Alcohol is the most widely used recreational drug in the world, and the effect of alcohol on sexual function, particularly on erectile function, has been a topic of conversation and confusion for hundreds of years. One of the most famous early references to the somewhat ironic relationship between alcohol and erections come from Macbeth, when in Act II, a porter explains that alcohol
provokes, and unprovokes; it provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance; therefore, much drink may be said to be an equivocator with lechery: it makes him, and it mars him; it sets him on, and it takes him off; it persuades him, and disheartens him; makes him stand to, and not stand to; in conclusion, equivocates him in a sleep, and, giving him the lie, leaves him.
This effect has also been documented in research; small amounts of alcohol increase desire and/or decreases inhibition, but larger amounts of alcohol when consumed in a limited time period, can make it difficult for a man to get and/or maintain an erection. The specific relationship between alcohol and erectile dysfunction is difficult to document and continues to be not very well understood by researchers.
Does Alcohol Lead to Erectile Dysfunction?Even if we say that drinking a lot makes it difficult to get an erection, this isn't the same as saying that alcohol causes erectile dysfunction. Remember that erectile dysfunction doesn't just mean it happens once or twice, it refers to a consistent inability to get an erection. There are several things that make understanding the relationship between alcohol and erectile dysfunction difficult. One complicated factor is the way that the effect of alcohol depends on the amount consumed both over time and in a given day. How much is too much, and what effects are long term versus immediate?
Another complication is that men who drink to excess often engage in other behaviors (such as smoking) and experience other conditions (like cardiovascular disease) that are known to increase the risk of erectile dysfunction. It becomes difficult to know what precisely is causing the erectile dysfunction.
There is some evidence that heavy drinking decreases penile blood flow, and some studies suggest a link between longterm alcohol use and lowered testosterone. But neither of these theories are considered proven, and currently there is no known individual mechanism for how alcohol directly effects erectile functioning. As such, researchers (and the rest of us) are left to try and make connections and prove or disprove them.
Research About Alcohol and Erectile DysfunctionSome studies have documented that men who are heavy drinkers report higher levels of erectile dysfunction. But this finding has not been consistently replicated.
More recent research, including a 2009 survey in Australia and a 2007 meta-analysis which reviewed eleven other studies, suggest that moderate drinking may actually have a protective effect against erectile dysfunction, meaning that drinking one drink per day can actually reduce a man's risk of erectile dysfunction.
What has been well documented over time and over many studies is that chronic alcoholism leads to significant physical, psychological, and social problems that contribute to overall poor health and lower quality of life, and sexual functioning is often impaired.
What You Can DoIf you are experiencing erectile dysfunction, you should go see your doctor and speak to them about it. Erectile dysfunction may be a warning sign of other health issues; it may be an indication of other life imbalances (too much stress, relationship difficulties that are being ignored). It is possible that there is a connection between your drinking and erectile dysfunction, but it's something your doctor would need to explore with you in the broader context of your overall health.
If you aren't experiencing erectile dysfunction but are concerned that drinking may increase the chances that you will in the future, research doesn't offer one answer. If you drink to excess frequently, research does indicate this will have negative effects on your overall health, including your sexual health, and you may want to consider reducing the amount you drink. If you are a moderate drinker (one drink a day or less), current research doesn't indicate this will increase your risk of erectile dysfunction. But from a research perspective the picture is far from complete.
Cheng, J.Y.W., Ng, E.M.L., Chen, R.Y.L., Ko, J.S.N. "Alcohol Consumption and Erectile Dysfunction: Meta-Analysis of Population-Based Studies". International Journal of Impotence Research Vol. 19 (2007): 343-352.
Chew, K.K., Bremner, A., Stuckey, B., et. al. "Alcohol Consumption and Male Erectile Dysfunction: An Unfounded Reputation for Risk?" The Journal of Sexual Medicine Vol 6 (2009): 1386-1394.