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The Viagra alternatives: helping men rise to the occasion

The Viagra alternatives: helping men rise to the occasion – naturally

Kevin Haynes

Two million American men can’t be wrong–or can they? Last spring, when Viagra’s popularity reached its climax, medical authorities estimated some 300,000 prescriptions for the new anti-impotency drug were being written every week. The media was full of success stories and tales of doctors not being able to keep up with the demand.

But not all the news was good. First, we learned about the side effects, followed by the lawsuits as septuagenarians became “active” again, left their longtime spouses and were sued for abandonment. Then came the claims of the 30 or so deaths believed to be related to Viagra. “Two and a half million men are guinea pigs for this drug,” fumes Earl Mindell, R.Ph., Ph.D., a Beverly Hills-based nutritionist and author of Earl Mindell’s Supplement Bible (Fireside, 1998). “Sixteen to 20 percent experience side effects, including nasal congestion, diarrhea, a blinding headache I call a Vigraine, a blue tint to vision that lasts for hours, and priapism, a sustained erection that can lead to gangrene. And if used with [the heart medication] nitroglycerine, Viagra can be a death sentence.”

Our society is always looking for a magic bullet, and boy did we think we hit the jackpot with this one. Approximately 10 million to 15 million American men experience impotence, according to the Bethesda, Md.-based National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. About 70 percent of cases are related to illness, and the agency reports another 10 to 20 percent of cases are linked to psychological factors like stress or anxiety.

It’s true that Viagra has helped thousands of men who simply experienced technical difficulties resulting from medications for depression, ulcers and blood pressure or conditions such as diabetes, vascular problems or kidney disease. But impotence has many underlying causes. One key failing of Viagra is that it does nothing to resolve factors like poor diet, stress and fatigue or deeper psychological issues, such as sexual shyness, performance anxiety and childhood abuse.

“It’s a travesty that people have mythologized this drug so much,” says Judy Kuriansky, M.D., a clinical psychologist, certified sex therapist and host of the nationally syndicated radio show Love Phones. “If men have a psychological reason for their erection problems, it has to be confronted. There’s no point in giving them a pill if the real causes are going to be shoved under the carpet. Men should not just be given a prescription; they should be screened by a psychologist. I don’t deny that for people with serious medical conditions Viagra is a miracle cure. But even they need counseling to enjoy functioning.”

Sexual dysfunction of any type should be evaluated by a trained practitioner. But before men roll the dice on Viagra, Mindell urges them to investigate the scores of natural things they can do to enhance their performance. These include eating more meatless meals, taking supplements and learning to relax. “I would try anything before using synthetic drugs,” says Mindell. “We don’t know the long-term effects [of Viagra], but we do know this: This is the first country in the world to have Viagra on the market. Usually it takes drugs two to five years for the appropriate testing. What is it that after only three months Viagra is already available? It’s definitely been rushed.”

DIET OF CHAMPIONS

When it came to sexual prowess, ancient Greeks and Romans swore by the power of artichokes. The Chinese favored apricots. The Egyptians loved onions. In fact, a great majority of foods that have figured in sexual lore for centuries come straight from the garden. But more than just putting you in the mood for love, healthful foods, like fruits and vegetables, can do much to keep a man’s equipment in working order.

“Lining up for broccoli is more important than lining up for Viagra,” quips Nell Barnard, M.D., president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington, D.C., and author of Foods That Fight Pain (Harmony Books, 1998). “Every urologist knows that impotence is largely due to blocked blood flow.”

It should come as no surprise, then, that the same high-fat, high-cholesterol foods that clog the heart arteries and contribute to cardiovascular disease also clog the arteries leading to the penis. In the Massachusetts Male Aging Study of 1,290 men aged 40 to 70, conducted by the Boston University School of Medicine, those who were being treated for heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes were up to four times more likely to develop impotence later in life than men without these conditions. Trading meat and dairy products–the top sources of saturated fat in the American diet–for plant-based fare that’s light on the saturated fat and cholesterol and heavy on the produce and whole grains helps keep arteries free of the plaque that chokes blood flow to the heart–and the penis.

Avoiding cigarettes and cigars, which increase plaque formation and damage arteries; caffeine, which constricts blood vessels; and alcohol, which inhibits testosterone production, also keeps flags flying at full mast. “As Dr. Dean Ornish showed, a vegetarian diet, no smoking and regular physical activity opens arteries up again,” Barnard says. “It works for the heart in 82 percent of patients, and we have every reason to believe that it works elsewhere in the body too.”

STIMULATING SUPPLEMENTS

Natural food stores are full of herbs and supplements that can improve circulation and reverse (and avoid) impotence. It’s important to keep in mind that natural remedies tend to be gentler on the body, and therefore work a little slower. But over a period of weeks or months, you should notice the difference.

Garlic, a natural antibiotic, was a time-honored remedy for sexual dysfunction among the ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Japanese and Chinese cultures. “Garlic works by increasing blood flow and hormone production,” says Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa, a Seattle-based herbalist and co-author of Herbal Defense (Warner Books, 1997). “Five cloves or 10 deodorized capsules a day should pay dividends in about a month,” he says. “It’s not like Viagra, where you take it and you’re ready to go in an hour.”

Ginkgo biloba, the popular memory enhancer, also gets the blood flowing to all the right spots. A 1989 study done by the Urology Clinic in Aachen, Germany, and published in the Journal of Urology found that ginkgo produced better results than the anti-impotence drug papaverine hydrochloride. Sixty men with circulation-related impotence who did not respond to papaverine were given ginkgo for 12 to 18 months. After just six months, half regained their ability to achieve erection.

