What is Erectile Dysfunction?

If you’ve had someone close to you with erectile dysfunction then you may know how it can affect relationships, self-esteem and even the ability to start a family. Although erectile dysfunction is a common condition that is treatable, many people do not seek help for the problem as it’s often shrouded in stigma. In this post, we’re going to take a closer look at erectile dysfunction (ED) and how you can recognize and treat this condition. We’ll also take a look at what it means to be a partner of someone with ED.

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ED explained

Erectile dysfunction, or ED, may affect the ability to get or maintain an erection, which can affect enjoyment of penetrative sex. And while ED isn’t often talked about, this condition is actually quite common. In fact, The Massachusetts Male Age Study reported that 52% of men between 40 and 70 years old have mild-to-moderate ED. 

Erectile dysfunction can be occasional or chronic, and develop over time. It also can result from a variety of causes, including psychological issues such as stress, or it may be an indication of an underlying health problem. In some circumstances, ED can also negatively affect the self-confidence of either partner. 

What causes an erection?

During arousal, the body goes through a series of biological processes. Sexual stimulation - which can be physical or mental - initiates this process by triggering a cascade of chemical reactions throughout the body. These chemicals then trigger biological events that engage the nervous system, vascular system, and the erectile tissue of the penis. All these events come together in sync to help grow the penis.

How to recognize erectile dysfunction 

Erectile dysfunction (ED) comes in various forms. Although the common use of ED refers to a total inability to achieve an erection, there is a spectrum of severity that must be understood when diagnosing ED.

  • Getting an erection when aroused
  • keeping a firm erection during sex
  • Inability to get enough of an erection to have penetrative sex

It’s common to experience occasional issues with maintaining an erection, especially if you’ve recently consumed alcohol or taken other medications prior to sex. If you consistently have problems getting or maintaining an erection, you may be suffering from erectile dysfunction. If you or your partner has concerns about ED, it’s always worth talking to a healthcare professional to get advice and/or treatment.

Persistent ED is typically caused by one or several physical problems that affect blood flow or nerve function. In other cases, it may be caused by a psychological issue that can affect self-confidence or sexual arousal. 

However, it’s important to seek help if you frequently experience these symptoms. ED is highly treatable, and getting expert help early can help you to identify its cause and work out the most effective solution.

Below, you can find the major causes of erectile dysfunction, and their effect on your sexual and reproductive life.

Causes of erectile dysfunction:

ED can either have a physical or psychological cause.

Physical causes are more common in older males and can include:

  • Hormone imbalance
  • Sleep disorders
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Taking certain medications
  • Damage to the penis 

For younger males, psychological causes tend to be a more common cause of ED, these include:

  • Stress or depression (also linked to low libido)
  • Sexual performance anxiety
  • Problems in a relationship (such as a lack of trust)

Risk Factors for Erectile Dysfunction

Erectile dysfunction can potentially affect men of all ages and backgrounds, but certain medical factors may increase your risk of developing ED.

The most common risk factors for erectile dysfunction include: 

  • Age can increase your risk of ED. Researchers found out that men have roughly a 40% chance of developing ED by age 40. The risk increases 10 percent with each decade after that.
  • Obesity and lack of exercise can increase the risk of developing ED increases substantially as research has shown.
  • Tobacco — including nicotine and other chemicals inside cigarettes, cigars, and other tobacco products can damage your cardiovascular system, which will elevate your risk of having erection problems. 
  • Consuming alcohol in large quantities or on a regular basis can harm your sexual functioning.
  • Marijuana use has been reported by researchers to cause several sexual problems, including erectile dysfunction.

Treatment Options for Erectile Dysfunction

Although erectile dysfunction can be a frustrating issue when it occurs, erectile dysfunction is a common condition that can be treated in many ways. Healthcare providers will take any specific needs into account when determining the most appropriate course of action for your treatment, so talking with a professional is always the best first step.

Erectile Dysfunction Medication

Erectile dysfunction can be treated with oral medication. Currently, there are several drugs for ED that have been approved by the FDA and its equivalent in the EU. The most common is sildenafil (the active ingredient in Viagra®).

PDE5 inhibitors are a class of drugs used to treat erectile dysfunction, a common condition among males. They increase blood flow to the penis, which makes it easier to get an erection after sexual stimulation. PDE5 inhibitors are currently only available with a prescription. While medication can be helpful, others may prefer to treat the underlying cause of erectile dysfunction, as the feelings associated with ED may persist even when the symptoms are treated.

Psychological ED Treatment

As we know, erectile dysfunction isn’t always caused by physical factors, it can be brought on by anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.

