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The Healthy Skeptic: A look at herbal libido aids

January 23, 2012|By Chris Woolston, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Doctors still don't know what controls sex drive.
Doctors still don't know what controls sex drive. (Coneyl Jay, Getty Images )

Candy hearts and fancy chocolate boxes are showing up in stores, which means many couples are starting to look forward to a special day of ... something other than candy.

But even on a holiday devoted to the cause, sexual desire can be hard to come by. Whether it's because of age, illness, stress or distractions, many people feel their spark isn't sparking like it should. Not surprisingly, a lot of would-be romantics turn to herbal remedies for help.

"We sell a lot of libido products throughout the year, but we definitely see a spike around Valentine's Day," says Bill Chioffi, director of education for Gaia Herbs, a company in Brevard, N.C., that makes two supplements for the occasion: Women's Libido and Male Libido.

Women's Libido contains a blend of herbs including maca, damiana, blue vervain and the provocatively named horny goat weed. The Male Libido formula contains some of the same ingredients — including horny goat weed and maca — along with some male-oriented herbs such as yohimbe (which has a reputation for improving erections) and saw palmetto (thought to promote prostate health). In each case, users are instructed to take one to three capsules daily between meals. A bottle of 60 capsules of either variety costs about $25.

Los Angeles-based Irwin Naturals offers two products: Steel-Libido for Women and a version for men called Steel-Libido Red. The women's product contains horny goat weed, maca and the Indian herb ashwagandha, among other ingredients. The men's supplement contains ginseng, coenzyme Q10, ginkgo and other compounds.

Both men and women are instructed to take four capsules throughout the day for "maintenance." For "a more immediate response," they can take four capsules all at once "prior to intimacy." You can expect to pay about $34 for a 75-capsule bottle of either variety.

The claims

The Gaia Herbs website says that Women's Libido "helps restore sexual desire in women, whether it has been temporarily lessened or all together lost." The somewhat more understated site for the men's product says that it "supports stamina and healthy libido."

Chioffi says the company combines clinical knowledge with traditional herbal practices from many parts of the world. Each supplement, he says, works slowly to enhance the physical and emotional foundation of sexual desire. "Most users need to take it for two to three months before they'll notice an effect," he explains.

According to Chioffi, the company has had positive feedback from many naturopaths and customers, including his own wife. (He declined to comment on her libido, but he did say that the product seemed to make her menstrual cycle more regular.)

The Irwin Naturals website says that Steel-Libido for Women provides a "one-two punch for your sexual enjoyment." The product supposedly promotes "the intensity of physical pleasure" while increasing desire. The site for Steel-Libido Red never suggests that the product will boost a man's desire. Instead it claims to improve sexual performance, mainly by increasing the supply of nitric oxide, a compound that helps relax blood vessels and, theoretically, improve erections.

A representative of Irwin Naturals declined a request for more information.

The bottom line

As important as sexual desire is for the survival of the species, the biology of libido is very poorly understood, says Dr. Tom Lue, professor and vice chairman of urology at UC San Francisco. "We still don't know what controls sex drive."

Lue has studied the effects of horny goat weed on rats in his lab, and he's familiar with the scientific literature on herbs for sexual enhancement. His take on whether any herbal libido products are worth a try: "I don't know."

A few specific ingredients do seem to have some sexual effects, Lue says, although not necessarily the effects that companies claim. He says horny goat weed works "like Viagra, only it's not as powerful." Viagra, a prescription drug, improves blood flow to the penis during arousal. But as Lue points out, it has never been shown to improve desire or arousal in the first place.

Ginseng, found in Steel-Libido Red, has a longstanding reputation for improving energy. But Lue says he can personally attest that it has no effect on libido. "My mother used to make me take ginseng whenever I got sick," he says. "So I know."

Dr. Rany Shamloul, a urologist at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, says that horny goat weed and ginseng are the two best-studied ingredients found in libido supplements, and they're also the most likely to be helpful.

As he wrote in a 2010 review article in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, horny goat weed does seem to improve sexual function — at least in animal studies. And although the jury is still out, he thinks the herb may help stoke desire in humans.

Ginseng probably doesn't enhance desire, he says, but he believes there's good evidence that the herb can improve performance and satisfaction, at least for men. A 2008 review of seven studies concluded that ginseng seemed to work better than a placebo for improving erections. Still, he notes that the studies varied widely in quality, making it difficult to draw any firm conclusions.

Even in this scientific age, desire is a mystery. Nobody knows why it fades. And despite the promise of supplements, researchers have yet to find a surefire way to get it back.

Curious about a consumer health product? Send an email to health@latimes.com.

Read more at latimes.com/skeptic.

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