Health and sex go together. In fact, loss of sexual desire and function is a sign of physical illness and mental depression. Anyone afflicted with loss of sexual responsiveness should seek a medical evaluation. While illness is not commonly found in cases where loss of libido is the sole presenting complaint, there is an over-all 2 out of 3 probability of a physical cause in formal medical studies of sexual impotency. This increases to 90 percent for those older than age 50.
These numbers reflect improved diagnostic techniques of the past decade, particularly penile tumescence studies and doppler ultrasound examination of circulation. But the facts have not yet caught up with many who still believe that 90 percent of impotency is psychological and if you can't make it in bed you should try the couch instead. Unfortunately, the practical results of psychotherapy for sexual impotence have not been much to brag about. Does nutrition have anything to offer? Should we serve hot foods on the couch?
This is not merely a joke. Vasoactive intestinal peptide, which is stored in the intestinal wall, turns out to be the most likely neurotransmitter of penile erection. If this is substantiated by further research, it may provide the rationale for the sexually stimulating effects of hot foods and irritants, such as cantharides (Spanish fly).
Sexual arousal and intercourse are successful only when the nerves and blood vessels that service the sexual organs are healthy. For example, in diabetes, the excess glucose in the blood stream damages the lining of the blood vessels as well as the nerves that convey signals from the sex organs. As a result, diabetics often lose sexual feeling and all too often become totally unable to respond. Impotence, lack of sexual feeling or weakening of erection or climax, is an early symptom of diabetes. Prevention is the best treatment and this can be as simple as increasing dietary fiber and limiting intake of sugars. Many holistic and orthomolecular physicians have seen mild diabetics, particularly of the adult-onset type II, who have been able to reduce or discontinue the use of insulin when they improved their diet and lifestyle.
Other discoveries hold further promise in diabetes. The bioflavonoid quercitin (not rutin or hesperidin) has demonstrable ability to prevent transformation of the excess blood glucose into glucitol, the form that damages blood vessels. It also has anti-histamine effects that further protect against blood vessel damage. Trace minerals, especially chromium and perhaps vanadium, show promise in lowering blood sugar and thus protecting against sugar damage to small blood vessels and nerves. The use of the accessory nutrient, inositol, which is commonly depleted in diabetes, can also prevent and reverse such nerve damage.
A buildup of fatty deposits in the penile arteries can weaken or defeat penile erection. Fortunately, this condition can be improved surgically but preventive measures should be taken long before impotence occurs. A high fiber, low fat diet is our most widely accepted method of prevention. However higher fat intakes do not necessarily interfere with circulation, particularly in those who assure themselves an adequate supply of omega-3 essential fatty acids from fish or flax oils and extra vitamin E. These interact to enhance circulation by generating prostaglandin hormones that dilate blood vessels, inhibit platelet clumps and soften the red blood cells, which thus pass through the small vessels more easily. The use of gamma linolenic acid from primrose, black currant or borage oil, is also useful, especially in diabetics. It is interesting to find chestnut puree among the traditional aphrodisiacs. It is a rich source of omega 3 fatty acids.
The B vitamin, niacin, also acts to dilate blood vessels, lower blood cholesterol and fats and improve circulation. It has a deserved reputation for improving sexual performance but the dose must be individualized. By reducing histamine it can act as a mild natural relaxant at the same time, thus taking the edge away from premature ejaculations, the bane of many a relationship. Extra magnesium, tryptophan and other amino acids are also useful in this regard.
Other vitamins and mineral nutrients are also important factors in sexual vitality.
Vitamin A is essential to the production of both male and female sex hormones. Without vitamin A, cholesterol cannot be converted to steroid hormones, neither adrenal stress hormones or gonadal sex hormones. Thus, Vitamin A deficiency is tantamount to chemical castration and deficiency is not all that rare. Folklore has it that saltpeter, potassium nitrate, has been used to control sexuality in prisons. If so, it would work by destroying vitamin A. However, this would be at risk of causing severe illness, blindness and even death.
Closer to home, even in our supposedly well-fed country various surveys show up to 20 percent of Americans to be low in vitamin A. One reason for vitamin A deficiency is the fact that consumption of eggs, liver and whole milk products is in decline. Also, most people erroneously believe that vegetables contain sufficient vitamin A. The fact is that vegetables do contain pro-vitamin A, ie. carotene, but many people, particularly those with diabetes, low thyroid or liver trouble, are unable to transform carotene into retinol, the active form of vitamin A in the human body.
