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Women, Sex, and Diabetes

Men aren't the only ones who have sexual problems as a result of diabetes.

Blood Sugar and Sexual Desire continued...

“It all comes down to microcirculation,” says Mezitis, an endocrinologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. “When blood glucose is uncontrolled, it impacts the tiny blood vessels that feed our nerves and allow a woman to experience the full spectrum of intimate sensation.”

When microcirculation is impaired in men, erectile dysfunction happens -- so the impact is obvious to both partners, he says. In women, the effect isn't as apparent. It’s all about arousal and sensation in the genital area, which frequently no one but the woman herself must acknowledge.

Greene says the longer sugar levels remain uncontrolled, the more likely it is for circulation problems to get in the way of intimacy.

“Over time, increased glucose in the blood begins to destroy myelin -- a protein that covers nerves,” Greene says. When this happens, it leads to neuropathy, a type of nerve damage.

The most frequent type is peripheral neuropathy. It commonly results in foot problems such as numbness and tingling. Another type of neuropathy, autonomic neuropathy, affects nerves in areas such as the stomach and urinary tract and may also impact the nerves in the pelvis -- nerves that are directly connected to sexual stimulation.

“Again, it’s damage to the tiny blood vessels supplying the nerves that are at the root of the problem,” she says.

“Some people believe only those with type 1 diabetes, which develops at an early age, are at risk for these kinds of problems, but in reality many people with type 2 diabetes have it for many years before they are diagnosed, and when they are diagnosed, most of the time some damage has already occurred,” Greene says.

Women, Sex, and Diabetes: The Role of Infections

Doctors say women with diabetes are also prone to two types of medical problems that also can interfere with intimacy: Yeast infections and urinary tract infections.

“The vagina is a moist, warm place that favors the overgrowth of yeast anyway -- add excess sugar into the mix and you have the ideal breeding ground for yeast, one reason women with uncontrolled blood sugars frequently develop chronic yeast infections,” Mezitis says.

What many may not recognize is the impact these infections have on delicate vaginal tissue, and the role they can play in making sex very uncomfortable, even after the infection has cleared.

“It can leave the vaginal tissue raw and irritated, particularly if the infections are chronic and keep coming back -- the irritation continues, and combined with a lack of lubrication, this can make sex extremely uncomfortable, even painful,” Greene says.

Urinary tract infections can have the same effect, Mezitis says. “The burning and pain can make sex very uncomfortable -- and when there is chronic infection, there is chronic discomfort that can cause a woman to avoid sex for long periods of time."

Avoiding sex may only make the problem worse.

“The longer a woman goes without having sex, the more difficult and sometimes painful it can be for her to begin again," Greene says.

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