Erections and blood flow: It’s a beautiful friendship until one decides to let the other one down.
People all over the world are dealing with a lack of blood flow to the penis. Erectile dysfunction affects an estimated 3 million Canadians over the age of 40, but it can happen at any age.
While there are many reasons why someone might find it hard to get hard, the underlying mechanism is all about how much blood can get to the penis and stay there once it arrives.
So how do you improve blood flow to your penis for better erections? That’s what we’ll talk about here, including lifestyle choices you can make and medications you can take to increase blood flow to your penis.
Ever wonder what’s actually happening in your body when you get an erection?
Erections are triggered by sensory or mental stimulation, but they wouldn’t exist without physical processes. When you’re stimulated by something that turns you on, nerve messages are sent from your brain to your penis.
The corpora cavernosa, two chambers that run the length of your penis, contain a bunch of blood vessels that act like a sponge. When you’re stimulated, a compound called nitric oxide relaxes your penile smooth muscles, and blood starts to fill the sponge. This causes the penis to get bigger and voilà—you have an erection.
For your erection to stay hard, something else happens: The tunica albuginea, a membrane that hugs the corpora cavernosa, traps the blood inside the sponge. It’s only when the muscles in the penis contract that the blood is released and the erection goes away.
Erections happen when nitric oxide is released from penile nerve endings and endothelium during sexual stimulation. Nitric oxide stimulates the production of cyclic GMP, which leads to relaxation of the penile smooth muscle tissue. This allows for increased blood flow to the penis.
The loss of an erection happens when nitric oxide stops being released, cGMP is broken down by an enzyme called phosphodiesterase, and/or ejaculation occurs.
PDE5 inhibitors, like Viagra, work by slowing the breakdown of cGMP by PDE, which helps maintain an erection by keeping the smooth muscle in a relaxed state. That's why you need to have sexual stimulation for Viagra to do its job.
Before we talk about your lifestyle choices, we have to make one thing clear: No one food or exercise regime can direct blood to your penis.
Just as you can’t spot-reduce fat from your body when you exercise, you can’t eat any one food to direct blood to your penis. But you can make some key lifestyle choices to improve overall blood flow and cardiovascular health, which may lead to better erections over a long period of time.
While it’s difficult to pin down causation with any nutritional study, there are some correlations between certain foods and cardiovascular health, which is a necessary component of a healthy erection.
But please note — the following foods aren’t associated with better erections. They stop at indicating a possible correlation between certain foods and better cardiovascular health, which may or may not translate to a better erection. Data is limited, and many more studies are needed in this area.
The main thing to remember is this: a well-balanced diet full of protein, vegetables, healthy fats, and whole foods is best for overall sexual health.
Here’s what you can eat over the long term to (most likely) promote blood flow:
1. Flavonoids found in cacao and tea
Dark chocolate (70% cacao or above) and tea contain flavonoids, including catechin, epicatechin, and procyanidins that promote antioxidant activity in the body. When eaten in moderation, “antioxidant effects of flavonoid-rich foods may reduce cardiovascular disease risk.” But that doesn’t necessarily mean a better erection—rather it means you’re perhaps eating something that can contribute to preventing cardiovascular disease later, which would affect your erections in a negative way.
2. Capsaicinoids in red hot peppers
While more studies are needed, the capsaicin found in hot peppers — which is what makes them spicy — may be linked to better vascular health, but evidence is limited. But there isn’t any harm in eating spicy food, so don’t be afraid to challenge your spice tolerance for the sake of a better erection!
In a 2017 study, curcumin, a compound found in turmeric, was found to increase blood flow for 39 healthy men and postmenopausal women between the ages of 45–74.
The best way to improve overall cardiovascular health is to increase your heart rate from time to time.
There is no one exercise regime that can give you a better erection. The best exercise routine is the one you’ll stick with for a long time, so choose something you can do safely and enjoy.
In this 2018 scientific review comparing the efficacy of antihypertensive medications versus exercise treatment for lowering blood pressure, there was no difference between people who did endurance training versus resistance training.
So more than anything, you just need to elevate your heart rate consistently to improve and maintain cardiovascular health.
You might know the drill already: A healthy lifestyle overall can promote increased blood flow, which then promotes better erections. In addition to diet and exercise, there are some basic things you should be doing — or avoiding — to make sure you’re healthy.
We know that a few things happen when your body is stressed, and an erection isn’t one of them.
Stress hormones like cortisol activate the sympathetic nervous system, which is your fight-or-flight response. When stress is chronic, the last thing your body wants to do is send blood to your penis, because you might need that blood to run away from a predator (thank evolution for that flight or fight response).
And we get it — life in the 2020s has been stressful to the max. But that’s all the more reason to develop coping mechanisms that can help you keep your head above water. Consider the following:
Alcohol and erections are not friends. A 2007 study in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry found that 72% of men who experience alcohol dependence also deal with sexual dysfunction. Even a few drinks can kill an erection, so keep the drinking to a minimum even if you don’t consider yourself dependent on it.
Nicotine causes your blood vessels to narrow, which can inhibit blood flow to your penis. One study published in Prostate International showed a link between erectile dysfunction and atherosclerosis, which is a buildup of plaque in your arteries caused by smoking. (Atherosclerosis is not only caused by smoking, but smoking is a risk factor.)
If lifestyle changes just aren’t cutting it, you can try a few medications to significantly improve your chances of getting and maintaining an erection. And know that if you do decide to try medication, it’s not because you’re “weak” or inadequate — it’s because you’re human and you want a fulfilling sex life! Here are some options:
Viagra, or sildenafil, was developed in 1998 as the first oral pill to treat erectile dysfunction. For most people, Viagra starts working within 30–60 minutes and lasts for about four hours. You’ll need a prescription from to try Viagra.
Cialis, or tadalafil, was first approved in 2003 as the first and only ED medication proven to last for up to 36 hours. Compared to Viagra, Cialis works similarly but is slower acting due to a longer lifecycle — that’s why it’s been nicknamed the “weekend pill”.
But still, Cialis starts to work within about 30 minutes for most people, even though it can take two hours to become fully effective. You’ll also need a prescription from a doctor to try Cialis.
Levitra, or vardenafil, is basically the same as Viagra. Some people prefer one over the other because of individual differences in effectiveness and side effects.
The side effects of different ED medications are almost identical because they all work basically the same.
Approximately 15% of people experience side effects of ED medication. Common side effects are:
Less common side effects are:
You should stop using ED medication and seek immediate medical attention if you experience any of these symptoms:
While blood pressure medications like alpha blockers and antihypertensives don’t interact badly with ED medication, people who take both do need to be monitored. Nitrates, on the other hand, absolutely cannot be taken with ED meds under any circumstances.
Antibiotics, antifungals, and HIV protease inhibitor drugs also don’t interact well with ED medication. All of these drugs are processed in the liver and they can increase the level of ED meds in your body, which may increase your chances of seeing side effects.
Anticonvulsants like phenytoin or carbamazepine, or an antibiotic called rifampin, can decrease the effectiveness of ED medication.
And here’s a weird one: Grapefruit juice can increase your chances of experiencing side effects, too. So stay away from that and alcohol — your erection will thank you.
Whether you decide to try ED medications or not, taking steps to improve overall cardiovascular health and blood flow is always a great lifestyle choice. Start an online assessment today and find out what’s right for you.
The Felix Health Guide is educational content providing clinically-accurate, balanced information on different ailments and treatments. Some ailments, medications, and treatments mentioned in the content may not be offered by Felix.
The views expressed are those of the author and are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare practitioner.