Better Lovin' Through Biochemistry?

Last Editorial Review: 1/30/2005


By Neil Osterweil
WebMD Feature

June 25, 2001 -- It probably won't be coming soon to a bar or urology clinic near you, but a cocktail of crushed termites, mashed ants, chili peppers, and fruits packs a Viagra-like wallop and could be a natural alternative to Pfizer's little blue pill as a treatment for erectile dysfunction, says a Cornell University plant biologist who personally vouches for the natural compound.

On a trip to Venezuela, Eloy Rodriguez, PhD, was given some of the substance by his hosts to use as a spice for his food. "After I took a lot of it they looked at me with total surprise and said, 'You're going to need a doctor in the morning, because it's going to make your penis get very hard,' and they were absolutely correct. It was very powerful," says Rodriguez.

You don't need a prescription for the "bio-Viagra," but you do have to travel to the Amazon region of Venezuela and ask the women of the Yequana tribe to mix up a batch of it, he says.

"Every tribe in the Amazon has a substance, extract, or mixture that they will specifically tell you is used to stimulate erection. If you go to the Caribbean you'll find the same thing. It's been there since the beginning of time. I think that in earlier times, [stimulants] must have been very important, because being the king or the ruler in power you had to be sexually quite potent and be able to maintain it."

Back in their lab in the Finger Lakes region of New York, Rodriguez and colleagues performed a chemical analysis on the mysterious potion and found that it contains chemicals similar to those found in Viagra, as well as a healthy dose of testosterone, both of which might account for the compound's impressive action. The researchers are currently exploring plant derivatives from the Caribbean island of Dominica and from the Dominican Republic that are said to have similar properties to the Yequana mixture.

"I think as one does more serious chemical research, we're going to uncover 'natural' Viagras that might even be more potent than the one that has been made synthetically," Rodriguez says.

Romance in a Bottle?

The quest for sexual stimulants and aphrodisiacs is probably as old as the human race itself, with everything from crushed beetles, asparagus, oysters, rhino horn, ginkgo biloba, tiger testicles, and myriad other roots, potions, brews, herbs, and animal organs reputed to improve performance and/or enhance pleasure.

The latest craze is a Swedish soft drink called Niagara (get it?) that's been flying off the shelves wherever it can be found. The drink, part of a family of "energy beverages," is a fruit-flavored, blue-dyed concoction containing carbonated water and sugar spiked with the alleged herbal aphrodisiac damiana (reputed to be a plant estrogen), plus ginseng (a root commonly used in Chinese medicine), guarana (a stimulant similar to caffeine), maté (another stimulant), schizandra (a Chinese medicinal said to have aphrodisiac and stimulant properties), plus as much caffeine as an 8-ounce cup of coffee. The ingredients list alone is enough to get the heart racing.

Although the people who sell it are barred by FDA regulations from making any extravagant claims, the fact that they're pushing it as "Romance in a Bottle" is a strong hint that they want their customers to believe they're buying a six-pack of burnin' love. In other words, an aphrodisiac.

Just to get technical for a minute, it should be noted here that there's a clinical distinction between aphrodisiacs, which are reputed to enhance libido and contribute to sexual excitement, and sexual stimulants, which provide a physiologic boost that may in turn may make it possible to have better sex -- or even sex at all. Niagara and tiger testicles fall under the category of aphrodisiac. Viagra and the spicy mixture cooked up by the Yequana are examples of sexual stimulants.

The Yequana potion has at least one respected scientist convinced that "natural Viagras" are out there waiting to be found, but how do you how do you tell a real over-the-counter aphrodisiac or stimulant (if they even exist) from sex-fool's gold?

"The problem is that there are so many things that are advertised out there," says Alvaro Morales, MD, professor and chairman of urology at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario. "I recently saw at my barber's [in a magazine] an advertisement for some sort of a cream. They don't say what it is, and they say 'it's just like testosterone,' but on the other hand they say 'this doesn't contain testosterone.' So what is it?"

Morales tells WebMD he knows of three herbals reputed to have sexual stimulation properties, but that only one -- yohimbine -- appears to have any merit. He says that ginkgo biloba and ginseng are also alleged to be sexual stimulants, "but from what I've read in the literature, neither is effective."

Unlike most other nonprescription products, yohimbine, derived from an African tree, has been extensively studied, and appears to have a modest effect on erectile function in some men by increasing the flow of blood into the penis and decreasing outflow that can cause the organ to lose rigidity.

Morales says he believes yohimbine is effective, but in just a small number of patients. "In patients with severe erectile dysfunction it's a totally useless drug, but patients with modest problems ... tend to respond better," he says.

Hope Springs Eternal

When it comes to the question of aphrodisiacs, however, we're on a lot shakier scientific ground. The clinical evidence for the existence of true aphrodisiacs (apart from human hormones) is about as convincing as the proof that Elvis still lives. That hasn't stopped people from trying, though:

Typing the word "aphrodisiac" into a web search results in close to 70,000 hits -- a large number of which point to web pages where some huckster somewhere is trying to make a buck off the nookie challenged among us.

Consider the following list, selected from a web site called "Johan's Guide to Aphrodisiacs": alcohol, animal genitalia, animal products, chan su, fruits and nuts, ginkgo, muira puma, onions, oysters, perfume, pine nuts, plants, snake blood, Spanish fly, spices, vegetables.

One of the ingredients listed above, a South American herbal derivative called muira puma, has been looked at by a Jacques Waynberg, MD, a French sexologist, who reported in two separate studies that the drug appears to increase libido in about 62% of men who had complained of lack of desire.

But for most other alleged aphrodisiacs, those who have lost that lovin' feelin' have to rely on anecdote, rumor, folklore, or superstition, and that can be dangerous to the user or to the others. Spanish fly, for example, a legendary aphrodisiac said to be have been used by the Marquis de Sade prior to an orgy, is a toxic compound made from the dried and crushed bodies of blister beetles found in Southern Europe.

In Asian folklore, rhino horns, bear gallbladders, and various parts of the tiger, including the bones, are highly prized for their invigorating qualities, putting the animals at risk for extinction due to widespread hunting.

Some purported aphrodisiacs are not only safe but downright tasty, including pine nuts (an ingredient in classic Genoese pesto), onions, and ginkgo nuts (used in Asian cooking). Whether they tingle anything more than the taste buds, however, is anybody's guess,

"The main problem that we have is that for anything we use for any medical condition, and particularly in erectile dysfunction, the placebo effect is enormous, and unless you have proper studies, you never know," Morales says.

"I would always be suspicious of any product that is being pushed, unless it has been well-defined chemically and there has been some clinical work to demonstrate it," Rodriguez notes.

But as Fredi Kronenberg, PhD, director of the Rosenthal Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at Columbia University in New York, points out, when it comes to such treatments, there are three categories: proven, disproven, and unstudied.

"And the ones that are not studied may eventually be proven or disproven," he says. "That doesn't mean they're no good and you shouldn't necessarily use them. It depends on what the options are, and if you have no other options or can't take drugs or don't want surgery, [alternative medicines] may be an option. It's the start of a new era, and I think it's kind of exciting."

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