Medically reviewed by Patrick Carroll, MD
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 4/10/2020
According to data from the Cleveland Clinic, about 40 percent of men are affected by erectile dysfunction at the age of 40, making difficulty getting an erection far more widespread than many people think.
Physiologically speaking, healthy erections — and a healthy sex life, in general — are all about blood flow. When blood is able to freely flow into the erectile tissue of your penis, assuming no other issues are present, you’ll find it far easier to get an erection when you’re sexually aroused.
When your blood flow is restricted, whether due to a health condition, a habit or something you ate or drank, you’ll find it more difficult to get an erection. If your blood flow is very restricted, it’s possible that you might not be able to get an erection at all.
Whether you’re concerned about your sexual performance and want to take action, or just want to improve your general health, taking steps to improve blood flow to your penis can pay major dividends when it comes to your sex life.
Below, we’ve listed a range of science-backed tips and tactics you can use to improve the level of blood flow to your penis. We’ve tried to cover every possible base, from simple changes that you can make to your diet to FDA-approved medications, healthy habits and more.
The foods you eat can have a significant impact on your blood flow. Eat a healthy diet that’s rich in vitamins, minerals and nutrients and you should be able to improve blood flow and other key health markers; eat poorly and you could experience a reduction in blood flow.
If you want to improve blood flow to your penis (and elsewhere throughout your body), try to add the following foods to your diet:
Cinnamon. Cinnamon is thought to improve heart health. In a 2015 review of scientific study data, researchers found that cinnamaldehyde and cinnamic acid, two of the major organic compounds in cinnamon, can produce nitric oxide and reduce vascular tension (these studies were conducted on animal subjects).
Garlic. Garlic is believed to cause improvements in blood flow. In a three-month study on patients with coronary artery disease, researchers found that regular consumption of garlic may improve endothelial function, helping to relax arteries and increase blood flow throughout the body.
Fish that contain omega-3 fatty acids. Fish that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, are both good for blood flow and excellent sources of protein. While the evidence on their benefit to overall heart health still needs more investigation, omega-3 fatty acids do have a proven range of health benefits, including a reduction in resting blood pressure.
Onions. Onions are rich in flavonoid antioxidants, which can help to dilate your arteries and improve your cardiovascular health. In a 2013 study on healthy male subjects, researchers found that regular consumption of onion extract could be beneficial for improving cardiovascular health.
Citrus fruits. Lemons, oranges, grapefruits and other citrus fruits contain large amounts of flavonoids, which are linked to improved blood flow and heart health.
However, if you use Viagra® or other ED medications, it’s best to cross grapefruit off the list above, as grapefruit and grapefruit juice both have the potential to increase blood levels of ED medications in your body.
Dark chocolate. Like onions and citrus fruits, chocolate with a high cacao percentage is rich in flavonoids that can improve heart function. Aim for dark chocolate with a very high cacao percentage (at least 70 percent), as this is the most effective for improving blood flow.
Nitrate-rich vegetables. Certain vegetables, such as beets, spinach and collard greens, are rich in nitrates. These are converted into nitric oxide by the body, which boosts blood flow throughout your body and can improve your cardiovascular health.
Nuts. Certain nuts, such as walnuts and almonds, are rich in minerals like iron and magnesium that can improve blood flow and cardiovascular health. They’re also packed with vitamins A, B, C and E.
Red hot peppers. Red hot peppers — more specifically, the capsaicin in these peppers contain — is linked to improved blood flow. Studies of capsaicinoids
found that they might promote healthy blood flow by stimulating the release of nitric oxide (among other modes of action).
Turmeric. Like red hot peppers, turmeric is linked to an increase in blood flow. In a 2017 study of curcumin — a compound found in turmeric — in healthy middle-aged and older men and postmenopausal women, researchers found that regular use improves blood flow by a significant amount.
As well as emphasizing the blood flow-promoting foods listed above, it’s also important to avoid foods that can harm your blood flow. Try to limit your consumption of the following foods:
Salt. Salty foods increase the amount of sodium in your bloodstream, which in turn can cause your blood pressure to increase. This can damage the arteries that supply blood to your penis, affecting your ability to get an erection and perform sexually.
While a certain amount of salt is necessary for optimal health (the AHA recommends a maximum of 2,300mg of sodium per day), it’s important to avoid eating too many foods that are rich in salt if you’re concerned about blood flow and sexual performance.
Sugar. While sugar doesn’t directly affect blood pressure like salt, overconsumption of sugar can increase your risk of developing diabetes — a disorder that can damage your blood flow and massively increase your risk of dealing with erectile dysfunction.
Trans fats. Trans fats are the worst form of dietary fat, with no health benefits and a range of negative cardiovascular effects (particularly for LDL cholesterol). This guide from Harvard Medical School goes into more detail on why they’re best avoided.
