Potential dangers may be hiding in herbal sex aids

Special to The Times

Not so long ago, advertisements for herbal sex aids were buried in the back of men’s magazines. Today, these over-the-counter products -- which allegedly improve performance in the bedroom -- are hyped in full-page print displays as well as on television and radio commercials.

These slick pitches feature attractive models and often resemble drug ads. The maker of one product, Enzyte, even sponsors NASCAR drivers.

The Internet has made purchasing these pills and potions easier than ever. That worries many doctors, who say that lack of science and regulation make using herbal sex aids a gamble -- with your money and health.


Canadian researchers underscored these concerns in May with an alarming report. An analysis of herbal preparations touted as sexual enhancers found that some contained drugs prescribed to treat erectile dysfunction.

Dr. Neil Fleshner of Toronto’s Princess Margaret Hospital came up with the idea for the probe when lab analyses by two groups in the United States showed that batches of PC-Spes -- an herbal product used by men with prostate cancer that was taken off the market in 2002 -- contained synthetic drugs used to fight cancer. (Officials at the company that made PC-Spes said they didn’t know how the adulteration occurred.)

Fleshner and his colleagues purchased seven products on the Internet, which they found by plugging the phrase “herbal Viagra” into a search engine. A lab analysis revealed that one contained real Viagra, while a second was laced with Cialis, another erectile dysfunction drug.

The potential danger from this adulteration is obvious: Viagra and Cialis can be toxic and even fatal if taken with certain other common drugs. In particular, men who use nitrates to relieve chest pain caused by angina could suffer a deadly drop in blood pressure.

“I don’t know how they got in there,” says Fleshner of the undeclared drugs in the products he tested.

He speculates that processors in Asia may have intentionally added the medications to the raw herbs to boost their effectiveness, with or without the knowledge of companies that buy the herbs and package them as dietary supplements. Fleshner fears the problem of adulterated herbs may be widespread. “I suspect this has been a bit of a dirty secret in this industry for a long time.”


However, adulteration of these dietary supplements is just the beginning. Not only may the herbs react with medications, but doctors point out that many may not live up to their promise. Drugs prescribed for men who have erectile dysfunction -- including Viagra and Cialis as well as Levitra -- had to undergo rigorous testing before the Food and Drug Administration would allow their makers to market them in the United States. But, by law, companies can sell dietary supplements -- which, at least in theory, contain all-natural substances -- without testing them first. “There’s no evidence that any of these products are effective,” says Dr. Ira Sharlip, a spokesman for the American Urological Assn.

Sharlip concedes that some herbs or other dietary supplements may indeed improve a man’s ability to have an erection. However, it’s impossible to say which ones work, if any, because few of these supplements have been studied in well-designed human trials, he notes.

Ads and websites for “herbal Viagra” products often include testimonials from satisfied customers.

Even if you assume these recommendations are genuine, they don’t prove that the pills contain potency-improving ingredients, says Dr. Robert A. Kloner, director of research at the Heart Institute of Good Samaritan Hospital.

Some cases of erectile dysfunction are psychological in origin, after all, and “there’s clearly a placebo effect,” Kloner says. In scientific studies of erectile dysfunction drugs, he points out, about a quarter of men given sugar pills regain their potency.

However, doctors know that physiological conditions cause most cases of erectile dysfunction, including diseased arteries that slow blood flow to the penis. Discussing the problem with a physician -- instead of relying on unproven herbs -- could provide clues that you are at risk for more serious problems.


“Erectile dysfunction may be an early warning sign for heart disease, especially for men over 40 or 50,” says Kloner, whose research shows that about 75% of patients with chronic coronary artery disease have erectile dysfunction. “If a man’s got ED, it’s very important for him to be seen by a healthcare professional.”

There is some evidence of a consumer backlash against companies that peddle herbal sex aids.

In March, a Seattle law firm filed a class-action lawsuit against Berkeley Premium Nutraceuticals, the Cincinnati company that makes Enzyte, accusing the company of duping men into believing that the product increases penis size by one to three inches (a claim the company has since removed from its website).

Furthermore, the suit charges that Berkeley continues to use “unfair, deceptive and fraudulent” language to promote Enzyte, which the company says “helps support firmer, fuller-feeling, better quality erections.” Through a spokeswoman, Berkeley officials declined to comment.


Timothy Gower can be reached by e-mail at tgower@comcast

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