The search for a cure for erectile dysfunction (ED) dates back way before the introduction of Viagra in the 1990s. Natural aphrodisiacs, from ground rhinoceros horn to chocolate, have long been used to increase libido, potency, or sexual pleasure. These natural remedies are also popular because they’re said to have fewer side effects than prescribed medications.
Research shows that certain herbs have varying degrees of success for ED. These herbs include:
- Panax ginseng
- Mondia whitei
Read on to discover what studies say about these herbs and how they might treat ED.
ED is often a symptom, not a condition. An erection is a result of complex multisystem processes in a man’s body. Sexual arousal involves interaction between your:
- nervous system
A condition like diabetes or stress can affect these parts and functions and can cause ED. Research shows that ED is mostly due to problems with the blood vessels. In fact, plaque buildup in the arteries causes ED in about 40 percent of men over 50 years old.
Your doctor can help identify the underlying cause and prescribe the appropriate treatment. Treating an underlying condition is the first step to treating your ED.
Treatments your doctor may prescribe if your ED persists include:
- prescription medicine or injections
- penis suppository
- testosterone replacement
- a penis pump (vacuum erection device)
- a penile implant
- blood vessel surgery
Lifestyle treatments include:
- sexual anxiety counseling
- psychological counseling
- maintaining a healthy weight
- reducing tobacco and alcohol use
Many stores sell herbal supplements and health foods that claim to have sexual potency and fewer side effects. They’re also often cheaper than prescribed medications. But these options have little scientific research to back up the claims, and there’s no uniform method on testing their effectiveness. Most results from human trials rely on self-evaluation, which can be subjective and difficult to interpret.
Always talk to your doctor before trying supplements as they may interact with medications you’re already taking. Many supplements are also known to interact negatively with alcohol. Your doctor will be able to make recommendations based on your condition.
Panax ginseng has a 2,000-year history in Chinese and Korean medicine as a tonic for health and longevity. People take the roots of this ginseng, also called Korean red ginseng, for ED as well as:
- overall well-being
Clinical studies show significant improvement in:
- penile rigidity
- duration of erection
- improved libido
- overall satisfaction
P. ginseng works as an antioxidant, releasing nitric oxide (NO) that helps erectile functions. Some people use a P. ginseng cream for premature ejaculation.
In human trials, participants took 900 milligrams of P. ginseng 3 times a day for 8 weeks.
This plant is considered a safe treatment, but should be only used on a short-term basis (6 to 8 weeks). The most common side effect is insomnia.
Ginseng can interact negatively with alcohol, caffeine, and some medications. Ask your doctor about how often you can take P. ginseng if you’re planning to use it.
For overall health benefits, maca is a great addition to your diet. Maca, or Lepidium meyenii, is rich in:
- amino acids
There are three types of maca: red, black, and yellow. Black maca also appears to alleviate stress and improve memory. And stress can cause ED.
In animal trials, maca extract significantly improved sexual performance in rats. But this Peruvian root has minimal evidence for its direct ability to improve erectile function. Studies show that eating this root may have a placebo effect. The same researchers also found that maca has no effect on hormones levels.
Men who took 3 grams of maca per day for 8 weeks reported an improvement in sexual desire more often than men who didn’t take it.
While maca is generally safe, studies do show elevated blood pressure in people with heart conditions who took 0.6 grams of maca per day.
It’s recommended that your daily consumption be less than 1 gram per kilogram, or 1 gram per 2.2 pounds.
Yohimbine comes from the bark of a West African evergreen tree. For the last 70 years, people have used yohimbine as a treatment for ED because it’s believed to:
- activate the penile nerves to release more NO
- widen the blood vessels to increase blood flow in the penis
- stimulate the pelvic nerve and boost adrenaline supply
- increase sexual desire
- prolong erections
One study found that 14 percent of the group that was treated with yohimbine had full-stimulated erections, 20 percent had some response, and 65 percent had no improvement. Another study found that 16 out of 29 men were able to reach orgasm and ejaculate after completing their treatment.
A combination of yohimbine and L-arginine is shown to significantly improve erectile function in people with ED. L-arginine is an amino acid that helps expand blood vessels. It’s regarded as safe and effective for ED but can cause side effects like nausea, diarrhea, and stomach cramps. Avoid taking L-arginine with Viagra, nitrates, or any high blood pressure medications.
In the trials, participants received about 20 milligrams of yohimbine per day, throughout the day.
While tests have shown positive results, yohimbine’s adrenaline effects can cause side effects that include:
Talk to your doctor before taking yohimbine, especially if you are also taking antidepressants or stimulant medications.
Mondia whitei, also known as White’s ginger, is particularly popular in Uganda, where medicinal plants are more common than medication. It’s used to increase libido and manage low sperm count.
Studies suggest that M. whitei may be similar to Viagra in that in increases the following:
- sexual desire
- human sperm motility
- testosterone levels
- NO production and erections
In fact, there’s even a drink call “Mulondo Wine” that uses M. whitei as an ingredient. M. whitei is considered an aphrodisiac because of evidence that it increases libido, potency, and sexual pleasure. Studies in mice suggest that M. whitei is also fairly low in toxicity.
Ginkgo biloba may increase blood flow to the penis. Researchers discovered the effect of gingko on ED when male participants in a memory enhancement study reported improved erections. Another trial saw improvement in sexual function in 76 percent of the men who were on antidepressant medication. This is why researchers believe that ginkgo may be effective for men who are experiencing ED due to medication.
But some studies also report no improvement or differences after taking ginkgo. This may mean that gingko is better for ED management than as a treatment or cure.
In the study where men reported a positive response, the participants took 40 or 60 milligram capsules twice a day for four weeks. They were also on antidepressant medication.
Talk to your doctor if you’re considering ginkgo supplements. Your risk for bleeding may increase, especially if you are on blood thinning medications.
These herbs have shown a pro-erectile effect in animals such as rabbits and rats:
- horny goat weed, or epimedium
- musli, or Chlorophytum borivilianum
- saffron, or Crocus sativus
- Tribulus terrestris
Always talk to your doctor before trying a new herbal supplement. These herbs in particular have little scientific evidence of their effect in people. They may also interact with your medications or cause unintended side effects.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved any of these herbs as a medical treatment. Many herbs come from other countries and may be contaminated. And these herbs aren’t as well-studied or tested as prescription medication like Viagra. Always buy your supplements from a reputable source.
The FDA also warns men against purchasing supplements and creams that advertise themselves as the “herbal Viagra.” Herbal Viagra is banned because it can contain prescription medicines or other harmful ingredients that may cause severe side effects. In most cases, the harmful substances aren’t listed in the ingredients.
Consult your doctor before purchasing any over-the-counter or online ED treatments.
When to see a doctor
Make an appointment with your doctor if you have other symptoms accompanying ED, or if your ED is affecting your quality of life. It’s important to mention any supplements you’re interested in during your visit.
Don’t forget to tell your doctor about any symptoms that you may be experiencing or feeling due to ED. These details can help your doctor find the right treatment, especially if there’s an underlying condition causing your ED. If this is the case, you may not need herbal supplements.