Vitamin B6 can affect sexuality in at least two ways: by stimulating the gonadotrophin hormones that evoke sex hormones in both men and women and by decreasing the production of prolactin, a hormone that diminishes the sexual appetite. Deficiency of B6 is fairly common, particularly in women on birth control pills, which increases the requirement, and also in those of us who are exposed to hydrazine type medications, such as anti-depressants. Food preservatives are another drain on B6 since hydrazines are commonly used to keep potatoes from sprouting. Extra amounts of B6 are also indicated for those who drink alcoholic beverages regularly and those with liver ailments. Liver, salmon, walnuts, wheat germ, brown rice and yeast are high in B6 but cannot attain the 50 mg dose necessary to test these effects. Also, it may take over a month for the hormonal effects to build up.
Folic acid is often deficient in this land of abundant but cooked and processed foods. Mood depression is an early sign of folate deficiency, not only because of the vital role for this vitamin in the chemistry of nerve transmitters but also in the production of sex hormones. Folic acid is particularly important in women of child-bearing age because deficiency is a proven frequent cause of birth defects. Loss of libido is an early warning sign and though this vitamin is abundant in liver, legumes, asparagus and green-leafy vegetables, it is also easily destroyed by cooking and food processing. Therefore I recommend that everyone take a vitamin supplement with at least 400 mcg of folic acid. Even if you are not concerned about libido, the general health benefits are worth it.
Vitamin E is also known by the chemical name, tocopherol, derived from the Greek word for fertility. It was recognized over 50 years ago that when this vitamin was removed from the diet, no offspring were born. This turns out to be very important in breeding race-horses and zoo animals. Controversy continues to rage, nevertheless, about the reports of increased sex drive from this vitamin, and these anecdotal reports have not been taken seriously in the medical journals despite the fact that the vitamin is also known to increase the pituitary gonadotropin hormones, which turn on the sex glands. Vitamin E also protects the sex hormones and the cell membranes of the gonads from damage by peroxidation. Luckily, most of us are willing to try safe remedies on the basis of testimonials, even without permission from the medical profession, or the world might be a less happy place. Beans, nuts, seeds and vegetable oils are sources of this important antioxidant nutrient. Perhaps we should think of them as "happy foods." However, for test purposes, capsules containing at least 100 international units of d-alpha tocopherol acetate or succinate are more reliable than food sources. Give it a month or two before you make up your mind about the results.
Manganese. This mineral has well documented aphrodisiac effects, first observed on a large scale amongst manganese miners in Chile. Unfortunately, the miners, who inhaled the ore dust in the course of their work were pleased by their enhanced sexual powers and kept on mining. Ultimately the toxic overload of manganese caused damage to nerve cells, rendering some of the men impotent and suffering with permanent nerve damage and parkinsonism. Nevertheless, taking manganese supplements by mouth is not dangerous and the likelihood of improved libido and sexual performance is so high that manganese is worth a try in all who feel that they need a "lift."
Zinc, especially rich in meat, dairy products and shellfish is better known than manganese but not more potent. It is catalytic in the body chemistry of the sex hormones, particularly testosterone, which stimulates sex drive and is present naturally in both men and women. Even vitamin C is essential for lifelong sexuality. Sound far-fetched? Then you need to know that vitamin C is good for more than the common cold. It is absolutely essential to the production of hormones, both the adrenal stress hormones and the gonadal sex hormone, rather much like vitamin A. One thing all of the above nutrients have in common is that they are subject to depletion by personal stress, poor diet, over-cooking, food preservatives and environmental pollutants. Clever use of supplements, preferably with the guidance of a nutrition-oriented physician, who can use laboratory assistance to diagnose specific nutrient imbalances and deficiencies, is the modern way to assure that you achieve the best possible health. Remember, low energy, low mood and low libido are early signs of nutrient shortages.
Two newly appreciated trace minerals may also contribute to sexual vitality, especially in our later years. Molybdenum, present in beans and mushrooms, is required for full activity of vitamin A in the tissues and cells of the body and for activation of the sex hormones. Boron, also concentrated in beans but also in other vegetables and fruits, is associated with deficiency of vitamin A.
Those of you who read this column and improve your health habits by "Putting Nutrition First" are likely to live longer and better and to experience healthy aging. So it is a comfort to know that old does not mean cold and aging does not rule out an active sex life. Both men and women can continue to be, if not sexual sprinters, at least sexual joggers well into your nineties. Loss of sex drive is a great disappointment and a let-down at any time in life; it is also an early warning sign to tend to your nutrient intake.
©2010 Richard A. Kunin, M.D.