Most guys will face difficulties in becoming erect or maintaining an erection at some stage in their lives, whether as a temporary problem or a recurring one.

Why is it, one wonders, that men experience most of their erections during sleep? It seems an ironic waste of sexual energy but it's an important pointer, so to speak, when it comes to solving a problem that is undoubtedly one of men's biggest fears. Impotence.

It seems that men enjoy on average seven erections a day, about five of which occur when asleep. According to Australian sex and relationships author Tracey Cox, forty minutes is the length of the average erection and the younger the man, the longer he can keep it up.

If you've ever wondered why guys are so partial to sex first thing in the morning, it's because this is when their testosterone levels peak. Ironically, their testosterone levels appear to drop in the evening, write Cathy Winks and Anne Semans in The Good Vibrations Guide to Sex. Which is precisely when most couples make time for sex - after taking care of all other daily tasks.

Guys in their twenties and thirties often joke about erectile dysfunction - or erection problems - largely afflicting men in their twilight years, and it's true that as men age the strength and frequency of their erections is likely to decline. Yet in reality, most guys will face difficulties in becoming erect or maintaining an erection at some stage in their lives, whether as a temporary problem or a recurring one.

For instance, temporary impotence can be caused by alcohol use, exhaustion, stress or loss of desire. This typically resolves itself within a short period of time and is not usually a cause for great concern. Recurring impotence is more of a worry, but once the probable cause is identified the success rate for resolving the problem is good.

When the cause is physical

A variety of physical conditions can result in recurring impotence, such as a neurological condition like diabetes, multiple sclerosis or pelvic injuries, which may result in nerve damage. Or it may be caused by taking chronic medication such as high blood pressure pills or antidepressants. Circulatory conditions that prevent blood flowing to the penis, such as hardened arteries, are another potential causal factor. Alternatively, his erection may become soft when blood leaks out of the penis due to increased elasticity of the erectile tissues resulting from diabetes, smoking or pelvic injuries.

How to seek help

A general practitioner is typically the first port of call to find out if the root of the problem is physical or psychological. Simple tests can be conducted to find out if erections occur overnight when asleep and if they do, a physical cause is unlikely. If the test is positive, however, there are a number of potential solutions.

Possible treatments for physical triggers

Depending on the physical cause, there is a wide range of treatments that may be indicated, such as injections to bring about temporary erections, vacuum pumps, surgical implants or increasing the blood flow to the penis with Viagra (not advisable after prostate surgery or for diabetics).

When the cause is psychological

Psychological triggers of impotence include high stress levels or a goal-oriented attitude to sex (i.e. achieving orgasms rather than enjoying the journey). Consulting a therapist or sex therapist could help introduce a change in attitude to sex, increase intimacy and improve communication.

Accepting changes as we age

Our bodies - and our sexual responses - alter with age, and this is something that we all have to deal with sooner or later. Ageing can diminish the pressure a man feels to reach an orgasm and bring about a new attitude of enjoying the journey for it's own sake. Many couples find that their sex lives improve as they become more relaxed about sex, focusing instead on giving pleasure and refining their lovemaking skills.

Maintaining sexual health

Of course there is much that we can do to promote good sexual health throughout our lives in order to enjoy sexual intimacy until well into our latter years. Here are some pointers to keep in good sexual form:

* Look after your health - eat healthily, get plenty of exercise and get enough sleep. Healthy people are less likely to need medication, which is a common cause of erection problems.

* Too much alcohol negatively affects the strength of erections.

* Reducing or cutting out smoking helps as there is a definite link between smoking, impotence and poor libido.

* Learn to cope with stress as this affects the ability to get an erection.

* Watch what you eat - sex requires energy and the better a person's diet, the more energy they have. Consume nutrients that are positively linked with good sexual health:

* Arginine is an amino acid that is needed for sexual development and growth. It is found in protein foods such as dairy and animal products.

* Zinc is the most important mineral for fertility and sexual arousal. Found in eggs, shellfish, poultry, brown rice, lamb, cheese and lentils.

* Calcium is required for nerve transmission and muscle contraction (male erections and the female orgasm). Found in dairy products, green leafy vegetables, nuts, beans, dried fruit and prunes.

* Magnesium is important for sexual stamina, arousal, orgasm and ejaculation, and it balances the sex hormones. Found in bananas, cereals, nuts, cheese and green leafy vegetables.

* Vitamin C strengthens the sex organs and bolsters sex drive. Found in citrus fruit, berries, broccoli, potatoes and mangoes.

* Try natural supplements like L-arginine, an amino acid that is considered the natural equivalent of Viagra. It's much safer if a person suffers from high blood pressure. L-arginine increases the level of nitric oxide in the body, which acts as a nerve transmitter to increase blood flow to the penis. Nitric oxide is found naturally in chicken, eggs, dairy products and beef. An alternative source, Yohimbe, has also been used to treat erectile dysfunction.

* Other natural supplements include saw palmetto for erectile dysfunction, sarsaparilla to improve prostate health, Siberian ginseng to increase sperm count and yerbe mate, which unleashes short-term energy. - IOL