From sexual dysfunction to sleep issues: Challenges men with diabetes face

Diabetes doesn’t discriminate. It affects men, women, children, and anyone of any race. And, no matter who you are, it can be very difficult to manage. Not everyone is affected by diabetes the same, however, and men with diabetes face some particular struggles unique to their gender.

What’s more, men who have been diagnosed with diabetes may experience certain problems, and be unaware they are linked to their blood sugar issues.

According to the National Diabetes Statistics Report 2014, 15.5 million men in the United States have diabetes — that’s 13.6% of the population.

Men with diabetes outnumber women, who make up 13.4 million of the total country’s diabetic population. Both genders with the condition are at high risk for complications like high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, vision issues, kidney disease, and amputation, among many others.

That being said, there are several problems specific to men with diabetes — problems men may not want to talk about.

What specific problems do men with diabetes face?

Let’s be realistic, men and women may be equal, but they aren’t the same biologically. This means the effects of diabetes on men create some unique problems.

Erectile dysfunction (ED)

Diabetes can cause damage to the nerves and small blood vessels of the body, and this means areas not controlled by conscious thought suffer as a result.

The penis is a part of the autonomic nervous system, and the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases indicates damage caused to the nerves by diabetes can prevent the brain from properly signaling and maintaining sexual function.  

As many as 75% of men with diabetes suffer from ED, and men with diabetes often experience this complication 10-15 years sooner than other men.  

Similarly, damaged nerves may result in retrograde ejaculation, a condition where improper muscle function causes semen to go into the bladder instead of out the head of the penis during ejaculation.

What can be done about erectile dysfunction? The American Diabetes Association notes there are a number of medications and surgical interventions available to treat erectile dysfunction, but the first step is to talk about the issue with a health care provider. Men have traditionally been uneasy discussing ED due to the stigma around it, but men with diabetes need to have this discussion if they are experiencing problems.

Low testosterone

Another issue unique to men with diabetes is that of low testosterone. While the exact mechanism behind this diabetes complication is unclear, it is suspected that higher levels of fat mass cause a conversion of testosterone into estrogen, the primary female sex hormone.  

The International Diabetes Federation states low testosterone may affect as many as a third of men with diabetes, and can cause changes in sexual desire and performance, disrupted sleep, reduced muscle strength, increased body fat, hair loss, and an increased risk for depression and mood swings.

What can be done about low testosterone? Low testosterone can be detected with simple testing, and is often treated with oral or topical hormone replacement therapy. Low testosterone can be difficult to talk about as it often goes hand-in-hand with erectile dysfunction.

Sleep disruption

Though certainly not unique to men, sleep disruption as a result of diabetes may affect men more than women. Research published in Diabetes Care in 2004 showed men with diabetes had higher rates of sleep disruption.

One interesting finding from the study was that sleep disruption might come before a diabetes diagnosis. The data showed men with sleep disturbances has a 2-3 fold increased risk for diabetes.

The suspected reason for this has to do with how lack of sleep disrupts nervous system activity, and can contribute to glucose intolerance.

What can be done about sleep disruption? Inappropriate sleep can be difficult to treat, and may require the attention of a specialist. If you are already at a high risk for diabetes, and have difficulty sleeping, talk to your health care provider about your options. Sometimes minor adjustments at home, like limiting electronic screen time before bed, or adjusting lighting in your home, can make a big difference.

Should some men with diabetes worry more than others?

All men are at risk for the above complications associated with diabetes, but some men are disproportionately affected by diabetes to begin with.

While Hispanic men are less likely to be diagnosed with diabetes compared to Hispanic women, the American Diabetes Association notes Hispanics have an overall higher rate of the disease compared to non-Hispanic whites. More specifically, among all Hispanic groups, 16.9% of men and women have diabetes, compared to 10.2% for non-Hispanic whites.

Hispanic men are also disproportionately affected by erectile dysfunction, according to research in 2005 and 2007.

In an Archives of Internal Medicine paper, experts found Hispanic men were 2.5 times as likely to develop ED compared to men of other ethnicities. The 2007 research supported those findings, also adding that Hispanic men saw an increased risk for ED once they passed the age of 60.

Options for men with diabetes

If you are a man suffering from diabetes, or know someone who is, it’s important to understand that it requires medical management regardless of the side effects you might be experiencing. Don’t let fear or embarrassment hold you back from getting the help you need.  

If you are already at your doctor’s office, why hide potentially important information like a lack of sexual desire or performance? Chances are your doctor has seen and heard it all before, and he or she likely has a number of options that can help you. Don’t short change yourself by staying silent because of stigma; you’re not alone.

Talk to your doctor so diabetes doesn’t stand in the way of living a healthy and happy life.

For more information about diabetes and men’s health, visit the American Diabetes Association, or call their toll-free number at 1-800-DIABETES (1-800-342-2383).

Hope Gillette
Hope Gillette

Hope Gillette is a journalist from New York. She specializes in research journalism and has an extensive background in Hispanic health writing. Hope is also a published novelist and award-winning author, as well as a mixed martial arts expert and fitness trainer.