Imagine this scenario: you’re about to get lucky. Clothes are coming off, steamy foreplay gets going, and just as you’re about to penetrate, you go soft. Cut to a long awkward silence and some, uh, revival tactics that are well intended, but never quite help finish what you started.
If this scenario sounds familiar, you’re in good company. “In an ideal world, strong erections would come simply and naturally,” says Caleb Backe, health and wellness expert at Maple Holistics. “However, due to a myriad of reasons, erectile dysfunction can set it at any given time or for a prolonged period of time for a large part of the male population. It is estimated that as many as 30 million men in the United States alone suffer from ED.”
So what is it that causes a weak erection? Does mental state play a role in whether or not you’re able to keep it up? Are weak erections a sign of a bigger health problem that you should be looking into? We asked a few experts to cover all the questions you might have.
Here’s a helpful guide for how to get and maintain a strong erection, potential factors that might be contributing to the problem, and steps to take with products that can help.
How Do Erections Work?
When something isn’t working the way it should be, understanding the science behind what is supposed to be happening is key to pinpointing the problem. As Dr. Josh Axe, D.N.M., C.N.S., D.C., founder of DrAxe.com explains, getting an erection is a full body and mind process. “Erections actually begin in the brain and they’re promoted by thoughts related to sex and sexual desires,” he says.
“This triggers the release of a neurotransmitter called dopamine, and it sends a chemical message from the brain to the penis, causing an increase of blood flow to the penis. The blood vessels leading to the reproductive system then relax and this allows increased circulation in the genital area. When you aren’t aroused, the blood vessels in your penis are only partially open. But when your brain sends messages to your penis that you are ready for sex, the vessels open and allow more blood to enter the area. Because of the increased blood flow, blood gets trapped in the penis, which makes the penis expand and causes an erection.”
The process is similar when you lose an erection. “An erection is reversed when the muscles in the penis begin to contract, which stops the inflow of blood,” adds Axe. “This happens when your brain stops sending signals to your penis and the hormone response is over. Your blood vessels begin to close up and the blood flow in your penis decreases.”
The reversal of an erection is obviously necessary, but as Dr. Michael Reitano, physician in residence at Roman explains, this can be the impetus for weaker erections. “Usually there is a balance between the chemicals that result in the increased blood flow that results in a firm erection and the chemicals that allow blood to exit the penis and return it to being soft,” he says. “That balance is precise and occurs in a sequence that allows an erection to last only as long as needed. However, in someone who experiences a softer erection, the balance of the chemicals that make the penis hard and the chemicals that return it to being soft is off. The scale is tilted.”
The physiology that makes this process possible has to do with the anatomy of the penis itself. “The penis has two chambers, called the corpora cavernosa,” says Backe. “These extend from the head of the penis deep into the pelvis. The insides of these chambers are tissue laden, and capable of gaining blood to grow in both blood volume and size.”
While physical anatomy and chemical reaction are both important for getting and keeping an erection, the brain is one of the most vital parts of this puzzle. “An erection is controlled by multiple areas of your brain, including the hypothalamus, limbic system and cerebral cortex,” notes Axe. “Stimulatory messages are sent to your spinal erection centers and this facilitates an erection. When there’s an issue with your brain’s ability to send these important messages, it can increase the smooth muscle tone in your penis and prevent the relaxation that is necessary to get an erection.”
What Causes a Strong, Hard Erection
In order to maintain a strong erection, your body and mind need to be in good working order. “A number of critical factors play a role in both the physical and mental influence of an erection,” explains Backe .
“On the physical side of things, we most prominently have physical fitness as the No. 1 factor in erection achievement and sustainability,” he continues “If a body isn’t healthy, it’s going to labor to send blood flowing properly and to function in many respects. Much like a car in need of a tune-up, a body which is out of shape or overweight is going to labor to perform functions – like causing an erection.”
Getting hard is also an overwhelmingly mental task. “Yes, men are saddled with the scheduled ‘morning boner’ and may experience an occasional random erection but by and large an erection needs to be achieved through mental stimulation,” says Backe. “If you aren’t turned on, your body isn’t going to send more blood to the penis – bottom line. So, ultimately, you need a clean and clear mind for healthy and clear erections. Keeping the mind healthy will allow proper mental stimulation to occur at the right time.”
