More than half of women with type 1 diabetes experience sexual dysfunction
Men with type 1 diabetes are routinely asked about their sexual health – women are not. This needs to change, Norwegian researchers say.
Sexual dysfunction and especially impotence is a well-known side effect of diabetes in men, which is routinely discussed between the patient and their doctor.
Asking women with diabetes about their sexual health, however, is not routine.
A study from 2021 found that 50 per cent of women with type 1 diabetes reported problems in their sex lives. Now, a new Norwegian study has followed up on this by interviewing 15 women with type 1 diabetes about the problems they experience and their impact.
Type 1 diabetes
- Type 1 diabetes is a chronic illness
- The body cannot produce enough insulin to combat a high blood glucose (sugar) level
- Type 1 diabetes is not tied to diet or lifestyle
- It is typically diagnosed in childhood and adolescence
Reduced desire, vaginal dryness and inability to orgasm
The study uncovered numerous aspects of sexual dysfunction, and there was great variety in what individual patients experienced as problematic.
The most common problems include reduced sexual desire, decreased ability to achieve orgasm, vaginal dryness and pain during intercourse.
“Some of the problems are relatively easy to link to symptoms of the disease: High blood sugar leads to drier mucous membranes, for example,” medical student and co-author Maren Buskoven said in a press release (link in Norwegian).
However, researching sexuality can often be difficult due to its complexity.
Several factors affect sexual function, both physiological and psychological. Stress and anxiety, for example, can lead to low sexual desire.
“There is perhaps a tendency to interpret sexual problems in men as something physiologically rooted, and perhaps an excessive tendency to interpret the equivalent in women as something psychologically rooted,” endocrinologist Eirik Søfteland at the University of Bergen speculated in the press release.
He has been the medical students’ main adviser for the study and believes this is a possible reason why there is a lack of research in this area.
Putting the spotlight on women’s sexual function
Risa Lonnee-Hoffmann is a researcher in gynaecology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), with a focus on sexual function. She was not part of this study on type 1 diabetes and sexual dysfunction in women but is very familiar with the topic.
“Most of my colleagues don’t know of the connection between sexual dysfunction in women and diabetes, but they all know that men with diabetes have a much greater risk of becoming impotent. It is a very, very well-known side effect that all doctors know about,” she tells sciencenorway.no.
“This is absolutely an issue that is under-discussed in the public sphere, and that’s why this study is so positive, as women’s sexual function and quality of life are put in the spotlight,” she says.
Lonnee-Hoffmann says there are some limitations such as that there are few participants and no control group. On the other hand, a very important advantage is that it allows for a more thorough and in-depth exploration of a research topic and uncovers what patients themselves think and feel.
Chronic illnesses negatively impact female sexual function
“It is very well known that chronic illnesses affect sexual function in women, not only those with type 1 diabetes, but also diabetes in general,” Lonnee-Hoffmann says.
“We also know that diabetes affects nerves in the long term, so we have some basis to suspect that it may affect sexual function to a slightly greater extent than other chronic diseases.”
Previously, it has been established that high glucose levels can lead to vaginal dryness. However, the new study highlights a possible link between glucose levels and the ability to reach orgasm and other sexual functions.
“So, although I was aware of the connection between diabetes and sexual dysfunction in women, this new discovery is exciting. But we won't know if there is anything behind the theory until there is more research into it,” Lonnee-Hoffmann says.
Same routines should be implemented for women
According to Lonnee-Hoffmann, women’s sexual health and function is often ignored. This does not just concern women with diabetes, but also those with risk factors for sexual dysfunction – often women with chronic illnesses – and women approaching menopause.
One important finding from the study was that the women themselves wanted their doctors to talk to them about their sexual health.
“I think it might be a good idea to include questions about sexual health as a routine in the annual check-ups, in the same way as for men,” Søfteland said in the press release.
Lonnee-Hoffmann agrees and adds that it is possible to get help.
Topical treatments can help against dryness, a sexologist can help with sexual desire, and sexual aids such as vibrators can be used to achieve orgasms.
“Simply talking about it and informing the patients that it is not due to any personal failure can be very helpful. It could be that their sex life is suffering, and they begin to feel guilt or shame, which will likely make the situation much worse. That conversation in itself can be quite therapeutic,” Lonnee-Hoffmann concludes.
About the study
- 15 women attending the diabetes outpatient clinic at Haukeland University Hospital in Bergen, Norway, were interviewed.
- Participants were between the ages of 26 and 57 years.
- All participants met the criterion for female sexual dysfunction.
- All participants had partners.
Buskoven et al. Sexual dysfunction in women with type 1 diabetes in Norway: A qualitative study of women’s experiences, Diabetic Medicine, 2022. DOI: 10.1111/dme.14856
Haugstvedt et al. Sexual dysfunction in women with type 1 diabetes in Norway: A cross-sectional study on the prevalence and associations with physical and psychosocial complications, Diabetic Medicine, 2021. DOI: 10.1111/dme.14704