As a keen cyclist I read with interest — and some alarm — research from Poland this week suggesting that male cyclists are at risk of erectile problems and possibly infertility.
The problem is that riding a bike can put pressure on the Alcock canal (yes, that really is its name), a part of the male anatomy that contains nerves and arteries that feed the genital area, causing loss of sensation and other problems.
Riding a bike can also lead to local atherosclerosis, a thickening of the arteries that could, in the long term, reduce the blood supply to this precious organ, according to the Boston School of Sexual Medicine.
This is no small issue — the number of people who cycle is rising. According to the charity Cycling UK, in 2018, 11 per cent of UK adults cycled at least once a week, rising to 20 per cent (nearly 11 million) in 2020. And surveys suggest the great majority of them are men, although this gap is narrowing.
So how real are the risks? Well, there is good news and bad news.
The problem is that riding a bike can put pressure on the Alcock canal (yes, that really is its name), a part of the male anatomy that contains nerves and arteries that feed the genital area, causing loss of sensation and other problems
When researchers from the New England Research Institutes asked more than 1,700 American men about their cycling habits, they found that men who cycled for less than three hours a week (that’s me), not only didn’t have a problem, but that modest levels of cycling seemed to be positively good for their sex lives, with 40 per cent less chance of suffering from erectile dysfunction than those who never cycle. Hurrah!
The news wasn’t so great for keen cyclists, who were 70 per cent more likely than non-cyclists to have moderate or severe erectile dysfunction.
It’s not just men — with women, there is some evidence that lots of time spent in the saddle can lead to problems such as urinary tract infections, though not any obvious negative impact on their sex lives.
(In the meantime, my middle-aged male friends who are enthusiastic cyclists all recommend switching to saddles with a shorter ‘nose’, or preferably none at all.)
To be fair, although erectile dysfunction is a common and distressing condition for men, cycling is not up there as a leading cause.
Nor is wearing tight trousers, despite the popular belief that it is. Yes, if you wear very tight trousers for long periods of time then you might reduce the blood supply to your essential parts, but I can’t find any specific research on this, and it doesn’t seem to have slowed down Sir Mick Jagger.
Most cases of erectile dysfunction are actually caused by smoking (which doubles your risk), high blood pressure (which also doubles your risk), excessive drinking, being overweight and stress — all in some way affecting blood flow, nerve sensitivity and or hormones such as testosterone.
So the obvious answer, if you have erectile problems (or wish to prevent them) is to stop smoking, lose weight, drink less, reduce your blood pressure and try to manage your stress.
Other things that help include eating a Mediterranean-style diet, flossing your teeth and avoiding certain medications, such as antihistamines (for allergies) and nasal decongestants (especially those that contain pseudoephedrine). Evidence for the benefits of the Mediterranean-style diet comes from a study of 250 Greek men with high blood pressure, carried out by the University of Athens in 2021.
They showed that the men who ate a diet rich in fish, nuts, fruit, vegetables and olive oil, not only had higher testosterone levels and healthier blood vessels but also better erectile performance (the latter assessed using the Sexual Health Inventory for Men, essentially a questionnaire).
The researchers think a Mediterranean-style diet improves blood flow and maintains healthy testosterone levels.
As for flossing, according to a 2018 study by Jinan University in China, men with gum disease are nearly three times as likely to suffer from impotence as those with healthier gums. One theory is that gum disease can lead to widespread inflammation which damages blood vessels throughout your body, including your brain.
Most cases of erectile dysfunction are actually caused by smoking (which doubles your risk), high blood pressure (which also doubles your risk), excessive drinking, being overweight and stress — all in some way affecting blood flow, nerve sensitivity and or hormones such as testosterone
And drugs that contain antihistamines or pseudoephedrine? These medicines are popular at this time of year for people with hay fever or blocked up noses, but they can also have a short-term impact on male sex drive.
That is because antihistamines work by blocking the action of histamine, a chemical found in the cells that causes allergy symptoms — but histamine is also important for healthy erections; while pseudoephedrine can cause blood vessel constriction.
These are just some of a long list of medicines that can cause impotence problems; if you are concerned, discuss this with your GP.
Meanwhile another thing male cyclists should note: cycling can cause your levels of prostate-specific antigen (PSA) to rise in the immediate short term.
Checking PSA levels is a way of detecting prostate cancer and a study in the journal PLoS One in 2013 found that cyclists’ PSA levels rose by nearly 10 per cent after a long-distance ride. The researchers, from the Victorian Institute of Sport in Australia, suggest avoiding cycling for 24 to 48 hours before a PSA test to avoid skewing results.
If you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), you’ll know that there are few effective treatments. So a recent study that showed a faecal transplant can help is good news.
Here, donor faeces are screened, then mixed with water and inserted into the guts of a patient via a colonoscopy.
This effectively parachutes an army of healthy gut microbes into the patient’s large intestine, to combat any nasties there. It works incredibly well with C. difficile infections (which can cause diarrhoea, fever and abdominal pain) — and now it’s been shown to help with IBS.
Research, from the Stord Hospital in Norway, showed that three years after their transplants, most patients were significantly better, with far less pain and a much improved quality of life.
It seems that poo really is a treatment we can’t sniff at.
Llamas are wonderful, friendly creatures, and were revered by the Incas, who relied on them for wool, transport, food and even fuel (their dung).
And llamas have come up trumps again; researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found that after a Covid infection, a llama called Wally began producing powerful proteins (called nanobodies) that neutralised all existing Covid-19 strains.
These nanobodies can be mass produced, without llamas, and after human trials the hope is that enough can be produced to help counter future outbreaks.
Is your smart phone making you dumb?
Remember the olden days when you had to use maps to get around, and finding out information might involve trips to the library?
It was pretty tedious, but I can’t help feeling that when we ditched that world we also lost something: we stopped using critical parts of our brains — and that matters.
Next month, A-level, GCSE and degree results will be published, and it’s highly likely they will be very good.
And yet average IQs have been falling since the 1970s. That’s the conclusion of several studies, including one in Norway that looked at the IQ tests taken by 730,000 men between 1970 and 2009 — those born in 1991 scored nearly five points lower than those born in 1975.
Researchers call this ‘the reverse Flynn effect’ — the Flynn effect refers to the way people worldwide had done better on IQ tests, by an average of around three points per decade, from the 1940s.
Possible explanations for this include the fact that in the decades immediately after World War II, children’s diets became more nutritious, they spent more time in school, and thanks to vaccines, they were less vulnerable to infectious diseases such as measles that can affect brain development. Now, however, average IQ scores, in some western countries at least, are falling almost as fast as they once rose.
The researchers in Norway think this is down to children’s diets getting worse (with increasing amounts of junk food) and the rise of the internet and smart phones and other technology, which means they don’t have to use their brains in the same way previous generations did.
If true, it’s obviously very worrying. Smart phones are brilliant bits of technology, but do put them aside when you can and ensure your kids do, too.