“The Penis Is The Window To The Heart”: A Cardiologist On Lifestyle Treatments For Erectile Dysfunction

Man sitting with his hands over his crotch talks to a doctor
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Erectile dysfunction is a common problem, and yet it’s something that men are hesitant to discuss with medical professionals. That’s why our ears pricked up when we heard about the Regimen men’s health app, which has partnered with Viagra Connect. The app is a CE-certified medical device (meaning: it’s legit) and creates personalised plans to help men with a holistic approach that includes lifestyle changes and cognitive behavioural therapy, which may improve their symptoms of erectile dysfunction. While we’d always recommend speaking to professionals, there’s certainly a place for advice you can trust right there on your smartphone.

When we asked to speak to an expert from Regimen about the type of lifestyle changes the app might recommend, we expected to talk with a urologist, so were surprised and intrigued when we were offered the chance to speak to Dr Husain Shabeeh, a consultant cardiologist and advisor to Regimen. It turns out erectile dysfunction is linked with your overall cardiovascular health, and as such you can reduce your risk of suffering either through lifestyle changes.

Dr Husain Shabeeh
Dr Husain Shabeeh

Dr Husain Shabeeh is a consultant cardiologist who works both in the private sector and for the NHS. He is also works closely with urologists and andrologists to ensure optimum men’s cardiovascular health. He runs one of the only NHS joint men’s health cardiology and erectile dysfunction clinics with his urologist colleagues at King's College Hospital, to ensure men with this problem get cardiovascular screening and optimise their cardiovascular health. He has an interest in wellness, and is an advocate for the importance of lifestyle, diet and exercise on cardiovascular health.

How is erectile dysfunction linked to cardiovascular health?

I’m a cardiologist and there are not many cardiologists who know much about erectile function. I did a PhD in vascular function, and it’s the vascular cells which affect your heart arteries, but also affects your penile arteries. If you get erectile dysfunction, the cause is partly vascular. And that’s very important from a cardiologist point of view, because there’s some data that suggests erectile dysfunction precedes heart attack by a few years. 

A urologist friend of mine said “let’s do a clinic together” – a cardiology and erectile dysfunction clinic – because of the overlap of the causes. The cause is not just vascular, it’s psychological and there are other things as well, of course, but from my point of view, it’s clearly related to cardiovascular risk. So much so that in the UK guidelines, the question “do you have erectile dysfunction?” adds to your cardiovascular risk when assessing risk. 

Hence, you have a cardiologist talking about erectile health, which is far away from the heart. But a urologist once told me the penis is the window to the heart!

How can lifestyle factors affect the risk of erectile dysfunction?

To improve your cardiovascular risk, it’s not all about medication, it’s also about lifestyle – regular exercise, weight loss, a healthy diet. And if you’re improving your vascular risk, that also goes for erectile dysfunction, so all of those things can help your erectile health as well as your cardiovascular health.

What kind of lifestyle changes can you make?

If we all remain as healthy as possible, we’ll have much less cardiovascular disease, and it’s very likely we won’t have as many men with erectile dysfunction. I tend to use the government guidelines so people can look them up on the NHS website. 

Let’s start with some basics: weight loss and maintaining a healthy weight – I can’t stress the importance of this enough. And if we go to weight loss, then we talk about your diet. Fried foods and fatty foods are not good for you. But refined sugars like biscuits, cakes, ice cream may also be near the top of that list. And then ultra-processed food, which is most of the UK diet, unfortunately. All of that is not good for your cardiovascular risk. It’s not good for your weight, for your blood pressure, and subsequently for erectile health. 

So keep your weight down and eat healthy fresh foods: vegetables, fruits, and ideally wholemeal carbs rather than white bread, white pasta or white rice. If we all cooked our food and it was all fresh, it’d be much healthier for us.

Then regular activity is vital for your whole cardiovascular health. The current UK guidelines suggest 2½ hours a week, so five sessions of 30 minutes, but you have to feel like you’ve pushed yourself a little bit. If you do more intense exercise, you can do roughly half as much. But it is important to have that regular activity.

Why is it important to talk to someone if you are suffering with erectile dysfunction?

I’m not a urologist, but we know that psychological help, or cognitive behavioural therapy, definitely helps as well. So the message really should be if you’re having any trouble with your erections, you should let someone know – this shouldn’t be a taboo subject. 

One, because it can affect your mental health and wellbeing, but two, you may be sitting on a time bomb, where it’s best to get that help and make those changes now. Everything is fairly straightforward – exercise more, eat less –  but most people have to be told. You could also be sitting on another risk factor like smoking, for example. 

It will help manage your whole cardiovascular risk. We also check people’s blood pressure, blood sugar and blood cholesterol – those are the big risk factors for cardiovascular disease. So managing all of those risk factors will help your cardiovascular risk, and in turn will help erectile health as well.

Can medication help with erectile dysfunction too?

There are medications that can help. It’s very important for men’s erectile health that they’re able to have intercourse, but the idea is not just to have a problem, then take medication, and then have sexual intercourse. It’s to help yourself with the underlying issues and help your cardiovascular risk in general.

Nick Harris-Fry
Senior writer

Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.