Q: I am a 68-year-old male. Are there safe supplements a person my age can take to boost sex life?
A: With a few exceptions, most supplements for sexual function haven’t been studied scientifically. But they definitely can have a placebo effect.
That’s not trivial. For example, when researchers did clinical trials for the prescription medication sildenafil [Viagra], the placebo response was about 30%. Which tells you that the most important sex organ you have is your brain. In men, the brain controls the stimulus to get blood flow to the penis, and furthermore, it controls orgasm and ejaculation. That’s why a lot of people with normal vascular function still have sexual dysfunction.
But what about the claims that over-the-counter supplements can increase your libido or sexual endurance? A 2015 review of top-selling supplements for men’s sexual health, published in The Journal of Sexual Medicine, found little or no evidence to support claims they could improve aspects of sexual performance.
Unlike conventional medicines, supplements do not have to show they are effective or whether the ingredients are accurate. The supplements won’t be pulled from the shelves until and unless the FDA proves they’re unsafe.
Popular sexual performance supplements often contain a blend of ingredients, but most of them won’t help your love life. However, there may be a couple exceptions.
L-arginine: This amino acid provides the raw material from which the body makes nitric oxide, a molecule that helps relax and open blood vessels, a necessary step to achieve an erection of the penis. But putting that into a pill isn’t proven to produce an erection. Moreover, people with heart disease should avoid it.
Yohimbine: This comes from bark of a tree native to Africa. It does promote penile blood flow, but you have no idea whether the supplement you’re taking has too much or too little. Another warning: yohimbine may cause high blood pressure, headaches, agitation, insomnia, and sweating.
Before reaching for a supplement, consider the lifestyle changes that can help boost sexual performance. This includes getting more exercise which improves blood flow to the sexual organs, eating a heart healthy diet and losing weight if you are overweight, and limiting alcohol intake, since excessive alcohol use can dampen sexual reflexes and the ability of men to maintain an erection.
(Howard LeWine, M.D., is an internist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. For additional consumer health information, please visit www.health.harvard.edu.)