Search For a Provider Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube ES Contact Us

Sex Health Blog

Diabetes, Neuropathy, and Sexual Health

Mar 12, 2013

When it comes to sexual health, diabetes is a force to contend with.

Diabetes is a metabolic disorder. Normally, when a body digests food, chemicals break the food down into sugars and acids. The pancreas makes a hormone called insulin that helps the body use sugar for energy. However, in people with diabetes, the body either doesn’t make enough insulin or doesn’t use it effectively. As a result, there is too much sugar in the blood, increasing the risk for a variety of health problems.

It’s estimated that more than half of men with diabetes will develop erectile dysfunction (ED), the inability to have an erection that’s firm enough for sexual intercourse. What’s more, diabetic men tend to develop ED about ten to fifteen years earlier than men who aren’t diabetic. And ED may be more severe for men with diabetes.

Diabetic women have their fair share of sexual issues, too. Diabetes can lead to poor vaginal lubrication, which can make sex uncomfortable or painful. Women with diabetes may have trouble with desire and arousal. They’re also more prone to yeast infections.

How does diabetes cause these issues? Neuropathy is one way. Today we’ll take a look at this nerve disease and how diabetics can delay or even prevent it.

What is Neuropathy?

Neuropathy is nerve damage. According to the American Diabetes Association, about half of diabetics have neuropathy. It’s more common in older people and those who have had diabetes for a long time. But younger people can get neuropathy, too, especially if they don’t keep their blood sugar under control.

Nerve damage from diabetes can happen anywhere in your body: legs, stomach, and eyes, for example. But it can also happen in your genitals.

Neuropathy and Sex Organs

The type of neuropathy that affects sex organs is called autonomic neuropathy. This means the nerve damage occurs in autonomic nerves – the ones involved with processes you don’t control consciously, like your heartbeat or your digestive system. (You don’t “tell” your digestive system to digest food; it just happens.)

Similarly, when people are sexually stimulated, signals pass through a system of nerves to the brain. Those signals start the process of getting the body ready for sex.

In men, they “tell” the penile muscles to relax and the blood vessels to expand, allowing more blood to flow into the penis to form an erection. In women, the signals “tell” the vagina to start lubricating as blood flows to the genitals.

But in a person with neuropathy, these signals are not transmitted properly – or at all. For example, some of a man’s blood vessels may expand but some may not. In this case, there might not be enough blood flowing in to form a good erection. Or, the blood vessels may not get the message at all and no blood flows in.

Scientists aren’t sure what causes neuropathy, but some think that abnormal proteins resulting from high blood sugar damage the nerves. Another theory is that sugar in the blood tampers with the signaling process. Sugar may also damage the walls of blood vessels that bring nourishment to the nerves.

Healthy Nerves

Healthy nerves are essential for good sexual function. So how can diabetics prevent or delay neuropathy or relieve some of its symptoms?

The most important way is to control blood sugar. Be very careful of your diet and take all medications exactly as prescribed. If you have any questions about managing your diabetes, be sure to ask your doctor.

Exercise can help, but some types of exercise aren’t recommended for people with neuropathy. Check with your doctor before starting any exercise program.

Remember, too, that controlling your diabetes isn’t just good for the nerves involved with sexual function. Neuropathy can happen anywhere, so blood sugar control benefits your whole nervous system – and your whole body.

Resources

American Diabetes Association

“Autonomic Neuropathy”

http://www.diabetes.org/living-with-diabetes/complications/neuropathy/autonomic-neuropathy.html

“Neuropathy (Nerve Damage)”

http://www.diabetes.org/living-with-diabetes/complications/neuropathy/

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

“Diabetes”

http://www.cdc.gov/media/presskits/aahd/diabetes.pdf

Diabetes Forecast (American Diabetes Association)

Gebel, Erika, PhD

“The Basics of Neuropathy”

(May 2010)

http://forecast.diabetes.org/magazine/diabetes-101/basics-neuropathy?loc=autonomic-neuropathy

Medline Plus

“Metabolic Disorders”

http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/metabolicdisorders.html

News-Medical.Net

Mandal, Ananya, MD

“Insulin Diseases”

http://www.news-medical.net/health/Insulin-Diseases.aspx

Sexual Medicine Society of North America

“Diabetes and Erectile Dysfunction”

(September 21, 2011)

http://www.sexhealthmatters.org/sex-health-blog/diabetes-and-erectile-dysfunction

“Diabetes – Erectile Dysfunction”

http://www.sexhealthmatters.org/erectile-dysfunction/diabetes-erectile-dysfunction

“Diabetes and Female Sexual Satisfaction”

(August 23, 2012)

http://www.sexhealthmatters.org/sex-health-blog/diabetes-and-female-sexual-satisfaction-sex-health-blog

“The Link Between Diabetes and ED”

(November 23, 2010)

http://www.sexhealthmatters.org/news/diabetes-ED-link

“Treating Diabetes: Talking about Sex?”

http://www.sexhealthmatters.org/for-healthcare-providers/treating-diabetes-talking-about-sex