Erectile dysfunction is a major cause of decreased quality of life in men—so much so that one early theory suggested that this may explain the link between impotence and heart attacks. Depression is a risk factor for coronary heart disease, and the thought was that men who couldn’t get it up become so depressed that they die of a broken heart.
Now we know that erectile dysfunction and heart disease can be two different manifestations of the exact same root problem, diseased arteries—inflamed, oxidized, cholesterol-clogged blood vessels (See Survival of the Firmest: Erectile Dysfunction and Death). So it’s no wonder that a diet chock-full of anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, cholesterol-lowering plant foods would improve sexual functioning in both men and women, as well as reduce the risk of heart disease (See 50 Shades of Green). A completely plant-based diet can even stop and reverse our number one killer (See One in a Thousand: Ending the Heart Disease Epidemic).
Of all the plant foods individually examined so far, nuts appear most tied to longevity. Just two handfuls a week may extend a woman’s life as much as jogging four hours a week (see What Women Should Eat to Live Longer). So, if nuts reduce the risk of heart disease, might they also help with sexual dysfunction?
In my video, Pistachio Nuts for Erectlie Dysfuntion I outline a study where men eating three to four handfuls of pistachios a day for just three weeks experienced both significant improvement in blood flow through the penis and significantly firmer erections. This is not surprising. Antioxidant-rich foods have a Viagra-like effect of boosting nitric oxide production. (See The Power of NO). Also, the citruline in watermelons helped with erection firmness by boosting arginine, (See Watermelon as Treatment for Erectile Dysfunction), which is what our body makes nitric oxide out of.Pistachios have a bunch of both antioxidants and arginine, which may help explain the improvement in blood flow.
We also know that cholesterol is an important predictor of sexual dysfunction in both men and women (See Cholesterol and Female Sexual Dysfunction), and after just three weeks, those eating pistachios had significant improvements in cholesterol. And like other studies that piled on hundreds of calories of nuts a day, there was no weight gain. (For more on this remarkable effect, see my videos Nuts and Obesity: The Weight of Evidence, Solving the Mystery of the Missing Calories, and Testing the Pistachio Principle). Conclusion: “Just three weeks of pistachios resulted in a significant improvement in erectile function with additional improvement in cholesterol without any side effects.”
Note the two important differences between diet and drugs. Drugs like Viagra just cover up the symptoms of the underlying problem–unhealthy arteries. Eating whole healthy plant foods like nuts actually helps attack the root cause—cholesterol, oxidation, and inflammation—and has only good side effects.
The enzyme that Viagra-like drugs inhibit is found primarily in two places in the body: the erectile tissue of the penis and the retina of the eye. That’s why the FDA encourages people to stop taking drugs like Viagra, and “call a doctor right away if you experience sudden loss of vision.” (Assuming you can still find your phone.)
Though the harms (such as cyanopsia in which everything in our vision suddenly becomes tinted blue) tend to be self-limited and reversible, why risk side-effects at all when the problem can be reversed and cured in the first place, improving the quality and quantity of our lives?
I discuss the epidemic of adverse prescription drug side-effects in my 2012-13 annual review Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death and my new 2013-14 live presentation More Than an Apple a Day: Combating Common Diseases.
In addition to improving penile blood flow, nuts may also help prevent breast cancer (Tree Nuts or Peanuts for Breast Cancer Prevention?), inflammatory diseases (Fighting Inflammation in a Nut Shell), sudden death (How Do Nuts Prevent Sudden Cardiac Death?), and lengthen one’s lifespan (Nuts May Help Prevent Death).
-Michael Greger, M.D.
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Motivating patients to change poor lifestyle habits can be extremely difficult. Preventing cardiovascular events such as heart attacks or strokes is a relatively distant benefit, whereas barbecued ribs, cheesecake, or sitting on our butts promises almost instant gratification. Public health experts are now hoping that prevention or improvement of erectile dysfunction could be a more immediate motivator that physicians can use to improve their patients’ lifestyles and in turn their overall cardiovascular health. That’s how doctors can save a life during a clinic visit for erectile dysfunction. (See Survival of the Firmest: Erectile Dysfunction and Death).
We used to think of erectile dysfunction in young men in their 20s and 30s as psychogenic in origin, meaning it’s all in their heads. But now we’re realizing it’s more likely an early sign of vascular disease. But even when the penis heads in the wrong direction, the heart need not follow. Atherosclerosis in both organs can be reversed with lifestyle changes. We know that “a substantial body of knowledge demonstrates that the abundant consumption of vegetables, fruit, and whole grain, and the dietary patterns rich in these foods, convey a markedly lower risk of coronary disease.” In a study profiled in my video, 50 Shades of Green, a group of researchers tried putting impotent men on a Mediterranean diet, which includes an abundance of plant-based foods. After two years on the Mediterranean diet, 37% of the men regained normal sexual function. What is it about the diet that appeared to do it? Improvements in erectile function were tied to five things: increased intake of fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans and essentially the ratio of plant fats to animal fats.
Similar benefits were found for women. The same kind of diet significantly improved sexual function, together with a significant reduction of systemic inflammation. As a whole, these findings “suggest that a Mediterranean-style diet may be a safe strategy for amelioration of sexual function” in women with pre-diabetes or diabetes, who found significant improvement in sexual satisfaction on the healthier diet. For more on preventing sexual dysfunction in women in the first place, see Cholesterol and Female Sexual Dysfunction. The improvement in sexual functioning is thought to be because of the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits of plant-based diet.
Check out my related video: Pistachio Nuts for Erectile Dysfunction.
Other benefits of increased fiber intake may include improved bowel function (Bristol Stool Scale) and frequency (Prunes vs. Metamucil vs. Vegan Diet), lower colorectal cancer risk (Stool Size Matters), lower breast cancer risk (Relieving Yourself of Excess Estrogen and Fiber vs. Breast Cancer), lower blood pressure (Whole Grains May Work as Well as Drugs), lower blood cholesterol (How Fiber Lowers Cholesterol), weight loss (Beans and the Second Meal Effect) and a longer lifespan (What Women Should Eat to Live Longer).
A similar Mediterranean diet failed to help fibromyalgia in the short term (see Fibromyalgia vs. Mostly Raw & Mostly Vegetarian Diets), but diets that were even more plant-based were found to be beneficial: Fibromyalgia vs. Vegetarian & Raw Vegan Diets.
-Michael Greger, M.D.