Diabetes, Men, and Sex: What’s the Link?

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Sexual dysfunction: you’ve seen the ads on television, you’ve heard the jokes, and, if you’re like most men, you’ve tried your best to block it from your mind. But if you have diabetes, this is one touchy subject you shouldn’t ignore. A full 75 percent of diabetic men have some trouble achieving or maintaining an erection long enough to have intercourse.

But diabetes doesn’t have to be a deathblow to your sex life. You can protect your sexual functioning by keeping your diabetes under control. And if the condition has already started to derail your physical relationships, your doctor can help you get back on track.

How Does Diabetes Cause Sexual Dysfunction?

Erections take teamwork from several parts of the body: Your brain makes you aroused, your nerves sense pleasurable feelings, and your arteries carry a flood of blood to the penis.

Unfortunately, poorly controlled diabetes can ruin that teamwork. Blood sugar that stays too high for too long can both deaden your nerves and damage the arteries that feed your penis. You can still get aroused, but you’ll have trouble turning those feelings into action.

The breakdown doesn’t happen overnight. Most men have diabetes for many years before they notice a problem with erections. Diabetic men rarely have any erectile dysfunction before they reach 30.

The key is controlling your diabetes. But when it comes to blood sugar, how high is too high? There’s a national movement to describe sugar levels in terms of A1C (also known as glycosylated hemoglobin or HbA1c)), a lab test that reports average blood glucose over a period of two to three months. If your A1C is below 7 percent, your blood sugar is under control. But as A1C gets higher than 7 percent your long-term risk of damage to nerves and arteries increases, and that can also increase your risk of erectile dysfunction.

Contrary to popular belief, insulin and other diabetes drugs don’t hamper erections, says Kenneth Snow, M.D., Director of the Joslin Diabetes Center Sexual Dysfunction Clinic in Boston. By reducing your blood glucose levels, these medications slow down damage to your nerves and arteries. Such medications can actually help keep your love life healthy, he says.

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