Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 5/10/21
Erectile dysfunction, or ED, has a large range of potential causes, from physical health issues to psychological conditions such as anxiety, depression and fear of sexual failure.
One of the most common physical causes of erectile dysfunction is atherosclerosis, a disease in which your arteries become clogged due to plaque buildup.
If you have clogged arteries, you may find it more difficult to get an erection, even when you feel sexually aroused. Clogged arteries can also cause other health issues and increase your risk of serious medical events such as myocardial infarction (heart attack).
Below, we’ve explained how clogged arteries can contribute to ED, as well as the symptoms you may notice if you’re affected.
We’ve also explained what you can do to treat ED caused by clogged arteries, from medications to lifestyle changes and more.
Atherosclerosis, a form of fatty deposits that clog your arteries, is a very common health issue for men.
Erections are all about blood flow. When you’re aroused, blood flows to the tissue inside your penis to create an erection.
Since clogged arteries reduce the ability for blood to flow throughout your body, you may find it harder to get or maintain an erection.
If you have clogged arteries or other signs of cardiovascular disease, treating them may improve both your sexual performance and your general health.
Believe it or not, ED is actually one of the early warning signs of cardiovascular disease, which is why, if you’re experiencing ED, you shouldn’t wait to speak to your healthcare provider.
In order to understand how clogged arteries can cause erectile dysfunction, it’s important to go over the basics of how erections work.
Erections are all about healthy blood flow. When you feel sexually aroused, either due to mental stimulation, physical stimulation or both, impulses from your nervous system cause the muscles that control blood flow to the erectile tissue of your penis to relax.
This relaxation allows blood to flow in and fill the corpora cavernosa -- the two sponge-like areas of erectile tissue located inside your penis.
As blood flows in and fills this tissue, your penis becomes larger and firmer. At the same time, a membrane that surrounds the tissue of your penis, called the tunica albuginea, retracts, helping to maintain your erection during sex.
After you reach orgasm and ejaculate, the same process occurs in reverse, with the membrane relaxing and blood flowing out of your erectile tissue.
Clogged arteries can affect this process by narrowing your blood vessels and reducing the flow of blood throughout your body, including to your penis.
Since your penile artery is small, even modest changes to blood flow throughout your body can have a noticeable impact on your erections.
Can get an erection, but not consistently enough to have sex when you want to
Can get an erection, but find it difficult to maintain it for long enough to have sex
Can’t get an erection at all
Although erectile dysfunction and clogged arteries are both common in older men, it’s possible to develop ED at any age.
Erectile dysfunction is usually treatable with medication, changes to your habits and lifestyle or a combination of these things.
If you have ED and think clogged arteries could be responsible, it’s best to talk to a healthcare provider about treatment options.
Most cases of ED are treated with medications called PDE5 inhibitors. These work by improving blood flow to the erectile tissue of your penis, making it easier for you to get and stay hard when you feel sexually aroused.
Most of these are designed for use as-needed before sex. Some, such as tadalafil, can be used on a daily basis to treat ED and improve your sexual performance without the need to take your medication shortly before sex.
We offer several of these ED medications online, following a private consultation with a licensed healthcare provider who will determine if a prescription is appropriate.
If you have significantly clogged arteries, your healthcare provider may prescribe medication for coronary artery disease -- the disease caused by atherosclerosis.
Several types of medication are used to treat coronary artery disease and other cardiovascular health conditions, including statins, beta-blockers, calcium channel blockers and blood thinners such as aspirin.
These medications don’t directly treat erectile dysfunction.
In fact, some medications prescribed for coronary artery disease and other cardiovascular problems can interact with ED medications and are unsafe to use together.
However, since these medications are prescribed to reduce the severity of clogged arteries and other cardiovascular issues, they may help to improve your general physical performance.
One of the best ways to treat clogged arteries is to live a healthy lifestyle. Simple habits, such as eating better and exercising frequently, can have a significant positive impact on your heart and vascular.
They may also help to improve your sexual performance.
Try making the following lifestyle changes to improve your cardiovascular and sexual health:
If you smoke, try to quit. The chemicals in cigarettes can do immense damage to your cardiovascular system, including the blood vessels that supply blood to your penis when you’re sexually aroused.
Smoking is also closely linked to deaths from coronary heart disease -- in fact, almost a third of all coronary heart disease deaths are associated with smoking.
If you’re a smoker, quitting can help to reverse damage to your blood vessels and make it easier for blood to flow to your penis. Our guide to quitting smoking shares techniques that you can use to make the process of kicking the habit easier.
Eat a heart-friendly diet. Atherosclerosis, the plaque buildup that causes your arteries to become clogged and less effective, is caused by a buildup of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol in your arteries.
Making changes to your diet can help to lower your LDL cholesterol levels and increase your levels of HDL, or “good” cholesterol.
To improve your blood flow and overall heart health, try to limit your saturated fat intake and eat lots of nutrient-rich foods such as fruits and vegetables, soluble fiber and foods that contain omega-3 fatty acids.
It’s also important to limit your consumption of salt, which can raise your blood pressure and increase your risk of heart disease.
Many experts in cardiovascular health recommend following the DASH Eating Plan -- a flexible eating plan that can lower LDL cholesterol and blood pressure.
Keep yourself physically active. While there’s no need to work out like an athlete, it’s important to engage in regular exercise to keep your cardiovascular system functioning properly.
The American Heart Association recommends gradually working up to at least 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity, such as brisk walking, per week.
Regular exercise can help to lower your LDL cholesterol, increase your HDL cholesterol, reduce your blood pressure and strengthen your heart, all of which keep your arteries in good condition and make it easier for blood to flow throughout your body.
Maintain a healthy body weight. Research shows that heart disease is closely linked to weight, with obesity associated with elevated blood pressure, blood lipids and other issues that can damage your blood vessels and restrict blood flow.
Other research has found that obesity is a significant risk factor for sexual dysfunction, with obese people three times more likely to develop ED than their peers.
If you’re overweight or obese, try to aim for a body mass index (BMI) of between 18.5 and 24.9. You can work out your BMI using the NHLBI’s online BMI calculator.
Although many cases of ED are linked to clogged arteries, dealing with ED doesn’t necessarily mean that you have atherosclerosis or coronary artery disease.
Other common causes of erectile dysfunction include:
Other physical issues and diseases
, such as type 2 diabetes, chronic kidney disease, multiple sclerosis and Peyronie’s disease.
Injuries to your penis and surrounding tissue, including accidental injuries that affect this part of your body or injuries from prostate or bladder surgery.
Medications, such as blood pressure medications, antidepressants, tranquilizers, ulcer medications and medications that affect your production of androgen hormones.
Psychological issues, such as anxiety, depression, stress or concerns about engaging in sexual behavior.
Habits and lifestyle factors, such as being overweight or physically inactive, using illicit drugs, drinking alcohol excessively or smoking.
Our guide to the causes of erectile dysfunction provides more detail on the factors listed above, as well as the effects they can have on your sexual health and performance.
Clogged arteries can have several negative effects on your health, including sexual issues such as erectile dysfunction.
If you have ED and think it could be related to a cardiovascular health issue, it’s important to talk to a licensed healthcare provider.
While ED is usually treatable with medication, you may need to take additional steps to improve your cardiovascular health.
Prioritizing your heart health can not only improve your erections -- it can also help to lower your risk of dealing with serious issues such as heart attack or stroke.