Fear of Herbalists

It is the third time I have been offered erection pills. Not that I need them… (ahem). But after having a book on science and sex published, some companies want to tell me about their products, looking for some publicity, I guess. I do not find it a problem, actually, and finally I tried some of them last week. Results, however, left me thinking.

The first pill I was offered, a year and a half ago already, was called Naturagra, and it was very -very much indeed- special. They were so special that, according to its website, it is a food supplement made from natural products that –listen  up- «carries no chemicals in its composition».  Amazing! Isn’t it? They must be «empty pills».

In fact, in their «Frequently Asked Questions» clarify that you can take them without prescription because it «does not have any components that affect the body». A bit contradictory when right afterwards they say that it works just as Viagra or Cialis … Of course, without contraindications because it is a 100% natural product.

The latter statement is what surprised me most. I will not deny the effectiveness of the pills beforehand. Especially because, after all, erections depend largely on the cardiovascular system and, indeed, there are many natural substances that can enhance sexual potency. Nothing against this approach, which is even scientifically supported.

But the idea that because of its being natural then has no contraindications… that I am not so sure of. Coffee is also a natural product, and if you have high blood pressure, your doctor will probably recommend a moderate consumption.

In fact, following this line of thought, let’s imagine that a company manufactures pills «to focus attention» made from coffee extracts that contain an amount of caffeine equivalent to ten espressos. They would probably work, however, no matter how natural they were, they would not be very healthy and would certainly have side effects. Something similar could happen with a product designed to treat erectile dysfunction that worked by altering the cardiovascular system. Even if we are dealing with extracts from natural products, they could be very dangerous if overdosed. I asked Naturaga’s representative if they had any study –no  matter how thorough– that  explained the ingredients it includes and that ensured it had no adverse effects, but she never gave an answer. Mmmm … Suspicious, to say the least. Would you then trust Naturagra over Viagra? In fact… wouldn’t you be afraid of taking Naturagra?

I was afraid indeed last week when Michelle, a friend of my co sex-writer Twanna Hines, offered me Ajax Max in Washington DC; a «non-prescription all-natural male sexual enhancer» for which she was a sales representative.

First thing I did was examining its composition. The Ajax Max sachet said it included yohimbine, ginko, L-arginine, ginseng, maca and other substances, some of which were proven to increase both libido and sexual response. But I was still concerned about the dose. Especially since, being a lot more honest than the Naturagra tricksters, in the Ajax Max sachets there was a warning label: «Consult your doctor if you have high blood pressure or cardiovascular problems». I asked Michelle if they had done studies to analyse whether they were safe, and she openly told me they had not, that it was completely natural and that they trusted a man from the island of Grenada who had been successfully preparing it for years.

I won’t deny it, but when I got home, ready to take my three pills to check if I noticed some special effect, a curious thing happened to me: I was afraid. What if something weird happened? In fact, thinking about what we were saying before about dosage, how could I know those three pills wouldn’t dilate other blood vessels on top of the ones in my penis? After all, Viagra uses nitrogen oxide signals localised in the genital area. For me, really, the fact that Viagra is a synthetic product while Ajax Max is a plant extract is not something that gives me peace in terms of efficacy and safety. Viagra has passed thousands of tests, there is evidence that it works, and its side effects are clearly identified. What do I know about Ajax Max and damn Naturagra!

In fact, this is what I wanted to convey: If you had erection problems, would you trust Ajax Max over Viagra? And by extension, isn’t it a bit frightening taking God knows what from the herbalist’s shop? Natural is not a synonym of safe or effective, and, considering the lack of scruples and the business interest behind the natural products industry, I have grown a little afraid.

Without going any further, in October 2013 the NYT published an extensive report from a scientific study where researchers took 44 random samples of natural products from 12 different companies, and, using DNA barcoding techniques they saw that a lot of the components analysed were only rice powder without a trace of any of the other substances advertised. The article intended to draw attention to the lack of regulation of natural products.

In fact, I remember another very amusing study I saw in 2012 at the International Congress of Sexual Medicine in Chicago, when I was doing research for my book S = EX2. The study had analysed the composition of a large number of natural products to treat erectile dysfunction, and found that almost 20% of them had traces of sildenafil, Viagra’s active ingredient, which means they worked because they were adulterated.

In the end, I was definitely scared and I took one Ajax Max pill instead of three. I did not notice any difference. «Sure, but you have no erection problems» Michelle told me. «Of course, of course…» I replied playing the cheeky boy.

Pere Estupinyà. Writer and Science Communicator (New York).
© Mètode 84, 2014/15.

111-84Moisés Mahiques

«Erections depend largely on the cardiovascular system and, indeed, there are many natural substances that can enhance sexual potency»

«I remember a very amusing study that analysed the composition of a large number of natural products to treat erectile dysfunction, and found that almost 20% of them had traces of sildenafil, Viagra’s active ingredient»

© Mètode 2015 - 84. Online only. What Is Science? - Winter 2014/15

Science writer and disseminator, Madrid (Spain). Presenter of El cazador de cerebros.