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Why should I avoid taking herbal supplements for erectile dysfunction (ED)?

Madeleine M. Castellanos, MD
Psychiatry
Just walk into a health food store (or check your email's spam folder) and you'll see a slew of herbs, supplements, and other "natural" products purported to give a guy killer erections. If these claims sound too good to be true, that's because they are. For example, the supplement dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) may boost testosterone levels, but can lower high density lipoprotein (HDL) ("good") cholesterol.

The herb ginkgo appears to increase blood flow to the penis, but may increase the risk of bleeding and interacts with anticoagulant drugs like warfarin (Coumadin). And yohimbe (a compound derived from tree bark and is also sold by prescription) may improve erections in men with erectile dysfunction (ED) caused by psychological issues, but has a number of side effects, including high blood pressure and anxiety. These and other supplements are often found in so-called "herbal" or "natural Viagra." If you are grappling with erectile problems, it's best to pass up these products and see a doctor instead.
Some herbal supplements can be taken safely with common sense and guidance, but most herbal supplements are not regulated by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA). If taken inappropriately, they could have toxic effects, interact with other medications and worsen preexisting health conditions. For example, yohimbe bark extract works as an alpha 2 adrenergic blocker, the same property as many antihypertensive medications. Ginkgo biloba, which is taken for erectile dysfuntion (ED) as well as to improve memory, has been known to cause bleeding. It can be toxic if consumed inappropriately, such as eating the fruit or seeds. Ginseng root also has many known side effects. Some supplements taken for erectile dysfunction contain ingredients that may be harmful to the environment as well: Many herbal supplements are in the form of powders and may contain animal parts, such as horns and antlers, which have been implicated in the endangerment of many species.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.