Targeted Natural Interventions
A variety of natural modalities may improve erectile function and male sexual health (Ho 2011; Chung 2011; Burnett 2011; de Andrade 2007).
L-arginine – L-arginine is an essential amino acid with numerous metabolic actions (NIH 2012; Gentile 2009). It plays a significant role in erectile function by contributing to the formation of the vasodilator nitric oxide (Paroni 2012; Mathers 2009; Masuda 2008; Nunes 2011).
Supplementation with L-arginine has been shown to restore erectile quality and increase sexual satisfaction by boosting nitric oxide bioactivity and improving penile blood flow (Cormio 2011; Aoki 2012; Ledda 2010; Giles 2006). The efficacy of L-arginine, combined with Pycnogenol®, a bioactive compound derived from French maritime bark with vasodilatory properties, has been tested in 5 independent clinical studies and been shown to improve male sexual function (Stanislavov 2003,2008,2009; EBDR 2005; Nikolova 2007). This combination is called Prelox®. The first clinical trial to report successful treatment of erectile dysfunction with Pycnogenol® and L-arginine aspartate involved 40 men between 25 and 45 years of age suffering from mild erectile dysfunction. A regimen of 80 mg of Pycnogenol® and 1.7 grams of L- arginine daily yielded significant improvement, with 32 patients (80%) enjoying normal erections. L-arginine, together with an increased amount of Pycnogenol® (120 mg per day), further increased the number of patients with restored normal erectile function. At the end of the three month trial, 37 patients, equivalent to 92.5% of all participants, achieved normal erectile function (Stanislavov 2003).
L-arginine supplementation has also been shown to attenuate endothelial dysfunction associated with high cholesterol and coronary heart disease (Gianfrilli 2012). Since endothelial dysfunction diminishes the effects of PDE-5 inhibitors, L-arginine supplementation may be a useful add-on therapy for men who do not respond to these drugs (Gianfrilli 2012; Porst 2010; Gentile 2009).
Epimedium – Epimedium is a genus of over 50 distinct species of plants. It is colloquially referred to as horny goat weed because it was observed that goats who ate it subsequently engaged in intense sexual activity. Epimedium has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries as a natural aphrodisiac and for the treatment of erectile dysfunction (Ma 2011; Metz 2009; Shindel 2010).
Research has shown that icariin, a bioactive component derived from the aerial portion of the Epimedium plant, improves erectile and sexual function when administered orally (Xin 2003; Shindel 2010). Laboratory data show that icariin can inhibit PDE5, improve penile blood flow, and support endothelial integrity. Icariin also has testosterone-like properties and is associated with increased intracavernosal pressure and nitric oxide levels (Shindel 2010; Liu 2005,2011; Zhang 2012; Metz 2009).
Yohimbine – Yohimbine, a compound derived from the bark of the Yohimbe tree, has been utilized in the treatment of erectile dysfunction for over 70 years (Tamler 2007). Yohimbine’s mechanism of action is thought to be its ability to enhance smooth muscle relaxation, thereby promoting penile erection. It is thought to accomplish this by blocking the effects of neurotransmitter receptors called alpha-2 adrenergic receptors, which promote smooth muscle contraction when activated (Traish 2000).
Clinical studies of yohimbine, alone or in combination with L-arginine, have shown improved erectile function (Kernohan 2005; Dinsmore 2005; Ho 2011). In one clinical trial, yohimbine was effective for up to 84% of male volunteers, depending on the type of erectile dysfunction (Pushkar 2002). Compared to placebo, yohimbine was more effective at improving self-reported sexual function and penile rigidity (Tharyan 2006; Ernst 1998). Another study found that yohimbine improved erectile function in 42% of men with erectile dysfunction, compared to 27% of subjects taking placebo (Morales 1987). Additionally, yohimbine may be particularly effective among type 2 diabetics and those with non-biological causes of erectile dysfunction (Tamler 2007; Tanweer 2010).
Yohimbine may cause some side effects including heart palpitations, anxiety, fine tremor, and high blood pressure. These occur infrequently and are usually reversible (Tamler 2007; Tharyan 2006; Ernst 2011).
