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An erection seems to happen on instinct, but the process of getting one is actually quite complicated—it involves your heart, head, hormones, blood vessels, nerves, and even your mood. Erectile dysfunction (ED) is a common problem, but there are many things you can do to get harder erections without medications.
What is erectile dysfunction?
Erectile dysfunction (ED), previously referred to as impotence, happens when you can’t get or keep an erection strong enough for a satisfying sex life. That might include erections that don’t last as long as you want or aren’t as firm as you’d like. These issues with erectile function may affect your sexual desire in addition to your ability to have sex.
If you think you may have erectile dysfunction, talk to your healthcare provider. ED may be a warning sign of a more serious underlying medical problem like high blood pressure, diabetes, or heart disease.
Foods for erectile dysfunction: what the science says
Common treatments for ED
Oral medications for ED are highly effective and include sildenafil (brand name Viagra), tadalafil (brand name Cialis), and vardenafil (brand name Levitra). ED is often due to poor blood flow to the penis. These medications (also called PDE5 inhibitors) work by blocking PDE5, a chemical that encourages blood to flow into the penis, strengthening your erection.
8 Natural ways to protect your erection
Some people prefer to try natural approaches instead of using medications. While PDE5 inhibitors are the most effective at treating ED, some simple lifestyle changes can improve your erections. They include:
Maintain a healthy weight with diet and exercise
Exercise is one of the best ways to strengthen erections—it also increases stamina, strength, and flexibility. Regular exercise, especially moderate aerobic physical activity, can affect blood pressure, blood flow, nitric oxide production, and hormonal changes. These effects can help restore sexual activity and improve erectile function (Duca, 2019).
Several studies have linked a healthy diet to reduced risk for ED. A nutritious diet also helps reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and obesity (all risk factors for ED). The goal is to increase your fruits, veggies, and whole grains and reduce your intake of processed foods, sugars, and red meat (Sooriyamoorthy, 2021).
It helps if you avoid large meals before having sex. Erections are mostly about penile blood flow. Eating a big meal diverts blood toward digesting your food and away from an erection. It’s also a good idea to avoid large meals, even when you’re taking ED meds. A fatty meal can block the absorption of the medication, making it less effective (Yafi, 2016).
Performance anxiety: how to manage
Get enough sleep
Studies suggest that sleep deprivation and sleep apnea may lower testosterone levels. A dip in testosterone can lower your libido and contribute to ED, especially if you get less than six hours of sleep a night. Lack of sleep also increases your likelihood of developing obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease—all risk factors for ED (Cho, 2019). Life is hectic, but getting enough sleep every night is one of the best things you can do for your health.
So much of sex is mental, and stress or anxiety can take your head out of the game, resulting in lowered sex drive and less-than-stellar erections. It can also lead to a vicious cycle of stress, causing sexual dysfunction, resulting in more stress, performance anxiety, and so on. Stress management techniques may improve your erections as well as your sex life (Mollaioli, 2020). You can reduce stress with exercise, relaxation techniques, meditation, or mindfulness practice.
Some men have found certain dietary supplements and vitamins effective for treating their ED, like DHEA, ginseng, L-arginine, horny goat weed, and yohimbe. Just remember that the FDA does not regulate herbal supplements, so be sure to get yours from a trusted source.
Increase communication with your partner
The foundation of good sex is communication. If you’re feeling disconnected from your partner or you’re not sure if you satisfy them sexually, that can diminish the pleasure you get out of your sexual experiences and even contribute to ED. Making an effort to stay on the same wavelength in and out of the bedroom can only enhance your sex life and lead to better erections.
Mix up your sexual routine
Humans crave sexual novelty and variety, even if they’re satisfied with having just one partner. Mixing things up by trying new positions, scenarios, toys, and verbal cues can help ensure sex stays exciting and doesn’t lapse into sameness.
Reduce alcohol and nicotine intake
You are more likely to have erectile dysfunction if you smoke cigarettes. Smoking damages your blood vessels, which is a big part of getting an erection. The good news is that quitting smoking can improve your erections (and your health) (Mollaioli, 2020).
Mindfulness: what it is, types, benefits
Small to moderate amounts of alcohol may facilitate sexual activity by giving you a euphoric feeling or “buzz.” But in larger quantities, it can decrease your ability to have a satisfying erection. Alcohol depresses the central nervous system, slowing down the messages between the brain and the rest of your body (including your penis). In the long run, excessive alcohol consumption can cause liver damage, high blood pressure, and damage to blood vessels resulting in erectile dysfunction (Mollaioli, 2020).
Bottom line: Reducing alcohol consumption and quitting smoking can improve your overall health and sexual performance.
Check testosterone levels
In some cases, a low testosterone level can reduce sexual desire and ED (Sooriyamoorthy, 2021). Consult a healthcare provider if you think you might have low T; several treatment options are available.
When to get help
If you’ve tried these eight strategies and you’re still not getting satisfying erections, it’s time to speak with your healthcare provider about other options to improve your sex life. You can continue these strategies even if your provider recommends taking medication—in fact, that’s encouraged! Improving your overall health often includes lifestyle interventions along with medications.
- Cho, J. W., & Duffy, J. F. (2019). Sleep, sleep disorders, and sexual dysfunction. The World Journal of Men’s Health, 37(3), 261–275. doi: 10.5534/wjmh.180045. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30209897/
- Duca, Y., Calogero, A. E., Cannarella, R., Giacone, F., Mongioi, L. M., Condorelli, R. A., et al. (2019). Erectile dysfunction, physical activity and physical exercise: recommendations for clinical practice. Andrologia, 51(5), e13264. doi: 10.1111/and.13264. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30873650/
- Mollaioli, D., Ciocca, G., Limoncin, E., Di Sante, S., Gravina, G. L., Carosa, E., et al. (2020). Lifestyles and sexuality in men and women: the gender perspective in sexual medicine. Reproductive Biology and Endocrinology:RB&E, 18(1), 10. doi: 10.1186/s12958-019-0557-9. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32066450/
- Sooriyamoorthy T, Leslie SW. (2021). Erectile dysfunction. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK562253/
- Yafi, F. A., Jenkins, L., Albersen, M., Corona, G., Isidori, A. M., Goldfarb, S., et al. (2016). Erectile dysfunction. Nature Reviews: Disease Primers, 2, 16003. doi: 10.1038/nrdp.2016.3. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27188339