What Is Erectile Dysfunction And What Causes It?
Updated: Aug 10
There’s nothing more frustrating than looking forward to a passionate night of sex with your partner, only to realize things are not functioning quite right.
If this feels familiar, in 2019, 33-42% of men over 40 reported erectile dysfunction (ED), so you’re not alone in this!
What is erectile dysfunction?
More commonly known as ED, erectile dysfunction is defined as “the consistent or recurrent inability to attain and/or maintain a penile erection hard enough for sexual intercourse”.
To put it more simply, you can’t get or stay hard when you want to, over a substantial period of time.
A one-off, ‘booze-fueled flop’ is not what we’re talking about here. Worrying about your ability to have sex, based on a number of lost erections, however, is.
The "science" bit
So, what exactly happens when you’re struggling to get hard? Allow us to get a bit technical here…
When an erection occurs, this is known as a ‘neurovascular event’. It requires a symphony of individual events to occur across your hormonal, neurological & vascular systems. Importantly, it’s dependent on both physiological and psychological factors. In other words, it's a complex process of male arousal triggers.
So, the causes of erectile dysfunction are when there is a single ‘fault’ across any of these systems.
Think about putting the lights on your Christmas tree... First, you need to have a strong & functioning power source, then you need the plug and cables to be working so that the power flows to the lights. And finally, you need every single bulb to light up, in order for the whole set to work. Oh, and don’t forget, you need someone who is actually in the festive mood to do it in the first place!
And if any one of those components has even a small issue, your shining Christmas tree goes dark.
When it comes to getting an erection - it's not that different. You need the power supply to be strong - that’s your heart supplying the blood. You need the cabling to transmit efficiently - this being clear arteries carrying blood. And you need the plug to make sure the power flows one way and doesn’t reverse - that’s your Pelvic Floor, helping to trap the blood in your penis so you can maintain your erection. And finally, the ‘lights’ are the tissue in your penis - which need to be relaxed in order to absorb the blood.
In charge of all of this is your festive friend who helps you to switch on the lights in the first place... consider that sexual desire.
Turning on the lights!
Now, when all of this goes according to plan, it works well. Your brain signals for chemicals to be released from the nervous system, which relax and widen the arteries to the penis. Your heart then pumps blood through these widened arteries and into the penis (aided by the wonderfully named bulbospongiosus muscle). Here two cylinders expand and fill with the extra blood - giving you your erection.
But, in order to maintain an erection, as those cylinders expand, veins on the outside of them are compressed against the penis’ outer layer. This effectively stops the blood from draining back out of your erection. Your Pelvic Floor also contracts, so that any blood which is able to move along those compressed veins remains trapped at the base.
Quite the engineering project, right? Effectively a chain reaction from mind to body. So it is no surprise when things don’t always go according to plan.
Broadly, this is owing to the physical or physiology of male arousal.
Physical causes of erectile dysfunction
Bearing in mind the importance of enough blood flowing into the penis. It is no surprise that the physical causes of erectile dysfunction are mostly focused on circulation and blood pressure.
This is why persistent ED can often be a sign of a more serious underlying health issue. These include:
Hormonal disorders, like low testosterone
And of course, longer-term health issues can play their part in erectile dysfunction. For instance, obesity and Parkinson’s disease can impact blood flow massively. So can some medications, alcohol and illegal drugs.
Some of these causes may need erectile dysfunction cures like Viagra or hormone therapies. But many men are too quick to jump to treatments like these right away. They haven't considered that their symptoms may be caused by emotional factors.
Psychological causes of ED
The chain reaction which kick-starts your erection begins in your brain. Therefore, your mental state has a major impact on your ability to get hard in the bedroom.
In general, these are some of the main culprits that can interfere with the signals in your brain:
Smoking or drinking too much
Anxiety has one of the biggest impact on an erection. Later on, you’ll learn exactly what this does to your sexually stressed mind, and why it’s so destructive.
In the physiology of male arousal, EVERY ED case has a combination of; physical, psychological and social elements to it.
Say, for example, an injury to your groin creates a physical issue that causes ED. Once you’ve experienced the initial dysfunction a couple of times, you may develop performance anxiety around it. This is a psychological issue that needs treating in a different manner.
Because of society’s narrow and misleading definition of masculinity, you might also develop issues with your self-esteem as a result. This would be referred to as a psycho-social issue.
The physiology of male arousal is varied and complex. However, for those living with erectile dysfunction, there is help available.
Through a combination of exercises, brain training and learning, Lover has programs designed to help you overcome erectile dysfunction. Our courses work across each of the physical, psychological and social areas to make sure you can be back on track, as quickly as possible.
If you’re feeling sexually stressed, or you want to learn more about how the body affects the mind, read our feature on the relationship between sex and stress, here. Or, download our app today for expert guidance, effective exercises and proven techniques to help treat your sexual issues.