Are Supplements the Solution for a Sex Life Gone South?

Men whose sex life has gone from gangbusters to game-over commonly turn to herbal supplements to find their erections again.

But what evidence exists that these "Viagra alternatives" will get you back in the game without risks to your health?

The fact is, it's largely "buyer beware" with therapies like these, which are not approved and are only loosely regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.

Even so, many healthcare providers believe they can help with sexual dysfunction. According to Marc Bonnard, M.D., author of The Viagra Alternative (Healing Arts Press, 1999), certain herbs may actually have an advantage over pharmaceutical alternatives. Writes Bonnard, a psychiatrist specializing in sex therapy: "Herbs work in a more leisurely fashion," replacing the mind-body balance that is "so important for a positive sexual experience."

Some alternative treatments may affect the physiological functions that contribute to sexual dysfunction, such as hormonal imbalances and slowed circulation. But take care when trying these supposed sex boosters — Bonnard, like other experts, emphasizes that even "all-natural" over-the-counter herbal products are potentially potent and can have toxic side effects.

Herbs in Sexual Supplements

The following are among the herbal ingredients in the most popular sexual supplements:

Damiana. Popular as an aphrodisiac in Mexico, the plant-derived leaves and stems are available in tablet form, or the dried leaves can be prepared in a tea. But, advise Mayo Clinic experts, know that the product has not been tested in humans.

DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone). The hormone produced by the adrenal glands is necessary for the production of testosterone as well as estrogen. Some small scientific studies have shown promise in helping men with low testosterone, but only a small minority of impotence problems can be blamed on low levels of the hormone.

Ginkgo. Bonnard's point: Ginkgo seeds and leaves can get a rise out of many men by getting "the blood flowing to the right spots." The Mayo Clinic's counterpoint: No solid evidence exists to indicate that ginkgo is an effective impotence remedy. Both camps agree that in some cases ginkgo can be dangerous. Because it can affect blood clotting, supplements containing ginkgo should be avoided by people taking prescription blood thinners.

Ginseng. Found as a dried root and available in a powder or liquid form, ginseng can also be prepared as a tea to be sipped slowly. The aromatic root is used as an aphrodisiac in Asia and has been shown to have some energy-boosting properties, but it is unknown whether impotence is directly affected by the herb.

Kava. It could be the root's mood-altering effects that help to resolve sexual troubles, such as low libido, caused by tension and anxiety. Kava probably won't do the trick for cases of "true ED," Bonnard says.

L-Arginine. This amino acid found naturally in fish, peanuts and beans increases the amounts of nitric oxide in the bloodstream, which increases blood flow. Because an erection requires blood flow to the penis, L-arginine should theoretically work against impotence, but little scientific research has been undertaken, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Maca Root. Though not tested in humans, the Peruvian herb has been shown to improve the penis power in male lab rats. And some men swear it has jump-started their sexual systems.

Muira Puama. Many Brazilians rely on the bush extract as an aphrodisiac — "potency wood" and "tree of verility" are among its nicknames — and some studies have suggested it can bring a man's member to life. Beware its side effects: Chills and allergies are among the most common ones.

Yohimbe. The yohimbe evergreen tree's dried bark is used in herbal remedies, but the bark has been listed as an unsafe herb by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The safer alternative: a strictly regulated prescription form of yohimbine, which is approved by the FDA as an impotence treatment.

Women & Supplement Risks

What About Women?

There is no lack of over-the-counter alternatives sold as remedies for women's sexual complaints. What is lacking, in many cases, is scientific evidence to support the sex-saving claims. None of the herbal products promoted for female sexual dysfunction — not ginkgo, kava, saw palmetto — has been scientifically proven, so an approved drug prescribed by your doctor is usually the better bet.

A recent University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine study in a very narrowly defined population of women — those whose adrenal gland had been removed or was not functioning properly — showed that DHEA therapy can improve sexual quality of life (and learning efficiency and general feeling of health, as well). But the study found, too, that too much DHEA could be dangerous and possibly fatal in some older women.

There are external over-the-counter products that can make sex more pleasurable. A simple solution for many women who have lost that lubricated feeling as they have aged: a drugstore lubricant such as K-Y Jelly or Astroglide.

The Real Risks

Risks can be high from so-called alternative therapies because dietary supplements and other such non-drug remedies (technically, those that don't claim to affect "the structure or function" of the body) can be sold without being approved by the Food and Drug Administration based on safety and effectiveness. Recently, the two dietary supplement products Vinarol and Viga tablets, promoted for enhancing sexual desire and improving performance, had to be recalled because they could pose life-threatening health risks to some consumers. To minimize risks, purchase supplements from a reliable outlet and take them according to labeled directions, including recommended doses. To stay safest while trying these types of treatments, work with a doctor to choose the best ones for you.

Sufficient sleep, meditation and yoga are some risk-free recommendations for "balancing your life" and fighting back against sexual problems such as low libido, says integrative medicine physician Janine Blackman, M.D., Ph.D. Based on common sense—no clinical studies needed—the doctor with University of Maryland's Center for Integrative Medicine recommends a holistic mind-body approach for anyone trying to resuscitate a sinking sex life.