How High Cholesterol Can Lead to Erectile Dysfunction
There are a number of factors that can lead to erectile dysfunction, and high cholesterol is one of the most acute. But what exactly is the connection between cholesterol levels and ED? We explain the science below.
Updated: Wednesday 08 September 2021
While erectile dysfunction is a condition that affects men of all ages, your risk of developing it does increase as you get older. This is due in large part due to long-term lifestyle factors that only begin to cause health problems later on in life, including smoking, dietary factors and overconsumption of alcohol. As men get older, these factors begin to present themselves in the form of cardiovascular illnesses and warning signs, one of which is high cholesterol.
High cholesterol is very common in the UK. Around 60% of people across the country have high cholesterol, and many of them don’t actually know they have it because high cholesterol is often symptomless. The issue is the fact that while there tend to be no signs of high cholesterol, the consequences of it only become apparent during emergency events, such as a heart attack or stroke. In men, however, one sign you might have high cholesterol is if you’re having difficulty achieving or maintaining an erection.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is an organic molecule produced in the liver and found in some foods. It’s a waxy, fat-like substance, and contrary to popular belief it isn’t inherently unhealthy. There are two types of cholesterol. The first, high-density lipoprotein (HDL), is commonly referred to as “good” cholesterol because it carries cholesterol from other parts of your body back to the liver.
Low-density lipoprotein (LDL), on the other hand, are known as “bad” cholesterol because, in high enough amounts, it causes cholesterol to build up in the arteries. Large amounts of cholesterol in the arteries makes it more difficult for blood to travel around the body. This increases the risk of serious heart-related emergencies, such as heart attack and stroke - and it’s also responsible for increasing your risk of ED as well.
How can high cholesterol cause ED?
When your LDL levels are too high, the excess cholesterol in your body creates a plaque that attaches to the arteries and narrows them, which damages and blocks blood flow. This is dangerous for the heart, but it can also make it more difficult to get an erection because it reduces the amount of blood that travels to the genital region and penis, causing ED as a result. In addition, studies suggest that high levels of cholesterol in the body also damages the body’s ability to produce a chemical called nitric oxide, which is crucial in order for the muscles in the penis to relax and allow for an erection.
Research also suggests high cholesterol could contribute to ED in a third way. Because high LDL levels make it more difficult for blood to travel throughout the body, the testicles might also receive inadequate blood flow to produce healthy amounts of testosterone. Testosterone is important for regulating libido in men, meaning less of it could make it more difficult to get an erection. That said, it’s important to remember that testosterone deficiency is the primary cause of ED in a vanishingly small minority of cases.
What can I do to reduce my cholesterol levels?
Increasing the proportion of good-to-bad cholesterol in the body involves lifestyle and dietary changes associated with living a healthier life more generally. Bad cholesterol can be avoided by cutting out unhealthy foods from your diet, including fatty meats, full-fat dairy products such as milk and cheese, and deep-fried fast foods. By cutting out these elements from your diet, your HDL levels will increase relative to your LDL levels, helping your body attain a better balance of cholesterol.
You can also help reduce the amount of bad cholesterol in the body by increasing the amount of unsaturated fat in your diet. Foods that contain good amounts of unsaturated fat include oily fish, nuts, seeds, avocados and vegetable oils and spreads. It also helps to boost the amount of fibre in your diet. As little as 5-10g of soluble fibre can reduce the absorption of cholesterol in the bloodstream, but 30g is the amount of fibre recommended by the NHS. Fibre-rich foods include wholemeal bread, wholegrain cereals, fruits, vegetables, oats and barley.
The other surefire way to reduce the bad cholesterol in your body is through exercise. Exercise is proven to increase the HDL levels and also drop the level of triglycerides, which is the most common form of fat in the body. Indeed, even mild levels of exercise can help: a 2018 meta-analysis published in BioMed Research International found that participants who engaged in low-to-moderate-intensity exercise for 40 minutes a day had lower LDL levels on average than those who didn’t.
The other way you can help your cholesterol is by quitting smoking. Research suggests smoking reduces the level of HDL in the body, leaving less available to clear out bad cholesterol. And while smoking doesn’t directly increase the amount of LDL in your body, it does make the LDL already there stickier, making it more likely to cling to your arteries and clog them up. This makes it even more difficult for the remaining HDL in your body to do its job.
The bottom line
Most adults in the UK have high cholesterol - and many of those who do, don’t actually realise it. In addition to increasing the risk of heart disease and stroke, high cholesterol in men can also affect their ability to achieve an erection in a number of different ways. But with the right dietary and lifestyle changes, it’s possible for men to get their cholesterol levels under control and eliminate high cholesterol as a risk factor for ED.
Authored by Harry Walker
Patient Care Specialist
After graduating with a degree in Journalism at City, University of London, Harry joined the Pharmica team as a Patient Care Specialist and content writer.
In addition to helping in the dispensary, Harry consults with our in-house pharmacists to produce engaging, informative and expert content for our patients.