One health issue that’s rarely talked about, despite its prevalence, is erectile dysfunction (ED). In the U.S., the condition affects over 30 million men – most of whom are older adults. While ED is commonly seen in older men, it’s important to note that it’s not due to the normal aging process.
Erectile dysfunction is a condition in which a man has trouble getting or keeping an erection, especially during sexual intercourse. In the past, ED was believed to be a psychological problem; researchers have now identified it to be an indicator of any number of chronic diseases that restrict blood flow to the penis. Diseases like diabetes, hypertension, and kidney failure, and stress disorders like depression and anxiety are just some conditions that cause ED in men.
For a condition that’s not discussed often, the drug used to treat it is relatively well-known. Sildenafil citrate – better known by its brand name Viagra – is often prescribed to treat ED, as well as pulmonary hypertension. However, it isn’t without its side effects, which include prolonged, painful erections, sudden vision loss, seizures, and symptoms similar to a heart attack.
How folic acid helps male sexual health
Folic acid – the synthetic form of vitamin B9 or folate – is used in many energy-producing reactions in the body, such as DNA and RNA repair, cell development, including division and growth, brain development, and red blood cell production. Pregnant women, in particular, need it to prevent the fetus from developing congenital deformities like spina bifida and anencephaly. They need it so much that they are advised to take it a year prior to conception.
The benefits of folic acid aren’t limited to the ladies. Multiple studies have indicated that this B-vitamin is also beneficial for men, especially between the sheets. In one study, published in the journal Aging Male, researchers from the Sapienza University of Rome found a link between folic acid deficiency and erectile dysfunction. Men with ED, when compared with those without the condition, had significantly lower folic acid levels. In addition, they had higher levels of homocysteine, a biomarker for heart disease and stroke. An earlier study by the researchers in The Journal of Sexual Medicine concluded that folic acid improves the activity of compounds responsible for causing an erection. This effect was seen even in people with hyperhomocysteinemia or elevated levels of homocysteine in the blood.
Another study published in the Asian Journal of Andrology also looked at the association between folic acid deficiency and male sexual problems like ED and premature ejaculation. The latter is a condition where a man ejaculates within a minute after penetration. Researchers from Renmin Hospital of Wuhan University in China assessed folic acid levels in over 100 men suffering from ED, premature ejaculation, or both. Their results revealed that those who had either condition suffered from lower folic acid levels compared to men without the conditions. In a separate study using a leporine model for diabetes, researchers found that treating the rabbits with folic acid greatly improved their quality of erections, indicating that folic acid could have the potential to improve erections.
Aside from improving sexual function, folic acid also plays a role in male fertility. Research shows that combining folic acid and zinc can potentially improve total sperm count in both fertile and subfertile men by as much as 74 percent. However, men with abnormally low sperm counts might not benefit as much, as the combination did not significantly boost sperm health in this group of men. (Related: Depression in men linked to folic acid deficiency.)
Both men and women should consume 400 micrograms of folate – around 240 mcg if it’s folic acid from fortified food or 200 mcg if taken as a supplement – with pregnant and lactating women taking in between 500 to 600 mcg. Some great sources of folate include:
- Beef liver – 3 ounces contain 54 percent of a person’s daily value (DV)
- Spinach – ½ cup has 131 mcg of folate or 33 percent DV
- Boiled cowpeas – ½ cup contains 26 percent DV of folate
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