Sex: Can Nutrition Help?


Martin Hum, DHD Nutritional Therapist and health journalist

Year of publication: 

Sexual activity is a complex interaction of mental, emotional and physical factors and, like any other body process, it is influenced by what we eat. Foods can affect the brain (often called our most important sex organ), the nervous system and the production of sex hormones, as well as the physical factors necessary for a man to achieve and maintain an erection.

Men who are overweight or who have diabetes are more likely to have erection problems, so keeping blood sugar stable and taking steps to avoid insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome through diet will help to reduce this risk. In addition, arterial plaque associated with high LDL cholesterol can obstruct penile blood flow and cause erectile dysfunction, so eating for cardiovascular health also helps sexual health. However, we need cholesterol to make sex hormones and low sex drive can be a side-effect of statin drugs prescribed to reduce cholesterol. New research suggests that reducing homocysteine levels through vitamin B6 and folate supplementation could also help overcome erectile dysfunction (1)

 A diet that supports general good health will do a lot to ensure healthy sexual function, but some specific nutrients are particularly important. In addition, a large number of herbs are traditionally used to improve libido and some of these have good clinical evidence of effectiveness (see box below).

Vitamin A is essential for testosterone production. Its deficiency can cause delayed puberty in boys, which is effectively remedied by vitamin A supplementation (2).

A vitamin E deficiency caused rats’ testes to atrophy in a 1967 study (3), giving this nutrient a reputation as “the sex vitamin”. Since then, research has shown that vitamin E protects sex hormones from degradation by free radicals and is necessary for the healthy production of sperm and for good sperm motility.

Zinc, magnesium and selenium are important minerals for sexual function. In a recent study, zinc supplementation increased sexual activity in male rats (4), while a 1984 clinical trial found that it reversed sexual dysfunction in men undergoing renal dialysis (5). Low magnesium levels could account for problems with premature ejaculation, according to one study (6), due to vasoconstriction in the penis. Selenium supplementation has been found to increase testosterone levels and improve sperm count and sperm motility (7).

The amino acid arginine is needed for the body to produce nitric acid, which acts as a neurotransmitter and plays a crucial role in initiating and maintaining an erection. In a clinical trial involving 50 men with erection problems, a combination of l-arginine aspartate and pycnogenol restored erectile function to normal and reduced blood pressure and cholesterol levels (8). The bottom line is that a nutrient-rich, wholefood diet, combined with nutritional supplements when necessary, will do as much to ensure a good sex life as it will to support other aspects of men’s health. 

MEN'S HEALTH, sex hormones, arginine
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