Your body is a living, breathing machine. And like most machines, it has a way of telling you when something’s not quite right. And while the old standards such as blood tests, heart rate and blood pressure can alert you to health problems, for men the warning signs might also be coming from the last place you’d expect—your erection.
How can something so … sex-focused … as an erection act like a warning light on the dashboard of your body? It’s simple. Achieving and maintaining an erection long enough to have sex depends upon good blood flow to the penis. This, in turn, depends upon good health, which means that health conditions that affect blood flow can also decrease your bedroom performance.
How Does an Erection Work?
Before we talk about what can go wrong, let’s look at how an erection works. This will help you understand what happens when you run into problems.
Normally, an erection starts with sexual stimulation, either physical or mental, which includes foreplay, watching certain movies or just daydreaming about sex. As a result, your body jump-starts the erection by sending messages along the nerves to the penis. This involves both messages from the brain and the local nerves in the groin.
As a result, the blood vessels in the two cylinder-shaped chambers that run along the length of the penis (corpora cavernosa) relax, and blood rushes into those arteries. At the same time, blood is slowed from leaving the penis. This temporary pooling of blood increases the pressure inside the corpora cavernosa, causing the penis to expand—and giving you an erection. The erection is reversed when the blood flowing into the penis is slowed and the outflow channels are opened, allowing the penis to become soft.
What Can Cause Erection Problems?
If you are unable to get or maintain an erection long enough to have sex, several conditions and factors could be the cause. This includes ones that mainly affect the penis or its blood vessels and nerves, such as:
- low testosterone
- certain prescription medications
- treatments for enlarged prostate or prostate cancer
- formation of scar tissue inside the penis (Peyronie’s disease)
- surgeries or injuries that affect the groin or spinal cord
Even health conditions that involve the whole body can interfere with proper blood flood or nerve signals to the penis, such as:
- heart disease and its risk factors like high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity
- abuse of alcohol or certain illegal drugs
- Parkinson’s disease
- Multiple sclerosis
- tobacco use
- psychological factors like depression, anxiety, stress or relationship problems
How Can You Improve Your Erections?
Many medications are available for men who have trouble with erections, but you can often improve your erections with a few simple lifestyle changes:
- Stay heart healthy: Taking care of your cardiovascular system goes a long way toward keeping your sex life in shape, not to mention reducing your risk of heart attacks and stroke. This means eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, watching your weight and having regular health check-ups with your doctor.
- Get enough sleep: The bed isn’t just for sex, so don’t underestimate the power of getting at least seven hours of sleep a night. This will help you maintain healthy levels of hormones needed for your sex drive, as well as reduce your risk of other health problems like obesity that can affect your erections.
- Keep your body clean inside: To keep your erections coming night after night, stop using tobacco and illegal drugs like cocaine, pot and others. Even moderate alcohol consumption can cause problems with erections, so limit your intake whenever possible.
- Use it or lose it: For many men, having sex more frequently improves the quality of their erections by stimulating blood flow to the penis. Even having erections without sex could help.
- Check your meds: If you think some of your prescription medications may be messing with your erection, talk to your doctor about possible alternatives.
- Deal with stress: Stress and other mental health issues can throw off your mojo in the bedroom. If you have stuff going on in your life, talk to a counselor or psychologist, enroll in stress-reduction classes or try yoga.