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Herbal Impotence Pills Get Some Scientific Scrutiny

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WebMD Health News

May 16, 2000 -- They used to be advertised on the backs of muscle magazines, but ever since the huge popularity of Viagra, makers of herbal supplements for impotence have been touting their products on TV, radio, and the Internet. Some have even given their products names somewhat reminiscent of Viagra, like BioVgA.

Few of these herbal products have been through the rigorous testing required of FDA-approved drugs. What's more, no federal agency enforces quality control over their ingredients. So consumers may not know exactly what they're buying -- whether a jar labeled "ginseng," for example, really has ginseng in it, or even whether ginseng is safe and effective.

Yet, across the herbal supplement industry, change is afoot. "In the past few years, this industry has been in a fishbowl," Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director of the nonprofit American Botanical Council, tells WebMD. "We're not waiting for the FDA to regulate us. We're doing it ourselves."

A case in point: ArginMax, an herbal mix touted to improve sexual function in men, manufactured by The Daily Wellness Co. of Mountain View, Calif. It's one of a growing number of herbal products being tested in controlled scientific studies.

In Hawaii, Thomas Ito, MD, has conducted preliminary trials of ArginMax, which contains L-arginine, an ingredient that has been shown to trigger a buildup of nitric oxide in the bloodstream and thus expand blood vessels. Ginseng and ginkgo biloba also are in the mix.

"We feel these are critical ingredients ... chosen based on extensive research," Ito tells WebMD. "About 35 papers back up the ingredients." Ito has presented results of his research at regional meetings of the American Urological Association, and has submitted a paper for publication in the well-regarded professional journal Urology. Ito, a former assistant clinical professor of urology at the University of Hawaii School of Medicine, is now an industry consultant.

One of Ito's studies involved 48 men, each of whom received a capsule at his urology clinic daily for four weeks. Half received the herbal formulation; half received a sugar pill. No one, including Ito, knew who was getting the real thing, Ito says. "We chose capsules, so no one could smell or taste the differences," Ito tells WebMD.

Nearly 88% of the participants who got ArginMax reported achieving better erections, and 75% said they had an improved sex life overall. Even the placebo group said they had better sex: 18.75% reported improved erections, and 18% reported an overall better sex life during the study. All the patients were checked for blood pressure and appetite changes, but no side effects were detected, says Ito, who is conducting additional studies at a Veterans' Hospital in northern California.

For women having sexual problems, a similar ArginMax formulation is being tested, Mary Polan, MD, PhD, chairman of obstetrics and gynecology at Stanford University School of Medicine, tells WebMD. She presented results of her preliminary study of the product at an international meeting on female sexual dysfunction in Boston last fall.

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