Intimate Moments
Spice up your sex drive with herbs.

By Todd Runestad

The popularity of libido-enhancing herbs has dovetailed not coincidentally with the introduction of Viagra, the drug that brought conversation about that crazy little thing called love out of the boudoir and into the medicine cabinet.

"Viagra helped kick the door open on this market, and there are a lot of people taking advantage of it," says Walter Carbone, president of Healing Light, a New York manufacturer of herbal formulas designed to promote sexual desire, responsiveness and sensitivity in men and women.

Yet the benefits of sex pills and potions need to be weighed against the pitfalls. Increasing blood circulation to the area of concern may be what you're after, but how do you feel about stomachaches, facial flushing, headaches (that scourge of amorous advances) or worse? As passion-enhancing products become increasingly popular, people are looking to natural alternatives over synthetics to avoid dangerous side effects.

Pillow Talk: Creating intimacy is an expansive issue that often involves the brain as much as—or more than—the genitals. However, herbs may provide just the natural libido boost you need. Work with an herbalist to find a blend that will create the optimum sexual health. Light Your Fire
Increased blood circulation is just the beginning when it comes to improving your sexual prowess with herbs, says Mark Mayell, author of Natural Energy (Three Rivers Press, 1998). Kava, for example, intensifies sensory feelings and consequently diminishes sexual inhibition. Ginseng may affect male and female sex hormone levels, and ginkgo improves blood circulation by dilating blood vessels. In addition to these well-known lovemaking aids, the following four herbs are ones you may not know about. They are effective, user-friendly and can be found in many herbal formulas designed for intimate moments.

Yohimbe (Pausinystalia yohimbe). With the possible exception of ephedra, yohimbe is the most controversial herb sold widely. Long regarded as an aphrodisiac, yohimbe, derived from a tree bark that grows throughout southern Africa, helps increase circulation by dilating blood vessels. In fact, an alkaloid extract from the bark, yohimbine hydrochloride, was the first FDA-approved drug to treat impotence. In one study in Germany, researchers treated 85 men with erectile dysfunction. Seventy-one percent of the men taking yohimbe reported improved sexual desire, sexual satisfaction, frequency of sexual contacts and quality of erection, compared with 45 percent in the placebo group. Like many alkaloids, yohimbine increases central nervous system activity, so it stimulates the entire body. This also results in yohimbe's notorious side effects: nervousness, irritability, insomnia and increased blood pressure. Generally, yohimbe is not recommended for use by females for libido enhancement, and certainly is not to be used during pregnancy.

Maca (Lepidium meyenii). This Peruvian herb has marketing success written all over it. An ancient herb of the Incas, it only grows between 10,000 and 15,000 feet. Users exude endurance, stamina and sexual virility. "It's popular because it's good for sex, that's why," says Ed Smith, founder and chairman of Herb Pharm, an Oregon-based herb grower and manufacturer. "It's not like yohimbe where you have to worry about high blood pressure, or you get nervous and you can't sleep." A May 2001 animal study in Italy vouched for its traditional use. Researchers fed 60 rats either 15 mg/kg body weight maca, 75 mg/kg body weight maca, or saline. After 15 days, the maca rats experienced significantly shorter times to mount and to begin the actual sex act, as well as decreased ejaculation time and shorter intervals before they started up again. Some say maca works by stimulating libido and pelvic blood circulation, but nobody really knows for sure.

Epimedium (Epimedium sagittatum). What's in a name? This increasingly popular herb used by both men and women is also known as horny goat weed. Found in southern China, legend has it that mountain goats were observed having quite a time with one another after nibbling from a certain patch of weeds, which naturally led to deeper study. Researchers at the Chengdu College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in China found that the herb tones the kidney and strengthens yang, the male life force. The herb has been part of a formula reportedly used by Chinese emperors for 1,800 years to enhance vitality. Recently, Chinese researchers used the formula on 45 male patients and found 87 percent improvement in sexual function. The resulting product, Firagon, hit store shelves in October 2001.

"Researchers were suspicious. They thought there must be Viagra in it," says John Koo, MD, PhD, a consultant for a Hong Kong company called Dragon Heart Health Products. "[But] while Viagra just pumps up the male organ, this imperial formula revitalizes your whole system first and foremost, and then you have sexual flowering."

Muira puama (Ptychopetalum olacoides). This herb, native to Brazil and long used as an aphrodisiac in South American folk medicine, began to take off after a study was published in 2000 from the Institute of Sexology in—where else?—Paris. Researchers assessed 202 healthy women complaining of low sex drive. Various aspects of their sex life, from frequency of sexual desires to orgasm intensity, were measured before and after one month of treatment with a product called Herbal vX, containing muira puama root and ginkgo. Sixty-five percent of the women reported significantly higher average total scores.

Mix It Up
Before running to your local herbalist or store to purchase any of these herbs, a few important points bear mentioning.

First, herbalists fairly unanimously agree that herbal formulas work better than single herbs. Herb mixtures work synergistically—what herbalists call "orchestration" or "creating a symphony." Yohimbe, for example, is a nerve stimulant, which is what couples are looking for; but to avoid a state of depletion or overtaxation, an herbalist may balance a stimulant herb with oat seed, which has nutritive, anabolic effects.

Second and perhaps more important, creating intimacy is always more than herb deep. "People are looking for things like yohimbe or damiana, which I call cheap, irritating stimulants," says Steve Schechter, ND, director of the Natural Healing Institute in Encinitas, Calif. "I have no problem with herbs being responsibly used short-term just to give a man confidence, because sometimes reproductive problems, especially in men, tend to be more between the ears than in the groin. Ultimately, though, you should be interested in creating internal health."

And this may be the definitive lesson: The biggest sex organ in the body is the brain, meaning that virtually anything may produce the desired result if the person taking it believes strongly enough that it will work. Romance. Affection. Love. Herbs. As Paul McCartney crooned, "If you want it, here it is, come and get it."

Todd Runestad has successfully experimented with amorous aromatherapy products. The result is the arrival of his first baby, due this month.