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9 Ways You Can Eat for Better Sexual Health

Experts share actionable strategies for improved arousal, fertility and erections.
María Cristina Lalonde
Written by

María Cristina Lalonde

Diminished sex drive, erectile issues and turbulent hormones are all inevitable parts of aging.

Or are they?

If you've noticed a discouraging decline in sex drive and performance, don't assume it is inevitable or permanent, according to experts. Much like your overall health, your sexual health hinges on lifestyle habits, including, importantly, the foods you eat.

The bad news is foods that make up a typical Western diet are among the worst you can eat for sexual health. Research has linked common Western foods—such as sugar, red meat, trans fat and salt—to a slew of sexual health-related issues, from erectile dysfunction (ED) and low semen quality to infertility.

The good news is many Western-diet-wrought sexual health concerns can be remedied by nutritional tweaks. Here are nine ways you can improve sexual function, drive and fertility—while helping to thwart erectile dysfunction and disease—by eating better:

1. Adopt a Mediterranean diet

The Mediterranean diet has been linked to a host of benefits, from preventing heart disease to slowing Alzheimer's disease. It's unsurprising that the silver bullet-like eating pattern may also help improve sexual function, said Marco Infante, M.D., Ph.D., an endocrinologist based in Rome who is also a fellow of the American College of Nutrition.

"The Mediterranean diet is one of the main eating patterns that have been proven beneficial for human health in general and for sexual health in particular," he explained. "With regard to sexual health, high adherence to a Mediterranean-style diet has been shown to reduce the prevalence of erectile dysfunction in men, to mitigate female sexual dysfunction in premenopausal women and to attenuate menopausal symptoms in postmenopausal women."

Carol Bradley, Ph.D., R.D.N., a nutritionist based in Lufkin, Texas, agreed, maintaining that the Mediterranean diet can lead to a healthy and satisfying sex life.

"The diet is high in fruits and vegetables, fish, nuts and whole grains, [which] affects things like hormone production," she added.

In particular, a Mediterranean diet can help balance levels of estrogen, a hormone involved in reproductive health, heart health, and breast and ovarian cancer prevention.

2. Kick that junk food habit

Sally K. Norton, M.P.H., a nutritionist and author in Richmond, Virginia, noted that an unhealthy diet of junk food can cause weight gain and impact hormones and fertility.

"If you're living on convenience foods, packaged foods, takeout foods, high-carb foods, you could be heading toward hormonal imbalances, whether you're male or a woman," she added. "[In men,] obesity can lower testosterone and lower sperm counts. You're also going to see changes [in] sperm structures and functions."

In women, Norton explained that the hormonal disorder polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)—a major cause of infertility—can be exacerbated by a diet high in refined carbohydrates.

3. Limit your sodium intake

Sodium, an essential nutrient, can pave the way for problems in the bedroom when consumed in excess.

"When you have less sodium and your blood pressure is lower, it allows the blood vessels to dilate better," Bradley explained.

On the other hand, consuming too much salt is linked to high blood pressure, which can lead to clogged arteries and damaged blood vessels.

Damaged blood vessels affect blood flow to the genitals, she said. In men, injuries to the blood vessels can prevent blood from traveling to the genitals and generating an erection. For women, a decrease in blood flow to the vaginal area can lead to arousal difficulties and dryness.

4. Start S.M.A.S.H.-ing today

Caroline Susie, R.D., a licensed dietitian in Dallas and official spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, suggested referring to the acronym "S.M.A.S.H. (And yes, Susie acknowledged, with a giggle, that "smash" is a particularly appropriate word when talking about sexual health.)

S.M.A.S.H. stands for sardines, mackerel, anchovies, salmon and herring—all are fish high in omega-3 fatty acids.

"Omega-3s are a wonderful choice for organ health and circulation," she recommended.

Omega-3s help prevent the buildup of plaque in your arteries, promoting healthy blood flow throughout your body and to your genitals.

5. Boost nitric oxide levels

Nitric oxide is an essential molecule that widens blood vessels and stimulates the release of certain hormones. In this way, it helps increase blood flow to different parts of the body, such as—you guessed it—the genitals. Nitric oxide is necessary for the muscles in the penis to relax, allowing it to fill with blood and become erect.

"Plant foods like leafy greens and also beets are an important source of nitric oxide," Bradley noted.

Other foods that can boost nitric oxide levels include garlic, citrus fruit, nuts, seeds and dark chocolate.

6. Avoid inflammatory foods

Inflammation, your body's natural defense against threats like viruses and toxins, can be triggered by certain foods.

"Fried and processed foods are not only bad for your waistline, but they are also inflammatory foods," said Mareya Ibrahim, a chef and cookbook author based in California.

According to Ibrahim, inflammation-promoting foods can cause a variety of problems, such as fatigue and mood alterations. Over time, inflammation can damage your blood vessels and reduce blood flow to the penis, which impacts libido and can contribute to erectile dysfunction.

Inflammation can be equally detrimental to people with vaginas, added Tiffany Champagne-Langabeer, Ph.D., R.D.N., a dietitian in Houston.

"In women, inflammation can disrupt the menstrual cycle and ovulation and trigger conditions such as endometriosis," she added. "In men, inflammation can decrease the quality and quantity of sperm."

7. Go easy on the alcohol

Several experts cited alcohol as something to avoid to perform better between the sheets.

"Yes, it lowers your inhibitions," Susie conceded. "But too much alcohol can lead to erectile issues in men."

Alcohol can have negative impacts on female arousal, too. Studies indicate too much alcohol decreases genital response, interfering with vaginal wetness, sexual stimulation and orgasm intensity.

8. Pair healthy nutrition with exercise and sleep

Champagne-Langabeer emphasized the importance of complementing a proper diet with regular exercise and adequate sleep.

"There are natural ways to increase hormones like testosterone which increase sex drive in both women and men," she said. "Aerobic exercise, stress management and resistance training, combined with seven to eight hours of sleep and maintaining the proper weight, will boost a lagging sex drive."

9. Nix the restrictive diets

Restrictive diets that severely limit calories can negatively affect hormone levels, according to Bradley. This impact can reduce fertility, particularly among females, whose ability to ovulate depends on a healthy hormonal balance.

One of the biggest sex-hindering issues with restrictive dieting is its link to negative body image, Champagne-Langabeer noted.

"The majority of women and many men at some point have been on a restrictive diet, looked in the mirror and did not like their appearance," she explained. "Taking charge of your health, which includes eating habits and how you fuel your body, significantly boosts mood and can restore your self-worth. Finally cracking the code to healthy eating can be a confidence-building game changer for those who have struggled with diet culture their whole lives."

After all, she added, "There is nothing sexier than confidence."