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By and large, over-the-counter “male enhancement” products are the 21st-century version of snake oil. But in studies, some natural remedies have actually shown promise in the treatment of erectile dysfunction (ED). Here’s what science says about a few of the most common natural remedies touted for ED (and some that are lesser-known but might be helpful). They may be sold as part of formulations or on their own.
What is erectile dysfunction?
ED occurs when you can’t get or maintain an erection sufficient for satisfying sex. That might include erections that don’t last as long as you want or aren’t as firm as you’d like. ED is the most common sexual dysfunction. In fact, it’s estimated that more than 30 million American men have experienced erection problems at some point (Nunes, 2012).
- Some studies suggest that certain herbal supplements and natural remedies may help improve erections.
- These include ginseng and yohimbe.
- But while some of these studies are promising, in nearly all cases, the research is preliminary, and more trials are needed before benefits can be definitively stated.
- If you’re experiencing ED, it’s a good idea to consult a healthcare provider.
Natural treatments for ED
First, a quick caveat: If you’re experiencing ED, it’s a good idea to consult a healthcare provider. Frequent or worsening ED can be an early warning sign of more serious health problems like heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, or a hormone imbalance. It’s important to address ED at the first signs of trouble. You might be able to make lifestyle changes that treat or prevent a potentially life-threatening condition.
Psych—another quick caveat. Unlike prescription drugs, supplements aren’t regulated by the FDA, so they can vary wildly in potency, quality, and safety. Caveat emptor, etc.
Many “male enhancement” supplements contain Korean ginseng, which for decades, has been used as a folk remedy for ED. And studies show it may be effective. In a meta-analysis of 24 controlled trials involving 2,080 men with ED, researchers found that ginseng “significantly improved erectile function” and “may be an effective herbal treatment for ED,” although they cautioned that more and larger trials were needed (Borrelli, 2018).
Horny goat weed
A traditional Chinese medicinal herb, horny goat weed has been used for thousands of years to treat fatigue and low libido. Horny goat weed contains icariin, a mild inhibitor of PDE5 (Dell’Agli, 2008). (ED medications like Viagra and Cialis are stronger PDE5 inhibitors.) Some studies suggest icariin may improve erections, but they were conducted on animals; icariin may not work the same way in the human body.
Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), a hormone produced in the adrenal glands, is a natural booster of testosterone and estrogen. Some studies have found that taking a DHEA supplement can boost free testosterone levels along with exercise, which might have a positive effect on sex drive and erections (Lui, 2013). Others found no difference.
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Citrulline and arginine
The amino acid citrulline causes blood vessels to relax, similar to the mechanism of Viagra. Citrulline is the precursor of arginine, another amino acid the may widen blood vessels. The efficacy of arginine supplements for ED is unclear; it may break down too quickly for the body to use, and L-arginine deficiency isn’t usually a cause of ED.
Yohimbine, the active ingredient in yohimbe bark, is frequently found in supplements sold as aphrodisiacs or male sexual enhancers. But it may be superior to snake oil: A 2015 review of studies (Cui, 2015) found that seven clinical trials determined that yohimbine was superior to placebo for treatment of ED. (However, they noted that yohimbine had not been compared to PDE5 inhibitors like Viagra.)
Vitamin D is made naturally by the body when skin is exposed to sunlight. Many of us don’t get enough, and that might affect your erection. One study found that men who were deficient in vitamin D were 32% more likely to have erection issues (Farag, 2016). Your doctor can check your vitamin D level with a simple blood test.
Vitamin B3 (a.k.a. niacin) may improve erections by increasing penile blood flow (Ng, 2011). Niacin is naturally found in foods like turkey, avocado, and peanuts. Exercise caution when taking a niacin supplement: Too much niacin can cause problems like uncomfortable flushing, ulcers, arrhythmias, and increased risk of stroke.
Folic acid (vitamin B9)
Folic acid (vitamin B9) is linked to nitric oxide production and erectile response. Some studies have found a correlation between folate deficiency and erectile deficiency (Yang, 2014). You can get folic acid from oranges, leafy green vegetables, bread and grains, cereals, pasta, rice, and beans, or by taking a B-complex supplement.
If you want to keep your erections in top shape, get moving. A study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine found that men who were inactive or moderately active (defined as 30 to 149 minutes of physical activity a week) had a 40 to 60% higher chance of ED, compared to active men who got 150 or more minutes of physical activity weekly (Janiszewski, 2009).
Eat a healthy diet
A diet that’s good for your heart is also good for your erection. High-fat, fried, and processed foods cause heart disease by raising blood cholesterol. Over time, that cholesterol builds up in the arteries, narrowing them and reducing blood flow throughout the body. The consequences can include cardiovascular disease, stroke, or ED.
Concentrate on eating whole foods and lean protein while limiting processed food. One of the best diets for your heart and erection is the Mediterranean diet, which centers on fruits and vegetables, fatty fish and other lean protein, whole grains, olive oil, and red wine. According to a study published in the American Journal of Medicine, eating Mediterranean can help prevent the development of ED (Widmer, 2015).
In addition to raising your risk of lung cancer, smoking drastically increases your chances of having a heart attack, a stroke, or ED. Tobacco smoke contains thousands of toxins, which can damage blood vessels throughout the body—including in the penis (Verze, 2015).
Chronic heavy drinking can damage the liver, heart, and nerves and reduce testosterone, all of which can lead to ED. Many of us are heavier drinkers than we realize. Experts define “moderate drinking” as no more than two alcoholic drinks per day for men and just one per day for women.
Stress has mental and physical effects that can prevent you from being in the mood for sex. This can lead to a cycle: You’re stressed, and your mind is elsewhere, so your erection wilts, so you get stressed about that; repeat. You can reduce stress with exercise, relaxation techniques, meditation, or mindfulness practice. There are several apps that can help. If you’re having trouble managing stress on your own, talk with your healthcare provider.
Side effects & potential risks of natural treatments
Many natural remedies and herbal supplements come with the risk of side effects and drug interactions, and they may be dangerous for people with certain health conditions. Always consult your healthcare provider before taking any new supplement.