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Want a Love Potion?

Alternatives to Viagra.

WebMD Feature

June 12, 2000 -- A recent American visitor to the market stalls of a Turkish spice bazaar met aphrodisiac vendors at every turn. Catching his eye, they held up their fingers, counting off how many women the traveler could make love to in a single night. On closer inspection, these supposed "love potions" turned out to be mixes of common household spices -- cloves, coriander, cumin. But when confronted, the salesmen barely missed a beat. "It's the combination!" they insisted.

For thousands of years, people in every culture have sought a magical substance that could stir the embers of an ebbing libido. Scientists have generally pooh-poohed such notions. Now the arrival of the clinically proven impotence drug Viagra (sildenafil citrate) may have increased the allure of herbal aphrodisiacs. Many people, it seems, believe herbal remedies are safer than the drug. "Some people who are afraid of Viagra take these things," says William Catalona, MD, a urologist with Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Others want to avoid the embarrassment of asking for a prescription.

Yohimbé, an herb used almost entirely for sexual problems, rang up $13.7 million in sales for 1999, according to the Hartman Group market research firm.

Just how effective are these supposed aphrodisiacs? Most vendors can't cite much evidence to back up their claims. And some products touted for sexual problems can cause serious side effects. Still, a few supplements have shown tantalizing promise in preliminary studies. Here's what you need to know to make an informed choice.

Ginseng: Boosting Quality of Life?

This medicinal root has a street reputation as an ancient aphrodisiac. That's probably because it has been used for thousands of years in Chinese medicine as part of a general tonic for "old man's disease," which includes a slipping libido, says Mark Blumenthal, executive director of the American Botanical Council.

Tissue and animal studies of one form of ginseng, called panax, give some credence to the root's sexy reputation. A study published in the May 1995 issue of the journal British Pharmacology, for instance, concluded that substances in ginseng extract known as ginsenosides may work in a similar way to Viagra. Viagra enhances the effects of nitric oxide, which helps relax artery walls, allowing more blood flow into the penis. Ginsenosides may encourage the release of more nitric oxide.

Human studies have mainly found increased "quality of life" among those taking ginseng, says Varro Tyler, PhD, ScD, professor emeritus of pharmacognosy at Purdue University. But for some people that might be all that's needed. "If you're an elderly person and if you feel better," says Tyler, "you may be more interested sexually."

Because panax ginseng has a stimulating effect, some experts caution against using it for longer than three weeks at a time, or using it at all if you have high blood pressure or consume a lot of caffeine.

Yohimbine: Ask Your Doctor

Yohimb´ bark, taken from a towering evergreen tree, was traditionally used in its native Africa to stimulate erections. A century before Viagra, yohimbine, a substance derived from the bark, was prescribed in Europe for male sexual dysfunction. While yohimb? is available over the counter, it's yohimbine -- still available only with a doctor's prescription -- that's been the subject of clinical studies.

A combined analysis of more than a dozen studies involving hundreds of subjects, published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior in August 1996, concluded that yohimbine can help many men who have problems getting an erection. It appears to work in part by increasing blood flow to the penis and may affect brain chemistry as well.

Research results on yohimbine in women, on the other hand, are mixed. And there's not much evidence that it will charge up the appetite of an already healthy man.

That bark may have a bite, too: Serious side effects of yohimbine can include everything from insomnia and increased blood pressure, to increasing the effects of blood pressure medications and MAO (monoamine oxidase) inhibitors.

As for the yohimb´ available over the counter, a 1995 analysis of 19 such products found that most products examined contained almost no measurable yohimbine. Things may have changed since then, but if you're going this route, your best bet is to ask your doctor whether a prescription is right for you.

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