Are herbal supplements safe for treating sexual problems?

Jan L. Shifren, MD
Reproductive Endocrinology

The market is flooded with herbal products whose manufacturers claim they can improve your sex life, but consumers should treat these claims with skepticism.

Most of the creams and herbal supplements available over the counter and sold on the Internet have not been studied rigorously. Since the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn't regulate the use and dosage of herbal products, their safety and effectiveness are unknown. Dosages can vary widely from product to product and even pill to pill. Keep in mind, too, that "natural" doesn't mean harmless. Herbal products can cause side effects and interact with other medications.

In carefully designed studies of medications being tested for sexual function, a placebo or ‘sugar pill’ is always compared to the active drug. These studies show that placebos work very well to improve libido and orgasmic response. So don’t assume that just because an herbal product “works” it’s truly an effective product.

Also, what's listed on the label is not necessarily what's inside the bottle. This is illustrated by an FDA warning that urged consumers to avoid the following dietary supplements that claim to treat erectile dysfunction and improve sexual performance: Zimaxx, Libidus, Neophase, Nasutra, Vigor-25, Actra-Rx, 4EVERON, and Stiff Nights. The FDA found that these products contained sildenafil, vardenafil, or substances that are nearly identical to these medications. But none of these chemicals were listed on the products' labels. In fact, the packaging was misleading. According to the FDA, the packaging claimed that the products were "all natural" and did not contain the active ingredients used in FDA-approved erectile dysfunction drugs.

This poses a serious health risk to consumers who might take such a product unaware that it could interact with other medications. Chemicals such as sildenafil or vardenafil can interact with nitrates (which are commonly used to treat angina and congestive heart failure) and cause blood pressure to drop to dangerously low levels.

There is a dizzying array of other products marketed for improving sexual function. But medical experts agree that if you choose to use drug therapy, it's best to opt for well-tested, FDA-approved medications. If you do decide to use an alternative therapy, tell your healthcare provider about it so he or she can watch for possible side effects and drug interactions.

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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.