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Move Over Viagra—Now There's Something...Weedier?

L.K. Regan

There's a promising development in the long battle between man and manhood. Guys who suffer from erectile dysfunction (ED) can look with renewed hope to an ancient herb. That, at least, is the conclusion of a team of Italian researchers at the University of Bologna who are publishing a study this month in the Journal of Natural Products. Soon, they hope, you'll be able to head to the herbalist rather than the doctor when you have an equipment failure.

Of course, there are already a number of pharmaceutical products on the market to address ED, including the popular brand-name Viagra and Cialis. But these are not without risk. In addition to feeding money into a medical-industrial complex, ED drugs may cause extended erections (ouch!), facial blushing, and even blindness in rare cases. In the face of these problems (and the embarrassment of telling your doctor you have ED), it's no surprise that people seek herbal remedies for ED. Ginkgo, ginseng, and yohimbe, for instance, are often recommended natural treatments for ED. But do they actually work? And is there something better?

According to the Italian researchers, yes. Specifically, you're going to need to practice walking up to the counter at your local herbalist and saying with a straight face, "May I have some horny goat weed, please?" Scary but true—horny goat weed was the most successful herb the Italian researchers tested. Horny goat weed is the common name of the Epimedium plant, which comes in a variety of species. In ancient Chinese medicine it was believed to be an aphrodisiac, and is sold as such in health stores. The active ingredient in horny goat weed is icariin, and it acts like a natural Viagra. The Italian study confirms the action of icariin, and offers a new and better derivative from it.

Here's how it works. During an erection, nitric oxide is released from the nerves into the muscle cells of the arterial walls within the penis. That in turn inhibits PE-5, an enzyme that, as the researchers write, "causes smooth muscle relaxation, leading to dilation and increased influx of blood into the penile tissue. The trapping of blood in the penis results in an erection." Current ED drugs act as inhibitors on that enzyme; and the only question is whether an herbal remedy can do the same. By exposing several natural substances to the relevant enzyme, the researchers discovered that horny goat weed had the strongest inhibiting effect. And, they were able to extract icariin from the weed and distill and chemically alter it into a derivative that improves erectile function in the same way as Viagra, only with fewer side effects and a more precise targeting of the erectile enzyme.

The Italian derivative is not available yet, so you may want to hold off on your trip to the herbalist—but it may be worth testing out some of the horny goat weed extracts already on the market. Hey, you never know....