Sexual Health, a Matter of the Heart: The Culprits

What do heart health and sexual health have in common? Would you think there could be a link between the two? It may surprise you to hear that the number 1 cause of Erectile Disfunction is actually heart disease. ED can also be a side-effect of certain  medication. However when it’s not, it’s likely to be a sign of early heart disease. As heart disease causes nerve and arterial damage, it leads to the clogging of small blood vessels with plaque. This can include the small blood vessels of the penis, resulting in compromised sexual health.

Insulin Resistance is the leading cause of heart disease. Sugar is not the only cause of insulin resistance. Carbohydrate-rich, refined foods also spike our insulin levels, causing a condition called Endotoxemia. This is where LPSs (Lipopolysaccharides), or endotoxins, leak into the blood through the gastrointestinal wall, a condition known as Leaky Gut Syndrome. This, in turn, triggers a cascade of inflammation. So even if we're watching our sugar intake, we can still raise insulin and create an inflammatory environment in which heart disease thrives. Lesions only start forming inside the artery wall if there’s inflammation. These lesions continue to form, until we eventually have a heart attack.

Considering cholesterol as the enemy and the cause of heart disease is inaccurate. This all too common mindset needs to be changed. Cholesterol is the good guy. It is a critical component of cell membranes; our neurons are mostly fats. It is the material from which the body manufactures vitamin D, cortisol, estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. It is therefore a crucial life-sustaining chemical, and not one to be incorrectly labelled. 50% of heart attack victims have normal cholesterol. At the Rising Health Specialty Clinic, we screen for fasting glucose (fasting insulin) and leptin (the hormone that tells the brain you’re full). When you have an abnormal blood sugar, your leptin becomes resistant. This is a great indicator of early heart disease. We look at the size of the cholesterol that’s involved. We test the gut, as the microbiome is where the leaking of the endotoxins starts in the first place.

Lifestyle choices such as physical inactivity are a major cause of poor heart health. Exercise encourages the absorption of sugar into our muscles, removing it from our bloodstream. Smoking, as well as vaping, are other lifestyle causes. Consuming inflammatory fats, or lipids, adds to our heart disease risk, as our liver doesn’t recognize them as a ‘real food’ and hence puts them back into our vascular system, fueling an inflammatory response. Sleep apnea should also be mentioned in the realm, as it creates inflammation, and hence is a significant cause of heart disease and hypertension. The reason for this is that a lack of oxygen intake during the night causes headaches, speeding up our heart rate and dampening our moods. This places us at a much higher risk of heart disease.

Between 35 and 50% of men with diabetes have ED. The longer someone has diabetes, the higher their chances are of getting heart disease. At a younger age, heart attack is the most common cause of death amongst diabetics because of insulin resistance. Those with diabetes are twice as likely to die of heart attack than non-diabetics.

Sexual health is an important part of our whole health and well-being. For the most part, it starts with our cardiac health. Looking at sexual health in isolation is not an effective approach. We need to consider the whole person. Understanding the causes and recognizing their consequences is the first step to improving both our heart and sexual health. In my next blog, we will discover early warning signals to watch out for, and delve into the help that’s available to us. Hope, health and vitality are within reach. Take a proactive approach to your sexual health; come in, be screened, get tested. 

(by Sinead Urwin, in conjunction with Sharlene Watson, APRN, The Rising Health Specialty Clinic)

Sinead Urwin