Fads and fashions are fleeting, even in the world of herbs, but sex has been around since right after the Garden of Eden, by one account. It?s no surprise that cultures around the world have used herbs and plants to treat a wide variety of sex-related issuesânot only erectile dysfunction, but also lowered sex drive and decreased reproductive function.
In spite of an increasing body of research on these remedies, the natural products industry must work to overcome the egregious advertisements that some Internet and direct-mail marketers have made for sexual-enhancement products. ?It?s difficult when these products make exaggerated and outrageous claims,? says Scott Smith, vice president of education and training for Castle Rock, Colo.-based Natural Balance. ?But it?s the responsibility of retailers to let consumers know these products have a definite usefulness for people who want to enhance that part of their lives.?
How the products are formulated also has an effect on their usefulness. ?There are hundreds of these products on the market right now,? says Dr. Ray Sahelian, author of Natural Sex Boosters (Square One Press, 2004). ?Some work, some don?t.? Sehalian?s formulation, Passion Rx, contains a variety of sex-enhancing herbs in extract potencies, and ingredient potency is a critical point. ?It?s easy to put in a little bit of a lot of herbs and claim a benefit,? Smith says, ?but responsible manufacturers will use appropriate levels to make sure the products really work.?
What ingredients should customers look for on the label? There are dozens of possibilities, but a few stand out because of their history of use, safety and effectiveness.
Maca: Maca is a Peruvian tuber used for centuries in the Andes as a dietary staple. ?Its primary use among Andean people is nutritional, but when people take it in concentrated form, they get a significant boost in sex drive,? says Chris Kilham, author of Hot Plants: Nature?s Proven Sex Boosters for Men and Women (St. Martin?s Press, 2004). Research suggests that maca not only addresses erectile dysfunction but also increases seminal volume, sperm count and sperm motility, indicating its usefulness for fertility issues.
Rhodiola rosea: Rhodiola rosea is well known as an adaptogenâor general energy tonic. ?Like maca, it makes people feel more vital overall,? Kilham says. ?In Siberia, it has been widely used for sexual enhancement for at least 2,000 years.? A phytomedicinal overview of rhodiola research published in the American Botanical Council?s Herbalgram suggests that the herb can be useful in the treatment of both erectile dysfunction and premature ejaculation.
Tongkat ali (Long jack): A root native to Malaysia, long jack has been the subject of significant recent research. ?I think long jack is really the hot item in this category,? says Smith. Natural Balance recently created a new product, called Erox, which contains a 100-1 extract of long jack. ?Testosterone levels begin to decline in both men and women from about age 35, and sex drive goes down proportionally,? says Kilham. ?Tongkat ali helps re-establish a more youthful, healthy testosterone level.?
Yohimbe: The bark of this West African plant contains the alkaloid yohimbine, a central nervous system stimulant that increases dilation of blood vessels in the penis. It works specifically on erectile dysfunction and can have an effect within a few hours of ingestion; however, it can have side effects, especially in high doses. ?Yohimbe should not be used by anyone with high blood pressure,? says Smith.
The Best of the rest: A wide variety of other plants can be used as sex boosters, either individually or in blends.
Ashwagandha has historically been used as an aphrodisiac, and is even mentioned in the Kama Sutra for heightening sexual pleasure. ?Ashwagandha is listed in the Indian Materia Medica for low sperm count, impotence and overall vigor in both men and women,? Kilham says.
Horny goat weed has a long history of use in traditional Chinese medicine. It is believed to help erectile dysfunction by reducing cortisol levels and increasing levels of neurotransmitters. Ginseng, another adaptogen, also has a long history of use as a sexual tonic in many parts of the world. ?With ginseng, as with maca, the benefits increase with regular long-term use,? says Smith. Other common ingredients include tribulus, muira puama and catuaba.
Finding the right blend
Most of the existing research has been conducted with single-plant extracts rather than blends. While individual ingredientsâsuch as tongkat, maca or rhodiolaâcan be effective, most manufacturers rely on a blend of high-potency extracts to achieve the greatest effect and address a wider range of issues. ?With any herbal blend, we want to maximize the possibility that any one of the herbs will contribute the specific benefit the consumer is looking for,? says Smith. ?That?s one of the reasons we use blends.?
Herbs vs. pharmaceuticals
The pharmaceuticals Viagra, Levitra and Cialis address only one issue: erectile dysfunction. And, unlike herbs, they are event?specific, meaning the user has a limited window of opportunity. ?[The U.S. Food and Drug Administration] recently made Pfizer withdraw a television ad which suggested Viagra might increase sex drive,? Kilham says. ?All the pharmaceuticals can increase blood pressure and cause cardiac events, and they?re hilariously expensive. FDA reported in 1998, seven months after Viagra came on the market, that there were 123 Viagra-related deaths in the U.S. alone. By contrast, plants like maca and tongkat ali have no deaths associated with them, are inexpensive and are not event?specific.?
Because all of these sex-enhancing herbs have a long history of useâin some cases as long as 3,000 yearsâand few, if any, side effects; several are widely used as foods in their native lands. ?With the right combination, I believe some of them are as good or better than Viagra,? says Sehalian. ?The pharmaceuticals only focus on erectile function and do nothing for the libido or sex drive. These herbs, in combination, not only enhance erectile function but add stamina and passion and a heightened sense of sexuality, which is more of a total holistic experience.?
?For serious erectile dysfunction, we recommend that a man see his physician,? says Smith. ?But the vast majority of men don?t need a pharmaceutical to correct this problem. They?re looking for something to enhance their experience in sex, and that?s a more appropriate role for supplements.?
Not for members only
Unlike pharmaceuticals, which are positioned solely for men, many herbal remedies also offer a variety of benefits for women. ?These herbs also work for women, but the public isn?t aware that there are dozens of herbs that can bring back the passion that women may lose with time,? says Sehalian.
In fact, Kilham formulated two separate blends for Enzymatic Therapy: Hot Herbs for Him and Hot Herbs for Her. ?There has been a significant response from women,? Kilham says. ?Women are taking these products, regaining sex drive, increased lubrication and overall sexual pleasure, and telling each other about it.? Several of the common ingredients, including maca and rhodiola rosea, have shown promise in treating menopausal discomfort, irregular periods, symptoms of PMS and other menstrual issues. Rhodiola may also be useful in promoting fertility in women.
?We see this whole category continuing to grow,? says Smith. ?That?s why we?re continuing to offer new products.?
Mitchell Clute is a freelance writer based in Crestone, Colo.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 3/p. 100-101