Ask the doctor
Q. I have used prescription medication for my erectile dysfunction (ED), but have seen herbal products advertised to help with ED. Do they work?
A. Despite the heavy advertising of pills to “improve your sex life,” there is no proof that most dietary supplements—which include vitamins, nutritional additives, and herbal products—are effective.
The mechanism to improve erectile function is to increase blood flow to the penis. Prescription medications like sildenafil (Viagra), vardenafil (Levitra, Staxyn), tadalafil (Cialis), and avanafil (Stendra) do this by blocking an enzyme, which enables the penis to fill with blood and stay erect long enough for intercourse.
Herbal supplements may improve blood flow in the body, but their ability to specifically treat ED is less certain. For example, ginkgo biloba, an herb commonly touted for its ability to increase blood flow, has not been effective in treating ED. Then there is the possibility of dangerous side effects. Yohimbine, derived from the bark of the yohimbe tree, has been shown to be helpful for ED, but it may damage heart function. Finally, herbal supplements for ED lack regulation. Analysis has revealed that many products do not contain the active ingredients they claim. It is best to avoid herbal supplements for ED because of their uncertain benefits and risks.
—William Kormos, MD
Editor in Chief, Harvard Men’s Health Watch