Ginseng – Ginseng belongs to the genus Panax, which is a group of slow-growing perennial plants with distinctively fleshy roots (Shamloul 2010). Five thousand years after it was first used for the treatment of erectile dysfunction in ancient China, ginseng continues to be a popular natural aphrodisiac (Nair 2012). An estimated 6 million Americans have used ginseng for the improvement of sexual dysfunction (de Andrade 2007; Chan 2012).
Ginsenosides, the principle active constituents in ginseng, have cardio-protective, immune-stimulatory, anti-fatigue, hepato-protective, and antioxidant effects. In addition, they also increase the synthesis of nitric oxide (Kim 2009). In animal studies, ginsenosides have been shown to relax penile smooth muscle tissue (through the release of nitric oxide) and potentially affect chemical pathways involving cGMP and testosterone (Jang 2008; Wang 2010).
A 2009 clinical study showed that 1000 mg of Panax ginseng twice daily improved erectile function and overall sexual satisfaction among men with erectile dysfunction. The study also found that ginseng potentially increased testosterone levels. The authors concluded that ginseng could be effective for improving erectile function regardless of age and severity of dysfunction (Kim 2009). Another study showed that ginseng significantly improved penile rigidity, libido, and satisfaction among men with erectile dysfunction (de Andrade 2007).
Maca – Maca (Lepidium meyenii) is a root vegetable belonging to the mustard (ie, Brassica) family (Zenico 2009; MacKay 2004). Ancient Peruvians have cultivated maca for millennia and taken advantage of its aphrodisiac properties (Hudson 2008; MacKay 2004). The dried root of the maca plant is a rich source of amino acids, iodine, iron, and magnesium (Zenico 2009; Shin 2010).
Scientific studies support the aphrodisiac activity of maca, and show that it stimulates metabolism, helps control body weight, increases energy, improves memory, and reduces stress and depression (Zheng 2000; Hudson 2008). It also shows androgen-like effects in animals (Shin 2010). Human clinical studies suggest that maca enhances the production of sex hormones, increases libido, and improves well-being (Hudson 2008; Shin 2010; Zenico 2009; Gonzales 2002). The aphrodisiac activity of maca may be due to local effects on erectile function and/or central nervous system effects (Zenico 2009).
Ginkgo biloba – Extracts of leaves from the Ginkgo biloba tree have been used for centuries in the treatment of asthma, fatigue, circulatory problems, and vertigo (Cybulska-Heinrich 2012). It has more recently been associated with enhanced sexual desire, excitement, orgasm, and resolution, as well as neuroprotective properties (Moyad 2002; Cybulska-Heinrich 2012). The sexual benefits of ginkgo were discovered serendipitously when male geriatric patients taking Ginkgo biloba for memory enhancement reported improved erections (MacKay 2004).
In addition to experimental data showing that Ginkgo biloba can enhance sexual behavior in rats (Yeh 2008), clinical studies have revealed it can increase penile blood supply and improve erectile function in humans (Moyad 2002). Ginkgo contributes to increased blood flow by increasing nitric oxide bioavailability to vascular smooth muscles of the penis (MacKay 2004; Rowland 2003). In one study, 120-240 mg of Ginkgo biloba extract was associated with a 76% improvement in sexual dysfunction among men being treated with antidepressants (Cohen 1998).
Muira Puama - Muira Puama, also known as potency wood, is an herb that comes from a small bush in the rain forests of Brazil. It has been associated with enhanced erectile function and orgasm in aging men suffering the effects of fatigue or age-related complaints. In one study of 262 men suffering from poor sexual desire, more than 60% reported improvements with Muira Puama supplementation. In addition, more than half of the men with erectile dysfunction reported that Muira Puama was beneficial. While Muira Puama’s mechanism of action remains unknown, its actions may be related to its plant sterol content. Plant sterols may contribute to increased synthesis of testosterone (Rowland 2003).
Chrysin: The bioflavonoid chrysin is a natural aromatase inhibitor that helps minimize the conversion of testosterone to estrogen (Kellis 1984). Although chrysin has low oral bioavailability (Walle 2001), its bioavailability may be improved by co-administration with the black pepper extract piperine, thus enhancing its actions as an aromatase inhibitor (Srinivasan 2007).
