For Better Sex, Embrace Diet and Lifestyle Wisdom

Get off the couch to get it on.

Posted Apr 15, 2014

Mention sexual enhancement, and I doubt that you flash on a long walk or a fruit salad. But in the never-ending quest for better sex, something crucial often gets overlooked—the importance of boring old healthy lifestyle advice. A great deal of research demonstrates that not-particularly-sexy lifestyle adjustments significantly improve the quality and pleasure of lovemaking. The same lifestyle approaches also extend longevity—so you can enjoy sex for years longer. Want a lifetime of sexual pleasure? Then:

• Don’t smoke.

• Eat less saturated fat, that is, less meat, less whole-milk dairy products, and fewer sinful desserts.

• Eat at least five daily servings of fruits and vegetables.

• Get regular exercise, at least the equivalent of a daily half-hour walk.

• Maintain recommended weight.

• And don’t consume more than two alcoholic drinks a day. (A “drink” is one 12-ounce beer, one shot of 80-proof spirits, or five ounces of wine, a standard wine glass about half full).

In both men and women, sexual responsiveness depends on the interaction of the nervous system and the cardiovascular system (the heart and blood vessels). Sexual stimuli trigger reactions in the nervous system that open the arteries that supply the genitals, allowing greater inflow of blood. In men, this produces erection. In women, it leads to vaginal lubrication and clitoral excitation. If your nervous system is impaired, sexual stimuli don’t register. And if your cardiovascular system is damaged, blood flow get impaired and genital responsiveness suffers. In other words, good sex depends on keeping your nervous and cardiovascular systems healthy.

Support Your Nervous System

Among the best ways to do this is to steer clear of excess alcohol. As Shakespeare wrote in Macbeth, alcohol “provokes the desire, but takes away the performance.” Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. The first drink is dis-inhibiting, meaning that people are more likely to accept sexual invitations. But after a few drinks, the nerves governing the genitals get plastered and can’t function. Alcohol is undoubtedly the world’s leading sex-killer. Public health authorities urge Americans to consumer no more than two drinks a day.

A less obvious cause of sex-impairing nerve damage is type 2 diabetes. This disease is an epidemic, affecting an estimated 20 million Americans. It’s usually caused by obesity and a sedentary lifestyle. Diabetes often causes nerve damage—including damage to the nerves involved in sex. Type 2 diabetes can usually be prevented or reversed through weight loss and daily exercise.

Support Your Cardiovascular System

Smoking and a diet high in animal (saturated) fat are hell on the cardiovascular system. They fill the bloodstream with harmful oxygen ions (free radicals). These nasty molecules injure artery walls. When this happens—and for most Americans, the process begins in childhood—the body mounts a defensive reaction, and the injury sites scab over. If free radicals continue to circulate in the bloodstream—from smoking or a diet heavy on meat, cheese, ice cream, fast food, and junk food—fatty, cholesterol-rich deposits (plaques) begin to grow around the tiny scabs covering arterial injury sites. With continued free radical exposure, plaques grow larger (atherosclerosis). After several decades, atherosclerotic plaques may grow large enough to impair or even block blood flow through affected arteries. When this happens to the arteries that nourish the heart, the result is heart disease: angina, heart attack, or congestive heart failure. In the brain, this process causes most strokes. And in the genitals, it can cause erection impairment in men, and loss of vaginal lubrication and clitoral sensation in women. Several studies show that compared with the general population, smokers have more sex problems and report less sexual satisfaction. Other studies show that as cholesterol levels increase, so does risk of erectile dysfunction.

Fortunately, free-radical damage can be largely prevented with antioxidant nutrients, notably vitamins A, C, and E, and several minerals, notably selenium and zinc. (Vitamin A is actually a family of about 600 different compounds, all known as carotenoids, the best-known of which is beta-carotene.)

Antioxidant supplements can help, but public health officials agree that the best way to get antioxidants is directly from foods rich in them: fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains. That’s why the American Heart Association, the National Cancer Institute, and the National Institutes of Health urge Americans to eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables every day, and ideally eight or nine. Many, many studies show that as fruit and vegetable consumption increases, risk of heart disease and every major cancer decreases. There have been no big studies of dietary antioxidants and sexual satisfaction, but the link is biologically clear: The more antioxidants you consume, the less atherosclerosis you’re likely to suffer, which means better blood flow through your arteries, and more blood available to flow into your genitals when you feel sexually aroused.

If you smoke, talk with your doctor about quitting. But studies show that even among smokers, those whose diets contain the most fruits and vegetables suffer the fewest smoking-related illnesses—less heart disease and less lung cancer, and better sex.

Exercise also helps keep the cardiovascular system in shape. A UCLA study shows that as people become more physically fit they also become more sexually active. They have more energy, including sexual energy, and they feel better about themselves, which makes them appear more attractive to potential sex partners.

The combination of regular exercise and a low-fat diet rich in antioxidants is also the foundation of successful weight-control programs. Many people who are heavy have active and pleasurable sex lives. But studies at the Duke University Diet and Fitness Center have shown that as people lose weight and become more physically active, they usually report greater sexual interest and enjoyment.

Bottom line

If you spend a good deal of your free time drinking alcohol and munching junk food while watching TV, you’re on a one-way ride to sexual impairment. But if you get off the sofa, take a daily half-hour (or longer) walk, lose some weight, and replace the chips and Big Macs with salads and fruit snacks, you're on your way to becoming healthier, living longer, and feeling more sexually fulfilled.

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