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Living Well

Diabetes: Its Effects on Intimacy

Last updated: Aug 10, 2015

While it is well-documented that diabetes can affect men’s sexual health, it is far less discussed that women diabetics, too, cope with sexual dysfunction.  Because of shifting blood glucose levels—and the further complication of fluctuating hormone levels—many female diabetics struggle with sexually-related issues, such as lack of sensation in their genitals and vaginal dryness.   Much of the research about the link between diabetes and sexual dysfunction has been focused on men, with are fewer studies on women; but as incidents of diabetes increase in the United States, the growing population of diabetics includes many women—and many younger women—who are facing this sensitive issue.

A 2014 survey by the U.S. government agency the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that there are approximately 17.7 million women diabetics ages 20 to 65, and 4.3 million ages 20 to 44.1 Although it is unknown exactly how many female diabetics experience some form of sexual dysfunction, one influential research study on the topic, published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, found 47 percent of its subjects, all diabetic women, experienced difficulty achieving and or maintaining sexual arousal.2   

The study acknowledged that “Both psychological and physiological [aspects] of sexual dysfunction in diabetic women should be considered in diagnostic and treatment programs.” 2 Although these researchers cited depression as one of the leading causes of sexual dysfunction in diabetic women, subsequent clinical investigations have shown that there are numerous physical issues—many related to blood-sugar levels—that inhibit female diabetics’ enjoyment of sex.  These commonly include:

  • Vaginal yeast infections, frequent in diabetic women because the yeast thrive in warm, moist areas and are “fed” by elevated blood glucose
  • Decrease in libido
  • Lower or no sexual response, including the inability to become or stay aroused, little or lack of sensation in the vaginal area, and the inability to orgasm, either occasionally or always2

The latter problems have been liked to two primary causes: uncontrolled glucose levels affect blood vessels which “feed” the nerves that allow women to experience arousal and, in addition, increased blood glucose eventually destroys myelin, a protein that covers the nerves—and this leads to nerve damage, which inhibits sensation. 3

Another complicating factor for women is that blood glucose levels may rise and fall because of changes in hormone levels.  It is recommended that women make a note of the days when they are having your period in their blood glucose record book. 4

How are sexual issues in women with diabetes treated?

Women with diabetes who experience these issues or notice other sexual problems, should talk to their healthcare provider. He or she will ask you about:

  • Your health history
  • How often the problems happen and the details of them
  • Possible infections
  • Other diseases
  • Whether or not you drink alcohol or smoke, and how often
  • What type of medications you are taking
  • Being pregnant or if you have reached menopause
  • Whether or not you are depressed or have had any life changes

Your doctor might do a physical examination and/or order lab tests to help the diagnosis. Your doctor might also speak about blood sugar control. Unfortunately any women are reluctant to come forward and talk about such an intimate issue because they are embarrassed or because they mistakenly believe that there are no solutions; however, there are some strategies for addressing the problem.5

Prescription or over-the-counter vaginal lubricants may be useful for women experiencing vaginal dryness. Techniques to treat decreased sexual response include changes in position and stimulation during sexual relations. Psychological counseling may be helpful. Kegel exercises that help strengthen the pelvic muscles may improve sexual response. Studies of drug treatments are under way. 6

The Diabetes Live Well Program at Summit Medical Group provides outstanding medical and educational services for adults with diabetes. Our professional, experienced staff is comprised of 3 board certified endocrinologists and a certified diabetes educator with expertise in advanced diabetes management. Each year since 2008, we have earned the prestigious American Diabetes Association Education Recognition, which recognizes excellent diabetes self-management programs nationwide.

Click here to learn more about 
our Diabetes Live well program


Footnotes

1. CDC. "2014 National Diabetes Statistics Report." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 15 May 2014. Web. 04 Aug. 2015

2. Newman and Bertelson. “Sexual Dysfunction in Diabetic Women.”  Journal of Behavioral Medicine, April 15, 1986,.

3. Bouchez, Collette, and Brunilda Nazario, MD. "How Diabetes Can Affect a Woman's Sexual Health." WebMD. WebMD, 16 Aug. 2013. Web. 05 Aug. 2015.

4. ibid.

5. Cleveland Clinic. "Diabetes and Female Sexuality." Cleveland Clinic. The Cleveland Clinic Foundation, 10 Feb. 1014. Web. 04 Aug. 2015.

6. ibid.

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