Carnitines – Carnitine (including acetyl-L-carnitine [ALC] and propionyl-L-carnitine [PLC]) are natural amino acid compounds. Studies have linked carnitines to a variety of positive effects among men with low testosterone, including improved erection quality/function, orgasm, and general sexual well-being (Gianfrilli 2012; Malaguarnera 2012). Carnitines may have testosterone-like effects in the body (Cavallini 2004). A 2012 study showed that 250 mg of PLC daily for 3 months (in combination with 2500 mg of L-arginine and 20 mg of niacin) successfully improved erections in 40% of men with erectile dysfunction, while nearly 77% of men reported a partial response (Gianfrilli 2012).
Carnitines may improve endothelial function by acting as antioxidants in these cells (Ginafrilli 2012). For this reason, carnitine supplementation may be generally beneficial for cardiovascular health (Malaguarnera 2012; Mingorance 2011). Carnitine may also have a place as a combination therapy with PDE5 inhibitors, especially among patients whose erectile dysfunction is caused by underlying endothelial disorders, such as diabetes (Gentile 2004).
Vitamin D – Vitamin D insufficiency (as defined by serum levels <30 ng/mL) affects over 75% of the United States population. Vitamin D deficiency may be a risk factor for erectile dysfunction, since it contributes to arterial stiffness and vascular dysfunction. In a 2012 paper, researchers theorized that optimizing vitamin D levels could reduce certain risk factors for erectile dysfunction, such as arterial stiffness, diabetes mellitus, hypertension, and inflammation of the endothelium. Vitamin D has also been shown to stimulate the production of nitric oxide (Sorenson 2012).
B vitamins – Inadequate intake of B vitamins, especially folate, B6, and B12, can contribute to elevated levels of homocysteine. Homocysteine is a metabolic amino acid derivative that can damage endothelial cells and contribute to cardiovascular disease (Wang 2011; Lombardo 2010). In one study, homocysteine impaired carvernosal smooth muscle relaxation. The authors proposed homocysteine as a risk factor for erectile dysfunction (Khan 1999). B vitamin supplementation can help keep homocysteine levels in a healthy range; therefore, may mitigate erectile dysfunction (Wang 2011; Ng 2011; Lombardo 2010). Life Extension recommends homocysteine levels be kept below 8 µmol/L for optimal health.
Vitamin E – Erectile dysfunction is often associated with oxidative stress, which impairs endothelial function and reduces nitric oxide bioavailability (Meldrum 2012; Helmy 2012). Both experimental and clinical data has shown that vitamin E may be beneficial for erectile dysfunction, since it enhances endothelial cell function, scavenges free radicals, improves nitric oxide-mediated relaxation, preserves nerve function, and increases intracavernosal pressure (Helmy 2012; Kondoh 2008). Through these various actions, vitamin E has shown promising results in experimental models of erectile dysfunction caused by aging and hypertension (Helmy 2012; Ushiyama 2008). Vitamin E may also be beneficial when added to PDE5 inhibitor treatment, especially if treatment with a PDE5 inhibitor alone has not been successful in the past (Kondoh 2008).
Adulterated Sexual Health Supplements
A number of unscrupulous marketers have attempted to take advantage of consumers by adulterating “natural” sexual health products with drug analogs (Balayssac 2012; Lee 2011). For instance, a 2011 study identified an illegal Viagra-like compound (mutaprodenafil) in a “male enhancement” product (Demizu 2011). Likewise, a 2012 analysis of 9 supplements intended for enhancing male sexual performance found that only 1 contained a true natural product. The other supplements were found to have untested and unapproved synthetic drug analogs, which may cause significant side effects (Balayssac 2012; Petroczi 2011; Lee 2011). Supplements marketed for boosting testosterone, increasing libido, and/or enhancing male sexual performance are prone to contamination or spiking by profiteers (Petroczi 2011; Csupor 2010).
Insist on purchasing only the highest quality dietary supplements from trusted, research-focused firms. Choose a brand that uses advanced analytical methods, such as high-performance liquid chromatography, gas chromatography, and mass spectrometry to ensure products meet label claims for potency and purity, and do not contain illegal drug analogs (Lee 2011). Furthermore, be sure to choose a dietary supplement company that tests its raw materials using United States (US) Pharmacopeia and other exacting pharmaceutical assay standards.