It is not surprising that one of the most frequently asked questions about herbs is also about one of the most popular human activities—sex. Through the ages, people have ardently sought aphrodesiac herbs thought to increase sexual desire and energy. A lack of sexual interest or a loss of desire can sometimes be a very troubling problem, especially for men in our Western culture. In my clinic I have had twenty-something-year-olds who are at a time of life when an abundant supply of hormones should be naturally flowing without any outside help, yet they ask me about ginseng and other herbs to increase sexual desire. It seems no matter how much desire and capacity one has for sex, many people still want more. In the Middle Ages, the Chinese and Persians wrote entire books on natural remedies for increased sexual function and performance, and the interest has not lessened today. In this column I will discuss men’s herbal programs for better sexual vitality; the next column will deal with women’s herbs and sexual issues.
One patient of mine, Frank, fifty-five, began our session by telling me about his lack of interest in generally pleasurable activities such as gardening and dancing and eventually got around to his complete lack of sexual desire. He told me that he went through a long period in his teens and twenties when he was very sexually active, but since turning forty-five, his interest had been nonexistent, and he was experiencing quite a bit of fatigue.
As we talked, I found that Frank’s voice was low and did not have much force. Additionally, his kidney pulse was very weak and “thready.” According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the pulse in this position is an indicator of the balance of all the hormones. I felt Frank’s hands, and they were cold. His tongue looked slightly purple and pale—signs of stagnation and weakness of blood or simply a condition of coldness. He had also been experiencing lower back pain, another sign of kidney (or hormone) weakness.
Frank obviously was deficient in important factors that would support not only his sexuality but the potential for achieving happiness and success within his entire life. His disharmonious process was not on the surface, as it is when one catches a cold; it was deeply seated and had been created over many years of overwork, worry, and inability to digest and assimilate nutrients, including spiritual and emotional nutrients that create a strong center from which to express one’s sexuality.
Although I’m an herbalist and focus on herbal remedies, I also pay attention to the emotional, hereditary, and relationship issues involved in each person’s story. Some studies suggest that up to 70 percent of men’s sexual issues are actually related to these factors and have less to do with an actual physical pathology. However, after a man reaches the age of fifty, he is more likely to have some form of cardiovascular disease, which can mean blocked arteries with some reduced blood flow to the sexual organs.
Dietary change and herbs
For Frank, the course of action was obvious, at least from a TCM perspective—to build up his blood, vital energy, and vital substances, including hormones. Also, he needed to take the appropriate herbs and eat a powerfully nourishing diet, because protein deficiency can contribute to a lack of sexual fitness. He was eating little meat but tried to be conscious about eating some form of protein daily such as nuts, seeds, egg whites, fish, and a little lowfat dairy. Frank’s idea of vegetables was mashed potatoes, so I recommended at least one serving of green leafy vegetables such as collard greens, kale, or chard daily to help build up his blood and supply necessary minerals. I recommended specific vitamins and minerals that support sexual function, such as zinc, copper, and selenium. Because I suspected that Frank was yang deficient, and two of his major symptoms were coldness and decreased sexual drive, I wanted to give him herbs that would increase body heat and improve digestive fire, while helping him build more hormones. Here is Frank’s “yang-ifying” formula, which can help men or women of a similar disposition or with yang deficiency.
Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng): 15 percent; warms digestion, increases internal fire, and promotes hormone production. Ginger (Zingiber officinale): 15 percent; warms digestion and synergizes with Asian ginseng. Dodder seed (Cuscuta americana): 15 percent; promotes hormone health. Dendrobium orchid (Dendrobium spp.): 15 percent; promotes hormone health and good sexual function. Horny goat weed (Epimedium grandiflorum): 15 percent; increases sperm production and promotes sexual function. Muira puama (Ptychopetalum uncinatum): 25 percent; promotes sexual vigor and fire.
With this formula, a tincture or a powdered extract in capsules or tablets works well. The dose is 2 or 3 droppersful of the tincture in a little water or 2 to 3 capsules of the extract, two to four times daily.
Frank also wanted to know about aphrodisiacs, having heard that damiana (Turnera diffusa) could increase sexual desire. Damiana has little scientific evidence supporting its use. It is a mild herb and can be used for a month or two, along with other herbs such as American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) or ligustrum (Ligustrum spp.) as a regular sexual tonic. Only products made from the freshest damiana are likely to be very active—I recommend using a tincture from an herb company whose products have a reputation for freshness and quality.
Frank had tried the African herb yohimbe (Pausinystalia yohimbe) with little success. Yohimbe stimulates the central nervous system and increases blood flow to the penis. This herb is best suited for people with average or normal vital energy reserves whose energy feels stuck. Avoid yohimbe if you have a heart condition or are prone to nervousness or insomnia, and use it only for short periods of time—up to a week—with a break of a few days. Don’t depend on it for a long-term fix, but use it along with exercise, stretching, and bodywork (such as massage) to keep the energy flowing.
An up-and-coming herb these days is maca (Lepidium meyenii), a turnip-like root from the high Andes with a long tradition as a health tonic and sexual rejuvenator. Some animal studies from South America show that maca may increase sperm counts and lead to more frequent mating. As with damiana, good human studies are lacking. Based on feedback I’ve received regarding this herb, it is optimal to use it in smoothies, power drinks, or added to soups and other food. Use several teaspoons of the powder daily, continuing until you feel a distinct difference. If you don’t feel a difference after a month or so, then perhaps maca is not your cup of tea.
Frank was also curious about other herbs he had read about that purported to increase testosterone and sexual performance, especially tribulus (Tribulus terrestris), sarsaparilla (Smilax spp.), and horny goat weed, a Chinese herb with little science but with a tradition of use as a sexual tonic. My experience with aphrodisiacs and sexual tonics is that they can help and that they always work better in conjunction with a whole program for health. In Frank’s case, he needed a stronger diet and increased exercise and movement in his life, along with making an effort to be warm and friendly toward people rather than retreating into his shell, another symptom of yang deficiency.
Frank came into the clinic regularly for the next nine months, and I was able to see a difference in him, and he told me in no uncertain terms that his sexual interest had increased. He definitely had a more forthright manner and was less shy when talking about his sexuality. My clinical apprentice, who often received attention from men, told me that Frank was able to look her in the eyes without blushing for the first time.
“Case studies” is not intended to replace the advice of your health-care provider. If you have concerns about your health please contact a professional health practitioner.
Christopher Hobbs’s case studies are gleaned from his thirty years of studying and practicing herbalism. Hobbs, a fourth-generation botanist and herbalist, is an Herbs for Health editorial adviser and licensed acupuncturist. He is the coauthor of Vitamins for Dummies (IDG, 1999) and the author of many other books.