The Connection Between Heart Disease and Erectile Dysfunction
The way to a man’s heart is through his penis. While those may sound like words of wisdom from a jaded spouse, they’re actually the thinking behind a new research project.
Cardiologist Dr. Robert Ostfeld says he came up with the idea after seeing that many men were more willing to change their diet when they saw how it affected their sexual performance.
Does A Plant-Based Lifestyle Improve Cardiac Health?
Ostfeld says his medical training emphasized the Mediterranean diet as heart-healthy, and he had long recommended it to his patients, with mixed results. “People got a little bit better but they didn’t get a ton better,” he says, “and I didn’t go into medicine to just try to help people get a little bit better — I wanted to see real transformational change.”
Then Ostfeld read The China Study by T. Colin Campbell and was struck by what he learned about the connection between whole-food, plant-based eating and heart health. After learning more and consulting with experts, he founded the Cardiac Wellness Program at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, New York City, with a goal of helping patients prevent and reverse heart disease with a plant-based diet. In the decade since, Ostfeld says he’s seen remarkable results.
“We’ve had people lose 80, 90 pounds and come off more than 10 medications,” he says. One patient who had been unable to walk more than a few blocks due to clogged arteries in his heart is now a runner. Others who had been urged by their doctors to get bypass surgery were able to turn their health around by eating plant-based. “We’ve had people have their cholesterol plummet, come off high blood-pressure meds, reverse their diabetes, have their erectile function improve,” Ostfeld says. “In fact, one of my patients now says that he is a rock star in the bedroom — I don’t know what his wife thinks, but that’s what he thinks.”
What’s The Connection Between Heart Health and Sexual Health?
Appealing to men’s interest in attaining that “rock star” status is one reason Ostfeld is looking more closely at the connection between plant-based eating and sexual performance–– there’s a well-known connection between sexual function and cardiac health. In fact, while things like low testosterone, depression and some medications can cause erectile dysfunction, the most common cause is cardiovascular disease. And it makes sense, since good blood flow is key to maintaining a strong erection.
That’s also why erectile dysfunction is often considered an early warning sign of heart disease. “It’s the canary in the coal mine,” Ostfeld says. “By the time there’s a blockage in an artery to the penis, it’s very likely that there’s also blockage starting in the arteries to the heart, and the only reason it’s further behind is because the arteries to the heart are bigger.”
"I didn’t go into medicine to just try to help people get a little bit better — I wanted to see real transformational change."
Can Improved Erectile Function Be Attributed To Plant-Based Diet?
While he’s seen anecdotally that many patients report improved erectile function after switching to a plant-based diet, Ostfeld found that the connection was under-studied. He’s now in the process of launching a new project to gather more data on the issue. In the study, which he hopes to start in the next three months, he’ll measure how just one day of plant-based eating affects men’s erectile function.
The study will involve 74 participants, all young, healthy men. Half the men will eat four consecutive plant-based meals (dinner, followed by the next day’s breakfast, lunch and dinner), while the other half will eat meat-based meals. Each group will then switch to the other diet. Throughout the process, the men will be monitored at night with a device (called a RigiScan) that measures the frequency and rigidity of their erections as they sleep.
Why such a short trial period? Ostfeld says compliance was one concern — ensuring that the men would stick to the diets they were prescribed. But he also wanted to show how dietary changes could have immediate effects on the body. “If I talk to a 25-year-old guy and say, ‘I’d love for you to eat more plant-based nutrition so you don’t have high blood pressure when you’re 40,’ they may not listen to me,” he says. “But if I say, ‘I’d like you to eat more plant-based nutrition because it improves your erectile function,’ I’m optimistic that they will be more open.”
The study is expected to take around two years, with Ostfeld hoping to take an initial look at the data about halfway through.
Ostfeld himself has been plant-based for about a decade. One of his favorite meals is a nutrition-packed smoothie made with fruit, herbs, beetroot powder and a whole pound of greens. He says he didn’t need more convincing that going plant-based was the best thing for his health. “I figured if I was going to talk the talk, I needed to walk the walk,” he says.