Another benefit is that ginkgo is particularly gentle. “Most circulation-enhancing herbs, like cayenne and ginger, make the body hotter,” explains Khalsa. “They actually make you sweat. But ginkgo is neutral. It warms the blood without overheating.” Try 500 milligrams (mg.) three times a day.

Vitamin E is another standout for circulation-related difficulties, says Jack Challem, editor of The Nutrition Reporter newsletter based in Aloha, Ore. “Vitamin E’s role in circulation is well established; it goes back 50 or 60 years,” he says. “It’s a vasodilator and blood thinner.” The recommended dose is 400 International Units (IU) a day.

Some supplements stimulate production of the male sex hormone testosterone, responsible for maintaining potency, fertility and desire. Omega-3 essential fatty acids are the basic building blocks for testosterone, but men are often deficient in these fats because they do not eat enough of the foods that contain them. Boost intake of omega-3s by adding 1 to 3 teaspoons of flaxseed oil to your meals each day.

Better known as wild oats (as in the kind you sow), the herb Avena sativa also increases testosterone levels, according to studies done at the Institute for Sexual Studies in San Francisco. Take 500 mg. daily. Sarsaparilla (Smilax medica) is another testosterone booster, according to Mindell. Try 500 mg. daily.

Adaptogenic herbs, which normalize body systems and allow the body to heal itself, are frequently called upon to treat impotence. Asian ginseng–its name means “man root”–is particularly praised as a health tonic and sexual booster for men over 35. Ginseng (Panax ginseng) is an energizer, so to avoid going into hyperdrive (side effects include sweating and irritability), Khalsa advises taking 1 gram a day.

Maca andina (Spanish for Andean mace) is another adaptogenic herb that’s just starting to gain a following in the United States, primarily via the Internet. “It’s used to treat a wide variety of hormone imbalances, much like [Asian] ginseng,” Khalsa says. “We know it increases fertility, but some people claim it increases sexual vigor, though there’s no scientific information to back that up.”

A member of the cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli family, maca andina comes in capsules or dried powder; the typical daily dosage is 4,000 mg. “It’s a very nontoxic herb,” Khalsa notes. “In Peru they basically eat it as a food, like a big bowl of pudding.”

Of course, no article on natural sexual potency would be complete without mentioning yohimbe. Made from the bark of the African tree Pausinystalia johimbe, yohimbe is the best known anti-impotence herb. In fact, it’s the only one that’s ever been scientifically proven to improve sexual function, and it’s the only herbal sex aid to garner a listing in the Physicians’ Desk Reference. Yohimbe is believed to work by stimulating the nerves in the spine that control erection. But even in the recommended daily dose of 250 mg., it can produce some Viagra-like side effects, including nausea, headaches, sweating, agitation, high blood pressure and panic attacks. Plus, it’s so jolting to the nervous system, anyone with hypertension or heart disease should steer clear. If you use this herb at all, do it with caution.

LET LIKE CURE LIKE

Homeopathy, the centuries-old tradition of using minute doses of a substance that provokes certain symptoms in one who is healthy to heal those same symptoms in one who is ill, takes a bigger-picture approach to sexual dysfunction.

“Homeopathy deals with the psychological barriers we develop,” says Andrew Lange, N.D., a naturopathic physician and director of the Homeopathic Research Institute in Boulder, Colo. “You’re not only treating the impotency but the whole way a person responds to a variety of situations,” he explains.

Chronic impotence is best treated by a professional homeopath, who will tailor therapy based on a patient’s unique set of symptoms, says Dana Ullman, co-author of Everybody’s Guide to Homeopathic Medicine (Tarcher/Putnam, 1997). But short-term impotence, resulting from stress or emotional difficulties, may be resolved with over-the-counter homeopathic medicines.

Some 50 homeopathic alternatives to Viagra exist, but their effectiveness varies from patient to patient. “There’s no silver bullet,” Lange admits. However, homeopathic practitioners have reported impressive results from Lycopodium, the spores of a club moss. Lange says recent toxicological studies suggest Lycopodium offers “a certain psychological remedy” to impotency.

The homeopathic medicines China, Nux vomica, Conium, Selenium, Argentum nitrium and Baryta carb may also prove beneficial. For all of these remedies, Ullman recommends using either the 6 (X or C) strength, three times a day for a week, or 30 (X or C) twice a day for two days.

RELAX AND RECHARGE

Very often work-related or emotional stress can prevent you from rising to the occasion. “When you’re preoccupied [with worry] sexual interest diminishes rapidly,” says Allen Elkin, Ph.D., program director for the Stress Management and Counseling Center in New York City. Men under severe stress get hit with a double whammy: Not only does stress reduce testosterone levels in the body, it prompts the release of a form of adrenaline that makes it impossible to maintain an erection.

Yoga, meditation and progressive relaxation are terrific stress busters (numerous how-to tapes can show you what to do). Exercising, finding a hobby, even getting a pet can also help reduce stress levels.

Mechanical difficulties don’t have to sideline your love life. But think carefully about how you tune up your equipment. “Viagra may be a wonderful aid to jumpstart a stalled sex life, but it’s best to take a good look under the hood,” says Kuriansky. “You don’t just run a car into the ground.”

Kevin Haynes is executive editor of Unlimited magazine.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Sabot Publishing

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