Some mental health disorders can also reduce sexual desire, which can cause further problems with sexual response and performance. If you are experiencing erectile dysfunction that is psychological in origin, there are several treatment options available.

These include:

  • Counseling with a therapist is one way to treat erectile dysfunction caused by anxiety or depression.
  • Sex therapy has been shown in studies to help men regain erection naturally.
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), an emerging field of therapy that involves learning techniques to change thought patterns and behavior, has been reported to assist in treating erectile dysfunction - for some individuals this may be more successful than using medication such as antidepressants which are shown to affect sex drive and cause ED. 

Erectile Dysfunction Prevention

It's possible to prevent erectile dysfunction, as well as improve symptoms in those who already have the condition, by making healthy changes to lifestyle. 

 ED risk can be reduced by:

  • Eating a healthy diet - this helps keep blood pressure in the normal range and helps to prevent ED. Limiting intake of foods high in fat, sodium, and simple sugars can also help maintain a healthy weight
  • Quitting smoking reduces the risk of developing erectile dysfunction and other health issues, including heart disease and cancer
  • Limiting alcohol consumption - although it’s okay to enjoy a beer, glass of wine or cocktail on occasion, excessive drinking can contribute to ED. Try to limit intake of alcohol to one or two small servings per day. 
  • Regular exercise can increase sexual function by making our hearts stronger and enhancing blood flow. Try to get at least 30 minutes of exercise every day, even if it’s just a brisk walk around the neighborhood.
  • Cutting out drugs as they may reduce the ability to become aroused or contribute to psychological issues that prevent you from achieving an erection

How monitoring sperm health can help

Male reproductive health is a wider issue than just ED. Monitoring sperm health is a great way to stay in touch with your reproductive health and sexual health. Sperm health is a great bio-marker for not only fertility check-ups, but also for detecting underlying health issues and sexual performance. 

Sperm health can be tested very easily by visiting Mojo in Sweden or the UK, or by consulting fertility clinics with experience in reproductive health.

How to help a partner with erectile dysfunction

While erectile dysfunction can be upsetting for the person experiencing it, it may also have an impact on a partner in a relationship. If your partner has ED, we’ve got a few tips to help you navigate this together. 

Talk it through

It can feel awkward or uncomfortable, but the best thing to do is to start talking. Relationships are made stronger through clear communication. By actively listening and showing empathy, you’re already doing a great job in helping your partner. Although it may seem counterintuitive, 

it’s best to time this discussion in a non-sexual setting outside the bedroom. Don’t forget to talk about your own needs and feelings, while you may feel this is about your partner, it’s important to recognize your own pleasure holds equal importance. 

Don’t take it personally

When a partner can’t get an erection, it can be easy to blame ourselves or think it’s a reflection on their attraction to us. ED is a medical condition, it has nothing to do with how sexy you are. Remember, it’s not your job to ‘cure’ ED, but there are ways you can show support such as asking your partner if they’d like you to come along to medical appointments, or simply providing a listening ear.

Sex doesn’t always have to be about penetration

We place a huge emphasis on the importance of penetrative sex and this can lead to problems. There are so many ways to feel pleasure that don’t involve a penis inside a vagina! By removing the pressure of penetration you can reduce anxiety around performance and make sex more enjoyable for both of you. Did you know that only 18% of female orgasms come from penetration on its own? Trying other types of sex, doesn’t have to be a last resort, in fact, it can be a great way to enhance your sex life.

Busting stigma: a shared responsibility 

Thanks for reading up on erectile dysfunction! This tricky but important topic is just one of a whole host of reproductive health issues which, sadly, aren’t often talked about. At Natural Cycles we’re dedicated to destigmatizing these subjects, one topic at a time! 

As creators of the world’s first birth control app, we believe birth control is a shared responsibility. After all, it takes a sperm cell to fertilize an egg! While historically birth control has fallen on the shoulders of women, you can now use our Partner View feature to share your fertility status and other info with your partner and open up the conversation around contraception. New to Natural Cycles? Why not find out if this hormone-free option could work for you?

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Written By

Mo Taha

Mo Taha, PhD, is CEO and Co-founder of Mojo. Taha was a nanotechnology researcher at the École Centrale de Lyon and a family office healthcare services investor before he and his Co-founders created Mojo in 2017.

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Scientifically Reviewed

Jack Pearson

With 10 years of experience working in the field of fertility, Dr. Jack Pearson is Natural Cycles’ in-house expert. As Medical Affairs Manager, he dedicates his time to conducting groundbreaking research and educating healthcare professionals.

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