Herb Profile: Yohimbe

An African aphrodisiac to treat with caution


| March/April 1999



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Yohimbe comes from the bark of a tree that grows in the West African region.

In these days of Viagra, the recently approved impotence pill, interest in herbal aphrodisiacs seems to be waning. When faced with impotence, even consumers who generally prefer natural substances are likely to choose a more predictable synthetic alternative. Nevertheless, some interest still exists in the herb yohimbe, which is thought by some to treat impotence.

Yohimbe is derived from the bark of a West African tree called Pausinystalia yohimbe that grows in Cameroon, Gabon, and Congo. For centuries, yohimbe bark was reputed to restore erections to impotent men. Scientists scoffed, but several studies during the 1980s showed that a chemical in the bark, yohimbine, did indeed raise erections in some impotent men by increasing blood flow into the penis.

Despite this recent research and the herb’s traditional use, yohimbe is surprisingly absent from many important historical herbal references and recent major English-language works on the medicinal plants of Africa. According to Herbs for Health editorial adviser James A. Duke, Ph.D, yohimbe’s reputation appears to have come from a different source: German books on herbal medicines, including Hager’s Handbook. The handbook notes that the herb is an aphrodisiac in addition to being useful in treating painful menstruation and prostate inflammation with bladder complaints, and serving as a local anesthesia for eye, ear, and nose operations. In the United States, yohimbe’s use as an herbal remedy appears to have started in the early 1970s, when plants reported to enhance sexual desire or somehow affect the psyche were brought to the forefront by the counterculture.

A Compound Emerges

Recent interest in yohimbe has come largely from medical use of yohimbine, the bark alkaloid once widely used as a prescription drug. Much of the controversy surrounding yohimbe has resulted from equating the bark with the drug. Yohimbine is synthesized in the laboratory, from the bark itself.

Some years ago, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved yohimbine as a treatment for impotence. The compound is now available in eleven prescription drugs, including Aphrodyne, Erex, Yocon, Yohimex, and Yovital.

Yohimbine was discovered in 1896, and the first physiological study on the compound appeared in 1900, when researchers found that it’s an active excitant to sexual organs in both animal and human studies. Another study published at the same time reported conflicting results, however, concluding that yohimbine did not produce aphrodisiac effects in either humans or animals. Since that time, the aphrodisiac attributes of both yohimbine and yohimbe have remained controversial.

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