Healthy blood flow is critical for strong erections. Here’s what causes reduced blood flow to the penis and what you can do about it.
Last Updated: 12/13/2022
Reduced blood flow to the penis is the most common cause of erectile dysfunction (ED), the inability to achieve or maintain an erection during sexual activity. According to the Cleveland Clinic, vascular conditions that cause poor blood flow to the penis account for 70% of physical-related causes of erectile dysfunction.
Therefore, if you want stronger erections and a satisfying sex life, it’s to your advantage to boost the flow of blood to the penis. What’s the best way for men to increase penile blood flow and what causes reduced blood circulation in the first place? Read on to find the answers.
During sexual stimulation, in order for a man to have an erection, nerve signals trigger the production of a chemical called nitric oxide, which causes blood to pour into the corpora cavernosa, sponge-like tissue on the shaft of the penis. The blood is then trapped under high pressure, which causes an erection.
A number of risk factors can get in the way of healthy blood flow to the penis and sexual performance. Many – but not all – of these blood-flow-blocking factors involve an underlying medical condition that affects blood circulation and cardiovascular health. Other factors are related to lifestyle or aging. Here are the main reasons for poor blood flow:
Obesity is also associated with many of the vascular diseases that cause reduced blood flow such as metabolic syndrome, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.
For all these reasons, being overweight or obese is a risk factor for erectile dysfunction. Being overweight or obese may increase the risk of erectile dysfunction by 30% to 90% compared to normal weight men.
Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of risk factors for heart disease, including high blood sugar, weight gain in the abdominal area, and high blood pressure. Metabolic syndrome affects the flow of blood in both the larger and smaller blood vessels.
Research shows that erectile dysfunction is more common in men with metabolic syndrome compared with healthier control subjects. Men who have both metabolic syndrome and erectile dysfunction are at higher risk of cardiovascular disease problems compared with men who have metabolic syndrome alone.
The high blood sugar that accompanies diabetes can cause fatty deposits to build up in blood vessels, which causes them to constrict. When blood vessels constrict, this affects blood flow to many areas of the body including the penis.
Type 1 and type 2 diabetes are often associated with erectile dysfunction. It’s estimated that 35% to 75% of diabetics have erectile dysfunction and the onset of erectile dysfunction happens 10 to 15 years earlier in men with diabetes compared with non-diabetic men.
Plaque can form in coronary arteries, affecting the delivery of blood to the heart. This same problem occurs in other vessels throughout the body, including those leading to the penis. According to the Cleveland Clinic, having erectile dysfunction increases the risk of heart disease to the same extent as a history of smoking or a family history of coronary artery disease.
The reason why erectile dysfunction may precede cardiovascular disease has to do with the lining of the blood vessels called the endothelium. When the lining becomes damaged – a problem known as endothelial dysfunction – not enough blood can flow through the vessels leading to the heart and penis. This can make erections difficult to achieve or maintain.
High blood pressure can damage the inner lining of blood vessels. Fats in the bloodstream build up on damaged areas of the vessels, making them less elastic and reducing blood flow throughout the body.
The link between high blood pressure and reduced blood circulation likely explains why having high blood pressure increases the risk of developing erectile dysfunction. There are also some blood pressure medications, including beta blockers, that increase the risk of erectile dysfunction.
Men who have high cholesterol develop fatty deposits in their blood vessels. As more and more of these deposits build up on the vessels, it becomes more difficult for blood to flow through. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol is generally considered the “bad” cholesterol that is involved in heart disease.
By seeking professional medical advice, you can get tested to determine your cholesterol levels and find out if you need treatment. However, it’s also a good idea not to reduce cholesterol levels too low. Both high and low cholesterol are associated with a higher risk of erectile dysfunction since levels of LDL cholesterol that are too low are linked to low levels of testosterone, a hormone that plays a role in sexual performance.
Stress is one of the mental factors linked to erectile dysfunction, in part because it constricts vessels. Chronic stress causes high levels of the hormone cortisol, which increases cholesterol, blood sugar, and blood pressure – all factors related to reduced blood flow and erectile dysfunction. Even minor stress can result in not enough blood getting to the heart and other areas of the body, including the penis.
Growing older is itself linked to reduced blood flow and increased erectile dysfunction. Aging is associated with changes to both the blood itself and vessels. For example, levels of nitric oxide, which stimulates the flow of blood and erections, are reduced during aging. These changes lead to not enough blood getting to the penis and throughout the body.
Improving the flow of blood to the penis is one of the best strategies for enhancing erectile function. To that end, adopting a healthier lifestyle is a good place to start. Here are 9 ways to improve blood flow to the penis:
Eating a healthy diet can lead to better blood flow and improve erectile function. Dark chocolate can boost circulation and get blood flowing through the vessels that lead to the penis. Dark green leafy vegetables increase levels of nitrate, which is converted to nitric oxide in the body, a chemical linked to blood flow.
In addition to dark chocolate and vegetables, other foods that improve the flow of blood to the penis include:
Salmon and other fish that contain omega-3 fatty acids
Red hot peppers
Some substances found in foods may have the opposite effect – they decrease the blood supply to the penis and throughout the body. These include:
Salt – Everyone needs a certain amount of sodium to survive. But when you eat too much salt the sodium can build up in the bloodstream, leading to blood pressure spikes, particularly in people with high blood pressure. This can damage blood vessels throughout the body, including those supplying blood to the penis. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day.