A short list of factors includes:
- Arousal – Your mind needs to be focused on the task at hand, not any extraneous stresses or anxieties
- Good cardiovascular health – Your erection is caused by the flow of blood into the penis, so a strong heart is a must
The painful truth is that there are many more things that can go wrong (see below), getting in the way of your erection health, than the reverse.
“So many things have to go right for you to achieve a strong erection, which is why the strength of a man’s erection is a great indicator for their overall health,” explains Reitano. “For starters, your hormones must be released on demand, your arteries need to carry blood to the penis with perfect efficiency, your nervous system must transmit its signals without a hitch, and your mind must be working in perfect harmony with your body. That is a lot to ask of your body on demand.”
Potential Causes of Weak Erections
Getting an erection is a process that’s mental, chemical and physical. That means an issue occurring in any of those three areas will cause problems for you (and your little friend).
“If any of these physiological factors don’t work properly, a man can experience weak erections,” says Axe. “Problems maintaining an erection can be due to a number of issues, from hormone imbalances, to neurological issues, cardiovascular conditions, stress and issues with your mental health. There is not one clear way to explain erectile dysfunction — it depends on the man and his specific health condition.”
As far as the physical factors that contribute to weak erections go, Backe believes any ailment that impacts blood flow can become problematic.
“Diseases and illnesses can hamper one’s ability to achieve an erection,” he explains. “Cancer, diabetes and heart disease is the cause in many cases. Low testosterone count caused by genetics, inactivity or unusual level of estrogen in the body can limit penile function as well.” High blood pressure and high cholesterol can also be detrimental to erections.
Similarly, if you’re experiencing an issue that’s impacting your brain’s ability to communicate with your body, this could be what’s causing your penis problems.
“Some physical problems that can lead to weak erections are the inability of your brain to send signals to your penis, which can be caused by neurological conditions like MS, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s,” adds Axe. “Studies suggest that stress, anxiety and depression can produce major chemical changes in your brain, leading to the inability of smooth muscles to relax and allow for an erection. On top of this, researchers have also indicated that the failure to achieve an erection can aggravate a man’s anxiety levels, leading to a vicious cycle.”
While it was once believed that the psychological factors that impact a man’s ability to get and keep an erection were deep-seated, sex educator Alicia Sinclair says the mental issues that correlate with weak erections are actually more common.
“Surprisingly, up until the 1980’s, most sex experts held the Freudian view that weak erections were caused by deep-seated, unconscious neuroses or psychological problems,” she explains. “This view has now widely been rejected by professionals in the field of sexuality and it’s now understood that erection problems that stem from deep psychological problems are the exception, not the rule. A majority of weak erections are caused by a combination of sexual misinformation, relationship problems, depression and other life stresses.”
“Stress can impact the whole body, but in particular it can impact erections,” adds sex therapist Michael J. Salas. “This feeling impacts our hormones, as well as our nervous system. Learning how to manage stress, and balancing out with rest and relaxation is always important in all areas of life. Erectile dysfunction is no exception to this.”
Even if your relationship isn’t the source of it, depression can keep you from getting an erection. “Erectile dysfunction can affect someone with depression even when he is in a stable and loving relationship,” says Dr. Reitano. “Unfortunately, the drugs used to treat depression can cause erectile dysfunction, as well. The good news is that erectile dysfunction medications work whether the difficulty is from the depression itself or from the medications.”
A fuller list of the factors that can weaken erection strength or shorten erection duration include:
- Poor sleep
- Poor cardiovascular health
- Stress, anxiety or depression
- Alcohol, drugs or medications
- Sleep apnea
- Unhealthy or deficient diet
There’s even growing anecdotal data to support the belief that excessive porn consumption can lead to erectile dysfunction.
Steps to Take If You Have Trouble Getting an Erection
With so many potential health factors that may contribute to the problem, Axe suggests looking look at your current health state, and making changes where needed. “The first step to take when dealing with erectile dysfunction is to eliminate any diet, lifestyle or mental factors that can be improved on your own,” he says.
