May 5, 2004 (New York) -- From ginkgo to ginseng, from maca to horny goat weed, natural aphrodisiacs are appealing to an increasing number of Americans seeking to improve their sex lives, researchers say.
"More and more people are turning to complimentary and alternative treatments for sexual dysfunction," says Richard P. Brown, MD, associate professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University in New York City.
At the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association Brown discussed some of the complimentary medicines that are showing promise.
A perennial plant that grows in artic regions of the world, Rhodiola can boost sexual desire in both men and women, Brown says. "It's also possible, although more study is needed, that it may help premature ejaculation," he says.
While no one knows exactly how the plant improves sexuality, Brown says "it probably works on the dopamine system in the brain which is very important to sexual functioning and libido." But there may be other effects, too, he adds.
Philip R. Muskin, MD, professor of clinical psychiatry also at Columbia University, and chair of the APA scientific program committee, agrees.
"Rhodiola appears to have a beneficial effect in enhancing sexual function," he tells WebMD. "It improves satisfaction, pleasure, erections, response to orgasms."
In fact, he says, Rhodiola appears to help the body adapt to a variety of life stresses.
Muskin says that he has given the supplement to some of his own patients, many of whom reported a new sense of sexual energy.
"There was less fatigue," he says. "Menopausal women say the cobwebs are gone."
Best known for boosting mental power, the leaf extract of "the oldest tree known to man" is also being used to treat impotence in men, increasing the body's ability to achieve and maintain an erection during sexual stimulation, Brown says.
Like ginkgo, ginseng also increases nitric oxide levels and thus is helpful for erectile dysfunction, Brown says. "But it appears to have an effect on the dopamine system too and this can help women as well as men."
Brown recommends using the preparation called ArginMax, which has been studied extensively.
In one study, sexual desire, satisfaction and orgasm improved in 25 of 34 women given the preparation. And in another study, sexual desire and impotence improved in 21 of 24 men.
Maca, a root that grows at high altitudes in Peru, can have powerful effects on desire, erections, and orgasms, Brown says.
Horny Goat Weed
A species of epimedium, a leafy plant which grows in the wild, usually at higher altitudes, horny goat weed has been said to improve erectile dysfunction in men and libido in both sexes.
But, Brown says, there really isn't "that much data out there. You have to get the right preparation and most people don't know what that is."
In fact, the two experts agree, that's one of the biggest problems with herbal preparations in general. Because of poor regulation, standardization, and labeling in the herbal industry, there is no way to know if one product will work as well as another.
More importantly, it's hard to know how much of an active agent is in many unregulated products, he says. Too much can negatively affect not only sexual function, but other body functions as well.