Natural Remedies for Erectile Dysfunction
Experts give their take on remedies such as ginseng, acupuncture, and pomegranate juice.
By David Freeman
From acupuncture to arginine, from ginseng to pomegranate juice, men have tried all sorts of natural remedies for erectile dysfunction (ED) -- which doctors define as the repeated inability to get or maintain an erection firm enough for sexual intercourse. But are these alternative remedies safe? Do they really work?
The scientific evidence to support the use of natural remedies for impotence is sketchy; many of the studies that seem to give the remedies a thumbs-up were so poorly designed that their findings are suspect.
"Just because there is evidence doesn't mean it's good evidence," says Andrew McCullough, MD, associate professor of clinical urology at New York University Langone Medical Center in New York City, and one of the original clinical investigators for the ED drug Viagra (sildenafil). "And before men with ED start down the naturopathic route, it's smart to make sure that there isn't some underlying medical condition that needs to be corrected."
That's good advice. An estimated 30 million American men have erectile dysfunction, and seven out of 10 cases are caused by a potentially deadly condition like atherosclerosis, kidney disease, vascular disease, neurological disease, or diabetes. ED can also be caused by certain medications, surgical injury, and psychological problems.
Experts who spoke with WebMD agree that treating erectile dysfunction on your own, without consulting a doctor, is a dangerous game. "If you have ED, the first thing you need is a diagnosis," says impotence expert Steven Lamm, MD, a New York City internist and the author of The Hardness Factor (Harper Collins) and other books on male sexual health. He says men with severe erectile dysfunction probably need one of the prescription ED drugs, which include Levitra (vardenafil) and Cialis (tadalafil) as well as Viagra. But, he says, mild ED -- including the feeling that "you're not as hard as you could be" -- often responds to natural remedies. But which remedies? Here's a look at the evidence for and against six of the most popular ones:
Acupuncture. Though acupuncture has been used to treat male sexual problems for centuries, the scientific evidence to support its use for erectile dysfunction is equivocal at best. In 2009 South Korean scientists conducted a systematic review of studies on acupuncture for ED. They found major design flaws in all of the studies, concluding that "the evidence is insufficient to suggest that acupuncture is an effective intervention for treating ED."
Arginine. The amino acid L-arginine, which occurs naturally in food, boosts the body's production of nitric oxide, a compound that facilitates erections by dilating blood vessels in the penis. Studies examining L-arginine's effectiveness against impotence have yielded mixed results. A 1999 trial published in the online journal BJU International found that high doses of L-arginine can help improve sexual function, but only in men with abnormal nitric oxide metabolism, such as that associated with cardiovascular disease. In another study, published in 2003 in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, Bulgarian scientists reported that ED sufferers who took L-arginine along with the pine extract pycnogenol saw major improvements in sexual function with no side effects.
Arginine can be helpful, says Geo Espinosa, ND, director of the Integrative Urological Center at NYU Langone Medical Center. Espinosa says that men with known cardiovascular problems should take it only with a doctor's supervision; L-arginine can interact with some medications.
DHEA. Testosterone is essential for a healthy libido and normal sexual function, and erectile dysfunction sufferers known to have low testosterone improve when placed on prescription testosterone replacement therapy. Similarly, studies have shown that taking over-the-counter supplements containing DHEA, a hormone that the body converts to testosterone and estrogen, can help alleviate some cases of ED. But DHEA can cause problems, including suppression of pituitary function, and its long-term safety is unknown, says McCullough. For this reason, many experts discourage use of the supplements.
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