When most people hear the words “diabetes and sexual dysfunction," they automatically think it's the man's problem. But women with diabetes can also have sexual problems related to their blood sugar levels.
For diabetes educator Ann Albright, PhD, RD, that’s not only a medical fact; it’s a fact of life.
Diabetes is a serious disease that can cause debilitating nerve pain.
Living with type 1 diabetes for 41 years, Albright says that when glucose isn’t under good control, a woman’s sex life can pay the price.
“It’s not diabetes per se that harms your intimate life. It’s the complications of uncontrolled blood sugar levels that cause problems for both men and women -- the only difference is that many women simply aren’t as aware of this complication as men are,” she says. Albright also is the president of health education for the American Diabetes Association.
She says women are getting better at coming forward with intimacy issues. But when it comes to diabetes, most are still reluctant to talk to their doctor.
Endocrinologist Loren Wissner Greene agrees. “Women aren’t talking to their doctors about it, doctors aren’t talking to women about it, and so for many it remains a silent problem that goes undiagnosed and untreated.” Greene is a clinical associate professor at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City.
When Glucose and Intimacy Collide
Although women with diabetes may be slow to admit there is a problem between the sheets, the medical community has been even slower to study the issue. It wasn’t until 1971 that a groundbreaking study was published on this subject in the journal Diabetes.
In the study, 35% of women with diabetes reported being unable to have an orgasm during intercourse, compared to just 6% of the women who didn't have diabetes.
Albright says one reason women with diabetes may have trouble achieving orgasm is that high blood sugars can affect vaginal lubrication.
“The lubrication issues not only can impact sensation, they also can make sex very uncomfortable, even painful,” she says.
In a 1986 study now considered a cornerstone of research on the topic, nearly half the women who participated had a sexual problem. Of these, 32% said they had problems with lubrication. Eighty-nine percent said the problems started after their diabetes diagnosis.
Albright says there are many health benefits of good blood sugar control, but many women don’t realize that better lubrication, and, ultimately, a better sex life, may be among them.
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