“All health issues have effects on your penis,” says Steven Lamm, M.D., an assistant professor at the New York University School of Medicine and the author of The Hardness Factor: How to Achieve Your Best Health and Sexual Fitness at Any Age.
“A 50-year-old man who is healthy is probably performing as well sexually as an out-of-shape 30-year-old who smokes and drinks,” Dr. Lamm says.
While healthy blood flow is essential to rock-hard erections, other physical and mental health factors play a role in good penis functionality. If you’re stressed out from work or poor relationships, suffering from depression, addicted to alcohol or drugs, or woefully overweight and out of shape, that miraculous mechanical wonder between your legs won’t work as well as it could.
Fortunately, there’s much you can do to keep your member in good standing so you can still have sex well into your 80s—and maybe even beyond. How’s that for incentive to shape up? Do your private parts a favour.
1. Do a Ball Check
Testicular cancer strikes nearly 8,000 men a year, mostly young men between the ages of 15 and 40. When caught early enough, testicular cancer can be cured more than 95 percent of the time. Left undetected, though, and it can spread to other parts of the body. Check in with your boys once a month.
Here’s the play-by-play from Men’s Health urology advisor Larry Lipshultz, M.D., chief of the division of male reproductive medicine at Baylor College of Medicine:
Take a hot bath or shower. Warm water relaxes the muscles that pull the testicles up into your scrotum, allowing you to handle them more easily.
Cup your scrotum. Feel both testicles at once. They may not be identical, but there shouldn’t be any dramatic difference in size.
Gently examine each testicle individually with both hands. Place your index and middle fingers underneath and your thumbs on top of a testicle. Roll the testicle between your fingers around the entire surface for about 30 seconds using light pressure. Feel for lumps or bumps. Each testicle should feel smooth like a peeled hard boiled egg.
If you think you felt something, don’t panic. A lot of men mistake the epididymis, a soft tube located in the back of each testicle, for a bump. If you’re unsure or if you feel any other bumps, consult your doctor.
Related: 10 Lies About Erectile Dysfunction
2. Lose the Belly
Eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly to achieve ideal body weight and eliminate the fat around your gut. Abdominal fat blocks the testosterone that should be available to you, which in turn affects sexual functioning. A fat gut is a bad marker for overall health—including your sexual health.
Your penis is a barometer for your heart and artery health or a “canary in the coal mine” that can warn you of impending trouble. That’s because a penile artery is quite a bit narrower than a coronary artery. If plaque and artery hardening is starting to occur, it’ll often show up first by affecting your erection.
3. Quit Smoking
“Smoking just clenches down on your blood vessels and prevents them from being reactive,” says Dr. Lamm.
Nicotine restricts penile blood flow and weakens erections. It contributes to plaque buildup in the arteries, making smokers twice as likely to experience erectile dysfunction.
4. Take a Walk Every Day
When you exercise, blood flow increases—blood rushes through the endothelial cells (the lining of the blood vessels) and stimulates them to make more nitric oxide, a key chemical involved in producing erections.
“The healthier a man is, the more nitric oxide he produces, and the harder his erection is,” says Dr. Lamm. Also, exercise has been shown to be as effective as medication in reducing symptoms of mild depression, another downer for penis performance.
5. Go to Bed Earlier
Testosterone levels peak in the morning for men. So irregular sleep patterns, or getting fewer than 7 hours of sleep, can affect the quality of your sleep and your sexual health.
Poor sleep is also associated with many health issues that contribute to sexual problems including high blood pressure, sleep apnea, and diabetes.
6. Eat More Fish
The omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA are good for heart and penis health. But toxins like PCBs and dioxins in some fish can hit you below the belt by reducing your sperm count and lowering testosterone.
Try to avoid large bluefish, striped bass, and farmed salmon. PCBs and dioxins accumulate in the fatty tissues of those fish more so than in younger, smaller fish or species such as wild salmon, skipjack tuna, or sea bass.
7. Drink Moderately
A glass of red wine may fuel the libido, but a full bottle may screw with your penis-brain circuitry and eliminate any chance of getting an erection.
Clinical studies have shown that alcohol acts as a depressant in the brain, dulling anxiety and inhibitions about sex, but larger amounts can have the opposite effect.
In one study, men with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.06 and 0.09 had trouble ejaculating while masturbating. Another study measured penile swelling in response to erotic stimulation. Those men who had three or more mixed drinks within 2 hours couldn’t get it up.
Over time, chronic use of alcohol can cause hormonal and brain chemical changes that stifle sexual functioning. Alcoholism has also been linked to gyneocomastia and shrinkage of the penis and testicles.
8. Relax and Unwind
In men especially, stress can trigger the fight-or-flight response.
When that happens, your nervous system floods your body with stress hormones like adrenaline. Adrenaline spurs the heart to beat faster and your blood vessels to constrict so that blood is directed to where it’s needed most to deal with the crisis—your muscles, not your penis.
It doesn’t have to be an urgent stress to cause problems. Chronic low-level stress, like a difficult boss, looming deadlines, and fear of financial ruin can interfere with erections and sex drive. Fortunately, exercise, sleep, and a healthy diet can help to ease the stress response.
By the editors of Men’s Health