“Start by cutting out junk, processed and packaged foods. Instead, focus on eating high fiber foods, like fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds, and foods that will help to improve blood flow, such as leafy green vegetables. It’s also helpful to avoid drinking too much caffeine and alcohol. Next, make sure you are getting regular exercise. This will help you to balance your hormone levels, improve circulation and manage stress.”
Don’t forget mental health, either! “If you are experiencing stress at work, in your relationships or at home, open up communication about these issues,” notes Axe. “Try natural stress busters like spending time outdoors, taking some vacation time for yourself or seeing a therapist. You also need to make sure that you are getting enough rest every night — seven to nine hours of sleep per night.”
If you’re still experiencing issues with getting an erection after a few weeks, Dr. Axe says it’s time to schedule an appointment with your doctor. “Ask about what health issues can be causing erectile dysfunction, such as cardiovascular problems, hormone imbalances or neurological disorders,” he suggests. “It’s also important to discuss your medications with your doctor, if you are taking any. Some medications can cause issues with blood flow, so your doctor may choose to change or lower those prescriptions.”
Once all physical aspects have been cleared, Salas suggests analyzing your mental health as a good next step.
“Research shows that most erectile issues are a secondary cause to something psychological happening,” he says. “This is when it’s important to find a sex therapist. A lot of sex therapy begins with myth busting. We have a lot of myths about the meaning that comes from erectile issues. Most of those myths are simply untrue. Recognizing these myths can often decrease a lot of anxiety.”
Salas adds that finding a therapist who works with both the mind and body is your best bet. “When it comes to erectile issues, it’s important to learn about your own mood changes, and how your body responds to subtle changes,” he says.
“This can take some time, but it can help to stop a cycle of too much anxiety, followed by an erectile issue. It also can help you realize where you draw the most physical pleasure. People tend to focus only on the genitals when it comes to sex. However, they can experience pleasure all over their bodies. If they learn how to utilize this, it can be a resource for future arousal, fun and pleasure.”
Products That Can Help You Achieve an Erection
1. Sex Toys and Lubricants
Although sex toys may sound like an easy solution to your problem, Salas insists on proceeding with caution if it’s going to throw you off. “I think that sexual aides and toys can be useful, but I’m cautious to just start throwing a bunch of different sexual products at people,” he notes.
“Primarily because people tend to get anxious around introducing these things. Also, introducing these things too early can perpetuate a myth that it’s low desire that is leading to the erectile issue. Low sexual desire is often not the cause of the problem. There can be other factors, such as depression, anxiety, poor self-image or esteem, etc. Without proper processing, adding sexual aids can add to a sense of shame if they don’t work.”
2. Medications and Supplements
You should speak with a doctor before trying any medication that’s meant to help with stronger erections. If you’re looking to go that route, there are plenty of prescription drug options that have been engineered to help with this issue. “In terms of conventional treatment for erectile dysfunction, medications called PDE5-inhibitors are commonly prescribed,” says Dr Axe. “Four PDE5-inhibitors that have been approved for use in the United States include sildenafil, tadalafil, vardenafil and avanafil.”
“Erectile dysfunction medication interferes with the process that allows blood to leave the penis,” adds Reitano. “Men with erectile dysfunction would benefit from having the chemicals leading to the erection outweigh the actions of the chemicals that cause the penis to lose its firmness, to have the systems that cause the inflow outweigh the chemicals that cause the outflow.”
These specific chemicals are found in erectile dysfunction medications such as Viagra and Cialis.”The chemicals that cause the outflow are called phosphodiesterases,” says Reitano. “To give you a stronger erection, erectile dysfunction medications (PDE-5 inhibitors) block or inhibit the phosphodiesterases, which enables the blood vessels in the penis to stay open and receive more blood, creating a firmer and longer lasting erection. This is why the drugs are called phosphodiesterase inhibitors (PDE-5 inhibitors for short).”
Some men have had success by using natural supplements to improve their erections. “There are also natural remedies that can be used to improve erectile dysfunction,” says Dr. Axe. “This includes herbs such as ginseng, horny goat weed, maca root and ginkgo biloba. You can also try supplementing with L-arginine, DHEA and niacin. If you choose to try natural products to maintain a strong erection, it’s still a good idea to discuss this with your doctor, especially if you are also taking medications.”