The Mediterranean is a romantic place. Saltwater licks pale cream shorelines, and deep purple wine flows from happy hands. The food: plump tomatoes, tangy cheese, and slick olive oil.
According to new research, this part of the world isn’t just sexy: Its cuisine can improve your sex life.
Dr. Athanasios Angelis is a researcher and physician associated with the Hippokration General Hospital in Greece. In August, Angelis and colleagues presented evidence at the annual meeting of the European Society of Cardiology linking the Mediterranean diet with improvement in erectile dysfunction.
“Probably, the best way for men to maintain erectile ability is to take care of their health,” Angelis tells Inverse. “The Meditteranean diet is an excellent choice that combines health with culinary pleasure, as it contains a great variety of tasty dishes.”
Why the Meditteranean diet can improve erectile dysfunction ultimately comes down to its relationship to vascular health. Evidence suggests erectile dysfunction is predominantly a vascular disorder and the Meditteranean diet — an eating pattern that incorporates the cuisine of countries that border the region — is known to benefit heart health.
The discovery — Angelis and colleagues examined 250 men with both high blood pressure and erectile dysfunction. They were, on average, 56 years old.
The men were asked how much they adhered to the Mediterranean diet on a scale of 0 to 55. From there, the study team assessed various components of health: A treadmill test was used to determine their exercise capacity and blood samples revealed levels of testosterone. The study team also performed echocardiography tests — an ultrasound of the heart — to evaluate heart health.
A survey called the Sexual Health Inventory for Men was also used to measure the severity of the participant’s erectile dysfunction. The survey uses five questions to determine a score of 0 to 25, with 25 being the best for erectile performance.
Ultimately, the study team found men who scored a 29 or higher at adhering to the Mediterranean diet also had:
- The highest levels of testosterone
- Better erectile performance
- Lower arterial stiffness
- Higher coronary flow (the circulation of blood in the heart)
These findings have not yet been peer-reviewed or published, but Angelis says he hopes they will be soon.
Why can diet improve erectile dysfunction?
Erectile dysfunction is the inability to achieve or maintain an erection. It’s the most common sexual problem experienced by men.
While previously it was thought to be primarily caused by psychological hurdles, researchers now know physical problems are behind most examples. Raised blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes have all been linked to erectile dysfunction. Studies suggest erectile dysfunction can also be an early sign of cardiovascular disease.
Erectile dysfunction becomes more frequent in middle-aged men as they “accumulate years of common risk factors,” Angelis explains. These risk factors include an unhealthy diet, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and smoking. Lower levels of testosterone often occur alongside erectile dysfunction.
While the study team didn’t investigate the mechanisms behind why the Mediterranean diet was associated with these benefits, Angelis suspects the diet enhances the function of blood vessels and limits testosterone decline.
“The Meditteranean diet may contribute to higher testosterone levels by reducing inflammatory pathways that enhance the atherosclerotic process and suppress endogenous androgens,” he says. (Atherosclerosis is the thickening of arteries and androgens are sex hormones like testosterone.)
Testosterone is also lower in people with higher blood pressure, uncontrolled hypertension, and heart disease, Angelis explains. There is, in turn, a “strong and reverse link” between testosterone and cardiovascular health. “The Mediterranean diet is beneficial for both vascular physiology and hormone levels,” he says.
Who benefits from the Meditteranean diet?
While the men in the study were middle-aged, Angelis says the results suggest it would be smart for younger men to adopt the diet as well.
“The Mediterranean diet is an excellent culinary preference that may help younger people also maintain vascular health, and thus prevent erectile dysfunction,” he says. In turn, the diet can help combat cardiovascular disease.
- Whole grains (like oats, buckwheat, and pasta)
- Olive oil
- Low intake of red meat
- Low intake of dairy
Critically, Angelis advises men to think about the Meditteranean diet as less of an eating regime and more of a component of lifestyle. Another component, he emphasizes, is exercise.
Together they strengthen “erectile ability and, of course, vascular function” — components that reinforce each other and can benefit from a leafy salad paired with a jog.