Sugar and Unhealthy Fats – Eating a lot of sucrose (table sugar) and unhealthy fats can affect blood flow and heart health in general. Animals fed a high-fat, high-sugar diet develop erectile dysfunction, especially if they’re mostly sedentary, and later go on to develop cardiovascular problems. Drinking a lot of sugar-sweetened beverages also increases the risk of metabolic syndrome and diabetes, two conditions linked to reduced blood flow and an increased risk of erectile dysfunction.
A Mediterranean diet – which includes fish, vegetables, fruit, olive oil, nuts and seeds, and whole grains, and limited amounts of red meat – is a good choice, since it has many health benefits, including improving erectile dysfunction.
To improve blood flow, drinking enough water and other liquids is as important as eating the right foods. Blood is mostly liquid, so being dehydrated leads to a lower blood volume. On the other hand, staying well-hydrated increases blood volume, which leads to increased blood supply to bodily tissues including those of the penis.
It’s important not to drink too much water since overhydration is also linked to sexual dysfunction.
According to the Mayo Clinic, men living in a temperate climate should aim for 15.5 cups of fluid per day while women should get 11.5 cups, which includes the amount obtained from food (about 20% of daily fluid intake).
Maintaining a healthy weight improves blood flow and reduces the risk of diseases linked to erectile dysfunction such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Obesity is linked to erectile dysfunction in part through its ability to damage the lining of blood vessels and also because obesity is associated with low levels of testosterone, a hormone involved in sexual performance.
Blood flow is reduced in people who are obese due to increased atherosclerosis and problems with the smaller blood vessels in the body.
One of the best ways to maintain a healthy weight is to exercise regularly. Exercising will also reduce many of the risk factors of erectile dysfunction such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Regular exercise – at least three times per week – can increase blood flow. Moderate to vigorous exercise also improves erectile dysfunction.
Men who want to increase blood flow can consider reducing their intake of alcohol or stop drinking altogether. Although drinking a moderate amount of alcohol can support heart health and healthy cholesterol levels, drinking a lot of it can have the opposite effect, constricting most blood vessels.
Mental stress can reduce blood flow and interfere with male sexual performance. Stress reduction strategies like exercise, meditation, deep breathing, and yoga may increase blood flow and improve male sexual health.
If lifestyle changes don’t work, doctors often treat erectile dysfunction with ED medications such as sildenafil, tadalafil, avanafil, and vardenafil. These drugs can help keep and maintain erections by temporarily increasing blood flow to the penis.
ED medications treat erectile dysfunction by blocking the action of phosphodiesterase 5 (PDE5), an enzyme that reduces the flow of blood. By blocking PDE5, ED medications work by improving blood flow to the erectile tissue of the penis.
To improve blood flow to the penis, urologists also frequently use a type of therapy known as low-intensity extracorporeal shock wave therapy, or Li-ESWT for short. It’s also known as acoustic soundwave therapy. This type of therapy works in two ways:
Safely dissolves plaque in existing vessels to promote improved blood flow.
Encourages the growth of new blood vessels to maximize blood flow.
The urologist uses a medical device to deliver shockwaves (powerful soundwaves) to improve blood flow to the penis. This type of safe and effective therapy has been used for over a decade in doctors’ offices and a lot of research and peer reviewed studies support its use.
These can indirectly improve blood flow to the penis by strengthening the muscles of the pelvic floor. These muscles are important for blood flow and a healthy sex life. Pelvic floor exercises can improve blood circulation in the genital area.
If you’re wondering how to have stronger erections, the health of your circulatory system may not be the first thing that comes to mind. Yet, using any of the strategies mentioned in this article can make a real difference in resolving male sexual dysfunction and improving your sex life.
Increased blood flow is important for a better sex life. If not enough blood is flowing to the penis, erectile dysfunction can develop. That’s why men who have ED may wonder what they can do to boost blood flow to their penis.
Erectile function is linked to cardiovascular health, so if you suspect that not enough blood is getting to your penis a check up by a medical professional is in order. Meanwhile, here are some reasons why you should care about healthy blood flow.
Poor circulation is at the top of the list of reasons why men develop erectile dysfunction. According to the Cleveland Clinic, vascular diseases that restrict blood flow to the cardiovascular system and to sexual organs account for 70% of physical causes of ED.
These vascular diseases include high blood pressure, atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), and high cholesterol. In men older than 60, atherosclerosis is to blame for 50% to 60% of erectile dysfunction cases.
Blood flow is one of the key players in normal sexual function. During sexual arousal, the brain and nerves send messages to the muscles of the corpora cavernosa, sponge-like tissue on the shaft of the penis. This causes the muscles to relax, which stimulates blood flow into the corpora cavernosa. The blood is then trapped under high pressure, which causes an erection.
Talk to your doctor about the best ways to improve blood flow. They can determine if you have a vascular disorder such as cardiovascular disease or diabetes that interferes with blood flow. Whether those causes are ruled out or deemed the main reason for your ED, certain lifestyle changes can help improve the flow of blood. These include:
Eating a healthy diet high in vegetables, fruit, fish, nuts and seeds and low in red meat, sugar, and unhealthy fats.
Maintaining a healthy weight
Drinking enough fluids
Giving up smoking
Reducing or eliminating alcohol intake
These lifestyle changes alone may restore normal sexual function and lead to improvement in general health.