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Diabetes in the bedroom

September 4, 2012 in News

Sex and sexual difficulties are tough to approach. Bringing intimate matters out for frank, clinical discussion can make a lot of people uncomfortable, whether the discussion is with a partner or a member of their health care team. But when these discussions are avoided, there’s no way to learn about treatments that can help.

It’s been well known for many years that men with diabetes are susceptible to sexual problems, including ED (erectile dysfunction, often referred to as impotence). This is due in part to damage to the nerves and blood vessels in the penis, and can be increased by cardiovascular disease risk factors like obesity, smoking, and being inactive; some medications used to treat diabetes also have side effects that can increase ED. Psychological factors such as stress, anxiety, and depression also can have a significant effect.

What has not been well studied is the effect diabetes may have on women’s sexual function, especially older women. Aiming to address the lack of research in this area, Dr. Alison Huang of the University of California, San Francisco led a team that surveyed 2,300 women between the ages of 40 and 80.

Dr. Huang’s team found that more than a third of the women surveyed who were currently being treated with insulin reported being either “moderately” or “very” sexually dissatisfied. About a quarter of the women with diabetes who were not on insulin reported the same level of dissatisfaction. The rate of sexual dissatisfaction among women of the same age without diabetes was also high, with about one in five reporting the same level of dissatisfaction.

Even once the researchers adjusted the numbers to take into account differences in age, race, relationship status, obesity, and estrogen treatment for menopause symptoms, the rates of sexual dissatisfaction among women with diabetes remained significantly higher than in those without diabetes.

Women with complications of diabetes, such heart or kidney disease, were much less likely than the other women surveyed to have sex at least once per month. Among women who were sexually active, those who were taking insulin reported higher rates of problems with vaginal lubrication and with orgasms than the other women surveyed. Dr. Huang stated that these results indicate that preventing complications of diabetes may help women prevent the development of sexual problems. Healthy diet and regular exercise, also recommended for men at risk for developing ED, may be the first line of defense for women with diabetes.

Huang’s specialty is women’s urogenital problems. She suspects that where men’s diabetes-related sexual problems have more to do with blood vessel damage or cholesterol buildup in the arteries that supply the penis, women’s issues may stem more from the nerve damage that occurs due to high blood sugar over a long period of time. She also feels that the overall burden of living with a chronic illness may play an important role; the stress this causes on a daily basis may inhibit women’s ability to enjoy sexual activity.

Whether male or female, it’s important to recognize that if you suffer from sexual problems, you are not alone. It is also vitally important to talk to your health care provider about what you are experiencing. Your provider can help you determine if the issues are related to your diabetes or to another condition, and there are also many treatment options available for both men and women.

The American Diabetes Association has some good information on sexual health issues, including how to talk to your health care provider about your symptoms. They have separate pages to address the different concerns that women and men may have.

If you would like to read the original basis for this article, you can access it on Reuters.com.

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