It’s also important to stay hydrated. Blood is primarily made up of water, meaning it flows best when you drink a normal amount of hydrating fluids. When you’re dehydrated, there’s a lower volume of blood available to travel through your body to muscles, organs and tissue — like your penis.
While there’s no ideal amount of water for everyone to drink daily, the eight-by-eight rule of eight glasses of eight ounces each is a good guide. If you’re highly active or it’s a hot day, consider adding an extra glass or two.
While there’s no need to obsess over your body fat percentage or weigh yourself every day, it’s important to maintain a healthy weight for optimal blood circulation, cardiovascular health and sexual performance.
Obesity and erectile dysfunction are closely linked, with men who are overweight or obese more likely than average to experience some sexual performance issues.
While obesity isn’t a direct cause of ED, it’s also closely associated with hypertension, diabetes and other health issues that can increase your risk of developing erectile dysfunction. These are also factors that can affect blood circulation, stopping blood from properly flowing to your penis.
There are also other sex-related issues related to obesity, such as the risk of developing lower testosterone levels than average. All of these make it important to maintain a healthy weight if you’re concerned about blood flow and overall sexual performance.
Exercising is one of the most effective ways to improve your cardiovascular health and increase blood circulation, including to the tissue in your penis responsible for helping you get and keep an erection during sex.
Regular exercise can cause a reduction in your blood pressure levels, promoting healthy blood flow and improving your general health. This makes it important to exercise regularly even if you aren’t specifically concerned about your sexual performance.
In a 2018 scientific review, researchers stated that both resistance training (which can include weightlifting and calisthenics) and endurance training are effective at lowering baseline blood pressure. In short, exercise, in any form, is a great way to improve your body’s blood flow.
Alcohol and nicotine, whether inhaled through cigarettes or a vaporizer, are both harmful to your blood flow and sexual performance.
Let’s cover nicotine first. Regardless of how you inhale nicotine, it will have multiple adverse effects once it’s in your body. This means that your heart will start to beat faster, your blood pressure will start to rise and the arteries that control blood flow throughout your body will start to constrict.
The end result is a reduction in the ability of your heart to pump effectively, reducing blood circulation through your body — including the flow of blood to the erectile tissue of your penis.
In short, nicotine — regardless of how you opt to ingest it — is not a good choice for optimal blood flow and sexual performance.
Likewise, although alcohol may not always directly restrict your blood flow (it’s actually a mild vasodilator when used in normal amounts but at larger amounts, it does restrict your blood flow), it can affect your sexual performance. In a 2007 study, heavy alcohol consumption was closely linked to a range of male sexual dysfunctions, including ED.
For optimal blood flow, it’s best to avoid nicotine in any form. While a small amount of alcohol is fine, it’s best not to drink heavily if you’re aiming for optimal blood flow and sexual performance.
When you start to feel stressed, your body activates its sympathetic nervous system, resulting in, among other things, constriction of blood vessels and increases in production of stress hormones like epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol. This leads to higher blood pressure levels and a reduction in blood flow throughout your body.
Just like foods and substances like nicotine that have a vasoconstricting effect, stress can affect blood flow to your penis and potentially cause erectile dysfunction. In fact, stress is one of the most common psychological causes of ED (as well as an indirect physical cause).
While some stress is unavoidable, reducing your average stress level can be a simple, effective way to promote healthy blood flow to your penis and improve your sexual performance.
This can be as simple as changing your day-to-day habits and routine to avoid major sources of stress. You can also make use of stress reduction and relaxation techniques, such as guided imagery and breath focus.
PDE5 (Phosphodiesterase-5) inhibitors are medications that are specifically designed to improve the rate of blood flow to your penis, helping you enhance sexual performance and avoid erectile dysfunction.
One of the most well-known PDE5 inhibitors is Viagra (or sildenafil). There are also several other widely used medications in this category, such as Cialis® (or tadalafil, a long-lasting PDE5 inhibitor) and Levitra® (vardenafil).
These medications are specifically used to treat erectile dysfunction, making them a treatment option worth considering if you don’t notice any improvement in blood flow by exercising, changing your diet, maintaining a healthy weight and avoiding unhealthy substances.
PDE5 inhibitors are all prescription medications, meaning you’ll need to talk with a doctor before you can use them. Our guide to what you should expect from ED medication covers Viagra and other PDE5 inhibitors in more detail, with information on their effects and how they work.
When it comes to treating erectile dysfunction, developing habits and medications that enhance blood flow to the penis can be very helpful to improving your sex life.
Although some cases of ED are psychological in nature (for example, ED caused by performance anxiety), most cases can be treated through habits and medications that enhance blood flow to the penis.
Our guide to what factors cause ED and what you can do about them covers the physical and psychological issues that can contribute to erectile dysfunction and other sexual performance issues, as well as the most effective treatment options.