Erectile dysfunction (ED) is a common condition. It’s estimated to affect about 30 million men in the United States. Men with ED have a hard time getting and keeping an erection.

Occasionally being unable to get or maintain an erection happens to most men. ED is diagnosed, however, when a man consistently has this difficulty.

ED is caused by a number of different factors, including poor heart health. High levels of cholesterol can affect your heart health. So, can treating high cholesterol also help treat ED? Research shows that it may have a slight effect.

The most common cause of ED is atherosclerosis, which is a narrowing of the blood vessels. Many things can lead to atherosclerosis, including high cholesterol. That’s because high levels of cholesterol in the blood can cause a buildup of cholesterol in the arteries. That, in turn, can narrow these blood vessels.

have also found a link between hypercholesterolemia, or high blood pressure, and ED. The link isn’t yet fully understood, but it has led researchers to explore the use of high blood pressure medications for the treatment of ED.

Statins are drugs used to lower cholesterol levels. In a , researchers noted an improvement in erectile function following treatment for high cholesterol using the medication atorvastatin (Lipitor).

Lipid levels remained unchanged, however, so they concluded that the improvement was due to an improvement in the endothelium as opposed to a decrease in cholesterol levels. The endothelium is an interior surface in blood vessels.

An earlier also found evidence that statins may improve ED over time.

On the other hand, a 2009 study found evidence to suggest that lipid-lowering medications may cause or aggravate ED. In more than half of the identified cases, men recovered from ED after they stopped taking statins.

A didn’t find an association between statins and an increased risk of ED or sexual dysfunction. ED is also not listed as a common side effect of statins. Learn more about the connection between statins and ED. More research is needed to better understand the connection.

What you eat can have a tremendous impact on your cholesterol levels. It can also affect ED.

Foods to avoid

To help improve your cholesterol levels, try avoiding foods that are high in saturated fats. These include:

  • red meat
  • whole-fat dairy
  • eggs
  • certain vegetable oils like palm oil, cocoa butter, and coconut oil

Also avoid foods high in trans fats. Sources of trans fats include processed foods such as:

  • biscuits
  • frozen breakfast sandwiches
  • margarine
  • crackers
  • microwave popcorn
  • fried fast foods
  • frozen pizza
  • sugary treats such as cakes, pies, doughnuts, and cookies

Many of these processed foods are also high in carbohydrates. People who have diets high in carbohydrates and sugars have higher levels of LDL cholesterol (the “bad” kind) and lower levels of HDL cholesterol (the “good” kind). Here’s the difference between LDL and HDL cholesterol.

Foods to include

You should also add foods to your diet that have polyunsaturated fats or soluble fiber. These include:

  • oats and oat-based cereals
  • barley and other whole grains
  • beans
  • eggplant
  • okra
  • nuts
  • vegetable oils such as canola, sunflower, and safflower
  • apples, grapes, strawberries, and citrus fruits
  • soybeans and soy-based foods
  • fatty fish

Many of these nutritious foods can also help reduce ED. To help manage ED, eat more:

  • fruits
  • vegetables
  • whole grains
  • fish

A chronic vitamin B-12 deficiency may also contribute to ED, so try to add foods rich in B-12 to your diet. You may also want to consider taking a B-12 supplement. Read more about the connection between diet and ED.

Other risk factors for ED include:

Some medications can also lead to erectile problems. These include:

  • blood pressure medications
  • prostate cancer therapy
  • antidepressants
  • prescription sedatives
  • appetite suppressants
  • ulcer drugs

You should visit your doctor as soon as you notice any erectile problems. ED is usually a sign of an underlying health issue, so it’s important to identify the cause before it becomes more serious.

Watch for ED symptoms such as:

  • inability to get an erection when you want to have sex, even if you can get an erection at other times
  • getting an erection, but being unable to maintain it long enough to have sex
  • inability to get an erection at all

High cholesterol doesn’t cause noticeable symptoms, so the only way to diagnose the condition is through a blood test. You should have routine physicals so that your doctor can diagnose and treat any health conditions in their early stages.

There are different ways you can manage ED, from everyday lifestyle changes to daily medications. Treatment options for ED include:

  • talk therapy or couples counseling
  • switching medications if you suspect a medication is causing ED
  • taking a medication to help manage symptoms of ED, such as sildenafil (Viagra), tadalafil (Cialis), avanafil (Stendra), vardenafil (Levitra, Staxyn), and alprostadil (Caverject, Edex)

In addition to diet, there are other lifestyle changes that may help both reduce high cholesterol levels and improve ED. Try these options:

Walk more: Walking 30 minutes per day can drop your risk of ED by 41 percent.

Stay physically fit: Obesity is a significant risk factor for ED. A found that 79 percent of men who were considered overweight or obese had erectile problems. Being physically active and maintaining a healthy weight can help you prevent or treat ED. That also means quitting smoking and limiting how much alcohol you drink.

Exercise your pelvic floor: Kegel exercises to strengthen your pelvic floor may help you maintain an erection for longer. Learn more about Kegel exercises for men.

Researchers haven’t determined that high cholesterol is a direct cause of ED, but the condition may contribute to erectile problems. Maintaining a healthy diet and lifestyle can reduce your cholesterol levels, which may also lower your chances of developing ED.

Speak with your doctor if you have concerns about your cholesterol or erectile issues so that you can come up with a treatment plan that works best for you.