The Link Between Zinc and Erectile Dysfunction

Written by Christine Case-Lo | Published on March 19, 2014
Medically Reviewed by George T. Krucik, MD, MBA on March 19, 2014

Zinc deficiency can cause many health problems, but can it cause ED?

Is Zinc the Latest Health Superhero?

Zinc deficiency has been a popular topic in health news. Low zinc levels are blamed for a wide variety of health woes, including erectile dysfunction (ED) or impotence.

Zinc is a key mineral used in cellular metabolism. It is important for immune function, DNA and protein production, healing wounds, and cell division. It’s important in pregnancy, childhood, and adolescence. Despite its importance, many adults and seniors may not get enough zinc.

Zinc Deficiency

A zinc deficiency can cause a lot of problems. Slow growth in children, loss of appetite, and low immune function are linked with moderate zinc deficiency. Severe zinc deficiency can cause:

  • hair loss
  • eye and skin lesions
  • diarrhea
  • weight loss
  • delayed wound healing
  • changes in taste

Severely low zinc can cause hypogonadism in males and impotence.

How Do I Know if I Have Low Zinc?

Certain groups of people are more likely to have low zinc, including those with gastrointestinal diseases and very low food intake, and alcoholics.

Some medications can reduce zinc levels. These include ACE inhibitors, thiazide diuretics, and stomach acid reducers (Zantac, Prilosec).

Zinc distributes all over the body, so it’s difficult to test through a blood test. If you suspect that you might have a zinc deficiency, talk with your doctor.

Erectile Dysfunction and Supplements

Taking zinc in supplement form is just one of many treatments marketed to those looking for help with ED. Many men use supplements instead of prescription medications like Viagra and Cialis, or to enhance the effectiveness of these medications. Some natural supplements aimed towards relieving ED symptoms include:

  • Korean red ginseng
  • L-Arginine
  • carnitine
  • DHEA

Zinc therapy is slightly different. Zinc treatments may improve the body’s natural levels of testosterone. Studies are still being performed to provide conclusive evidence on the efficacy of natural supplements to relieve ED symptoms.

Erectile Dysfunction and Testosterone

Most men who have ED don’t have abnormal levels of testosterone. Heart disease, diabetes, nervous system conditions, injuries, and stress are more likely to cause ED. However, hypogonadism or insufficient testosterone can cause ED in some men.

Supplemental testosterone has been shown to improve ED symptoms in men with low testosterone levels. Supplemental testosterone can sometimes improve ED symptoms in men with normal testosterone levels and ED.

Testosterone levels decrease naturally as men age, and certain medications can impact testosterone levels. Hyper- or hypothyroidism can impact testosterone and libido. And zinc can have a dramatic impact on testosterone levels in those with zinc deficiency.

Zinc and Testosterone

A 1996 study showed a very clear relationship between zinc and testosterone levels. Young men were fed a diet including very little zinc so that they developed a zinc deficiency. Testosterone levels were measured and there was a significant decrease (almost 75 percent) after 20 weeks of a low-zinc diet.

The study also examined zinc supplementation in elderly men. Researchers showed that with increased zinc intake, testosterone levels in the elderly population almost doubled. This is pretty powerful evidence that zinc has an impact on testosterone production. If you, or your doctor, suspect you have low testosterone levels, you may want to test for zinc deficiency.

Erectile Dysfunction and Kidney Disease

The only direct evidence of zinc supplementation having an effect on ED is found in studies of men with kidney disease. Men who receive kidney dialysis often have zinc (and other nutritional) deficiencies. Men with kidney disease are also more likely to have sexual function problems.

A 2010 review of studies of sexual function in patients with kidney disease concluded that oral zinc supplements increased testosterone and improved the potency and frequency of sexual intercourse.

Taste and Smell to Improve Libido

Symptoms of zinc deficiency include a loss of the ability to smell and taste. In fact, although evidence of its efficacy is scant, zinc supplements is one method of treating people who have lost their sense of taste or smell.

A 2013 study shows that sense of smell may actually be important to libido, especially in younger men. That means that zinc deficiency, which can reduce sense of smell, may also reduce libido. Zinc not only impacts the level of testosterone, but may cause a loss of the ability to detect subtle chemicals that induce arousal.

However, some zinc products sold as cold medications may actually cause loss of smell sense, rather than prevent it.

Good Zinc Sources

A balanced diet full of high protein sources will often naturally contain enough zinc, which is about 11 mg a day for an adult male. Meats such as beef, pork, lamb, and chicken are all good sources of zinc. Nuts, whole grains, legumes, and yeast also contain zinc.

Zinc supplements are available in multivitamins, or as zinc gluconate, zinc sulfate, or zinc acetate. But watch out for zinc toxicity. The maximum safe intake of zinc is 40 mg per day. Symptoms of too much zinc intake include:

  • nausea and vomiting
  • cramps
  • diarrhea
  • headaches

High levels of zinc can reduce available copper in the body and affect iron levels. A purely vegetarian or low-protein diet may put you at risk for zinc deficiency.

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