It is estimated that around half of the male population will suffer from erectile dysfunction at least once in their lifetime. In my previous column on the topic of menopause and Traditional Chinese Medicine (NOVA 17.11 "Journeys"), I mentioned the role of the kidney's yang energy in providing the internal fire necessary for our sexual drive. As the kidney function begins to decline with the onset of old age, so does our libido, although healthy older couples can still enjoy an enjoyable sex life into their eighth decade.
A man needs to be first sexually aroused to get an erection. This mental stimulation sends a message from the brain to the male sexual organ, causing blood flow to the erectile muscle tissue of the penis to be greatly increased to make it rigid. This facilitates the penetration of the woman's vagina during the sexual act, and the ejaculation of semen necessary for reproduction.
So the inability to achieve, or maintain, an erection can be caused by emotional reasons, for example, a man losing interest in sex due to stress, depression or simply fatigue. Or it can be caused by physical reasons, when the cardio vascular system is dysfunctional so that insufficient blood is being pumped to the male sexual organ to make it erect. This explains why doctors often consider the onset of erectile dysfunction as an early warning sign of potential life threatening disease such as heart attack or stroke in a few years' time.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, several organs are involved in the erection process. These include the heart, the spleen, the liver and the kidney. The liver is responsible for the circulation of Qi(energy) throughout the body. It stores the blood, and it is influential in the maintenance of the tendons and sinews. As the male sexual organ consists of muscle tissue in the penis and the perineum, it was often referred to in the old Chinese medical classics as "the ancestral sinew". For this sinew to become rigid, it needs an abundant supply to Qi and blood. Both of these substances are under the control of the liver.
This harmonious flow of Qi is also essential for our mental and emotional health. The liver is easily affected by frustration, anger and stress which cause the liver Qi to stagnate. In return, any long-term damage to the liver will have an effect on our emotions, which explains why alcoholics gradually lose their bonhomie to become morose, irritable and aggressive over time.
One should mention that, according to Traditional Chinese Medicine's theory of the five elements, the liver is associated with the wood element, which has an upward and expending nature similar to the male sexual organ. The yang partner of the liver is the gallbladder. Together, they work in harmony. The liver directs blood to the sinews, and the gallbladder provides the sinews with Qi.
On an emotional level, this organ is associated with the ability to make decisions, and to be courageous if needed. A gallbladder weakness will be characterised by timidity and cowardice. To the Chinese, someone who lacks courage is often referred as "having a small gallbladder", while in our Western culture, this person would be accused of lacking testosterone, or "having no balls", an humiliating reference to his lack of sexual potential.
The kidney yang energy assists the liver in the erectile process. It is the fire under the pot, necessary to all transformation, and it has a strong effect on male and female sexual desire. While the kidney yin assists the liver in supplying blood to the penis during the arousal period, it has a more important role in the production of sperm. A deficiency of kidney yin can lead to male infertility, a deficiency of kidney yang to erectile dysfunction, and an excess of kidney yang energy to premature ejaculation.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the heart is the emperor of all organs. Through its pumping action, it directs blood to the penis. The heart is also associated with the Shen, the spirit responsible for our mental health, and as such it can have an effect on impotence due to psychological causes. An imbalance in our heart mental attribute, could lead to phobias, or excessive sexual fantasies and masturbation, resulting in unsuccessful sexual intercourse.
Other organs have an important role in male sexuality. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine's theory, the spleen and the stomach are the source of postnatal energy and blood. Together, they process the food and ingested fluids, and the spleen transforms these substances into Qi and blood. If the transformation of these fluids is impaired, an accumulation of dampness soon occurs. When it is not treated promptly, it gradually transforms into damp heat. Since dampness tends to affect the lower part of abdomen, it is a common cause of urinary infections in women and, sometimes, erectile dysfunction in men.
In my next column, I will explore this fascinating topic further to look at other causes of disturbance, together with some natural treatment options which have been successful enough to leave the Viagra on the shelf.
Olivier Lejus MHSc (TCM), BHSc (Acup.) is an accredited acupuncturist practising in Sydney
Olivier Lejus BHSc.MHSc. is a registered acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist practising in Sydney. A former casual university lecturer and tutor in Oriental medicine with over 15 years experience in clinical practice, Olivier specialises in Japanese- style acupuncture for the treatment of male and female infertility, migraine, pain, and insomnia.www.olejusacupuncture.com