). Diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and high cholesterol are all risk factors for atherosclerosis and are commonly seen in people who have erectile dysfunction (Ibrahim, 2018).

The good news is that managing these risk factors may help stave off erection problems. Eating heart-healthy foods and adopting lifestyle habits that support a healthy heart will all help with this, in addition to supporting your overall health. Here’s what you should avoid to support a stronger erection:

  • Stop smoking—Smoking and even exposure to second-hand smoke are associated with the progression of atherosclerosis (Howard, 1998). And as you might expect, smoking increases your risk of developing erectile dysfunction, and quitting smoking improves symptoms (Shiri, 2004).
  • Avoid trans fats—Dietary trans fats, an unhealthy type of fat found in many processed foods, have been shown to contribute to atherosclerosis (Monguchi, 2017). 
  • Limit simple carbohydrates—Prolonged high blood sugar levels have been linked to the progression of atherosclerosis (Aronson, 2002). Choosing whole grains instead of more refined carbohydrates (such as brown rice instead of white rice) has been shown to help control blood sugar levels (Marventano, 2017).

What treatments are available for erectile dysfunction?

Erectile dysfunction, also known as ED, is a common condition that makes it hard to get or keep an erection long enough to have satisfying sex. It’s not always a chronic condition. For many people, ED may be occasional. Research shows that one in three men ages 18–59 experience ED at some point and that the frequency increases with age (Laumann, 1999). 

Luckily, there’s also no shortage of treatments available. Phosphodiesterase type 5 inhibitors (PDE5 inhibitors) such as Viagra, Levitra, and Cialis are considered the first-line treatment for ED (Park, 2013). These prescription medicines help two chemical messengers that control blood flow to your penis work as they should in order to improve sexual function in those with ED (Dhaliwal, 2020). 

Common side effects of PDE5 inhibitors include headache, flushing, and upset stomach or indigestion. Some medications have side effects unique to that prescription drug. Sildenafil (brand name Viagra) may cause vision changes, while tadalafil (brand name Cialis) may cause back pain. Generally, though, these side effects are mild or moderate (Raheem, 2009).

Learn more about ED and available treatments here

References

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