Alcohol and Erectile Dysfunction: What’s the Link?

Erectile dysfunction (ED) is an inability to get or maintain an erection firm enough for sexual activity.

The process of getting an erection is complex and involves your:

  • brain
  • hormones
  • blood vessels
  • nerves

Consuming alcohol can affect all of these parts of your body and can contribute to the development of ED.

Consuming a large amount of alcohol in a short period of time, such as a single evening, can cause changes that make it more difficult to get an erection. These changes can occur in your:

  • nervous system
  • hormone levels
  • circulation

Chronic (long-term) overconsumption of alcohol can cause permanent damage to your blood vessels and nerves.

Read on as we take a deeper look at how alcohol contributes to ED.

Getting an erection is a complex process, and ED can occur if there’s a problem during any step.

Sexual thoughts or stimulation of the penis activate the parasympathetic nervous system and the release of neurotransmitters from nerves in the penis. These neurotransmitters relax the muscles in the arteries of the penis, which increases blood flow by 20 to 40 times.

Short-term causes of ED

A temporary inability to get an erection can happen after consuming any type of alcohol.

According to a 2018 study, short-term consumption of alcohol depresses your central nervous system and slows down the transmission of information between your brain and penis. This can lead to decreased sensitivity of the penis.

Alcohol is a diuretic, meaning it’s dehydrating and increases urination. Dehydration can lead to increased levels of the hormone angiotensin, which narrows blood vessels. Angiotensin can limit blood flow to the penis.

According to older 1998 research and more recent animal studies, alcohol can also lead to a drop in circulating levels of testosterone. Testosterone deficiency limits nitric oxide production, which is the key molecule that relaxes the blood vessels in your penis.

Chronic effects of alcohol

Chronically consuming large amounts of alcohol can damage your nerves, raise your risk of cardiovascular disease, and damage blood vessels, all of which can impact your ability to get an erection.

A 2021 review of studies found a significant relationship between regular alcohol consumption and ED.

Nervous system dysfunction

According to a 2020 review, anywhere from 16 to 73 percent of chronic heavy alcohol users experience dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system. The most common symptom is ED. Your autonomic nervous system largely controls functions that are unconscious.

Cardiovascular disease and blood vessel damage

It’s well established that ED is closely related to cardiovascular disease.

According to a 2018 reviewlight to moderate drinking is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, while heavy consumption is associated with increased cardiovascular mortality.

A 2018 study found that heavy alcohol consumption increases your risk of developing high blood pressure. High blood pressure is a risk factor for sexual dysfunction.

Results from human and animal studies suggest that binge drinking is associated with blood vessel damage.

Alcohol withdrawal syndrome develops when a person who drinks heavily suddenly stops drinking. It’s been linked to cardiovascular symptoms such as high blood pressure that could potentially interfere with the ability to get an erection.

Other common withdrawal symptoms include:

Symptoms usually start 6 to 12 hours after your last drink and are usually most severe after 48 to 72 hours.

Although reducing your alcohol intake may cause short-term symptoms that contribute to ED, it will likely improve your sexual health in the long run.

In a 2022 study of 104 people with alcohol use disorder and ED, 88.5 percent showed improvements in ED after 3 months of not consuming alcohol.

Alcohol can affect sexual function in people of all genders in a variety of ways.

A 2021 study in India included 100 participants who were categorized as males with alcohol dependence syndrome. The researchers found that 48 participants had sexual dysfunction. Of those 48:

  • 87.5 percent reported lower sex drive
  • 79.1 percent had dysfunction of sexual arousal
  • 58 percent had ED
  • 54 percent reported difficulty reaching orgasm

Alcohol consumption may also:

  • delay ejaculation
  • increase sex drive with moderate amounts of alcohol, but lower sex drive with high amounts of alcohol

In people assigned female at birth, alcohol may:

Experiencing ED occasionally is normal and no reason for concern. It can occur if you’ve been drinking or feeling stressed or anxious.

However, it’s a good idea to see a doctor if it becomes a regular problem. Sometimes ED can be a sign of an underlying health condition like high blood pressure.

It’s also a good idea to see a doctor if you think you may have a problem with alcohol. Signs of alcohol use disorder include:

  • drinking alone and in secrecy
  • losing interest in activities other than drinking
  • craving alcohol
  • experiencing withdrawal symptoms
  • making drinking a priority over other responsibilities
  • drinking in the morning
  • inability to control the amount of alcohol you consume
  • alcohol contributing to financial or family problems

Consuming alcohol can contribute to the development of ED by:

  • slowing down your central nervous system
  • causing dehydration
  • lowering your testosterone levels

Long-term consumption of alcohol can lead to damage to your blood vessels and nerves.

It’s normal to experience ED every now and then, especially when you’re drinking.

If you regularly have trouble maintaining an erection when you’re sober or after only drinking small amounts of alcohol, it’s a good idea to visit a doctor to rule out an underlying health condition.

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