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Facts about male aphrodisiacs and stimulants

13:00 Tue Apr 3 2012
Richard Bevan
Facts about male aphrodisiacs and stimulants
"I promise this has never happened before!" (Thinkstock)

We've all seen them advertised. Here, we uncover the realities behind herbal aphrodisiacs.

Most men know the drill — whether it's lots of spam emails offering to extend your performance or a poster in the pub toilets promising a guaranteed erection, there is a huge variety of aphrodisiacs and stimulants vying for your attention.

But do they actually work? More importantly, are they even safe? We take a closer look at this lucrative industry.

What do these products claim to resolve?
The sultry blonde smouldering on the cover of a pamphlet advertising a sex stimulant reflects the kind of provocative advertising used for male aphrodisiac pills and potions.

"The guys I have on set always use it — as it guarantees they are big, hard and ready" reads the blurb, which promises to turn the onlooker into a rampant sex machine no woman could complain about. Most of us are familiar with these types of sell.

But it's not just top-shelf magazines that are promoting wares that play on the trademarked name Viagra or use words like Man and Maximus in their titles to suggest virility — it seems it's not even safe to have a tinkle without being urged to buy a blue pill as a booster.

Do these sexual stimulants work?
There's a whole host of products on offer in vending machines in pubs, with some claiming they are 'scientifically tested' and as safe as can be. So how true are these claims of efficacy and safety?

Dr Petra Boynton, social psychologist at University College London, says the general belief that men should always be ready for sex plays a big part in the marketing of such pills.

"There's that stereotype that men always want sex and with that comes the pressure that they have to be able to get and keep an erection," says Boynton. "A lot of the anxieties that men talk about are that they can't perform in the way they are led to believe they should be doing."

Why men rarely talk about stimulants and performance-enhancers
It's fair to say that male performance anxiety is very real and concerning for any sufferer. As a result, we're often easily embarrassed about sexual issues and are more likely to buy products on the web or through magazine ads, rather than seeking professional help. It can seem like the best way of preserving our dignity and self-esteem. But does that make men more vulnerable to some potentially untried and untested claims?

Dr Boynton believes that such pill promoters are exploiting men's anxieties and offer little or no proof that they work. Equally worrying are the possible side effects and health issues associated with using such untested drugs.

"A problem for men is that if you are anxious about your performance — either due to erection issues or premature ejaculation — where do you actually go? If you go online, you can easily come across sites that will give you incorrect information, or perhaps try selling dodgy products or at best proven products in an unethical way."

What are the dangers?
Some companies claim to offer a mixture of substances said to tackle erectile problems or help give men an 'inflatory' rise. But Dr Boynton reveals that apart from some well-known ingredients such as ginseng and ginger, l-arginine, magnesium stearate and silicon dioxide, there may also be present unknown stimulants or generic versions of Viagra.

"They can interact with alcohol/recreational drugs and also you don't really know what you're taking or the levels. I've heard stories of guys buying them off blokes down at the pub — literally just purchasing capsules and taking them.

"L-arginine for instance is used in the treatment of hypertension, so if you do have any issues there it wouldn't be wise to take it without seeing a doc first. Most of these 'herbal' products are either placebo at best or at worst contain generic Viagra or similar, so can be very dangerous for people with high blood pressure, diabetes, heart conditions, etc."

Are these stimulants legal?
Dr James Moffatt, pharmacologist at St George's, University of London, describes how companies are able to sell these products even when they haven't been put through rigorous trials.

"They are probably using lots of subtle loopholes. I mean, what's the difference between a handful of parsley and a handful of parsley that claims to cure erectile dysfunction? They can get away with saying their ingredients are a food and there's also a lot of caffeine in these pills, which energy drinks also contain. Caffeine makes the user feel the drug is 'kicking in' and psychologically believe they are working. But unless these companies break the law, it seems like nobody cares what they do. [It] is basically an unregulated market."

Embarrassment and exploitation
As guys aren't generally known for opening up about their love lives and problems associated with sex, both Dr Boynton and Dr Moffatt believe many men will prefer to go online to find a fast remedy and buy products bypassing professional advice.

"The issue of men's sex problems is seen as a bit of a joke, or they're not that serious and nobody wants to talk about it," says Dr Boynton. "So this means we are struggling to collate a firm database on what men are taking and how many adverse reactions there are."

Dr Moffatt adds that there is certainly the potential for the erectile dysfunction market to be exploited. "If men buy something and it doesn't work, they just throw it away," says Dr Moffatt. "They probably won't complain, let alone sue. Until they are seen to do actual harm, it's unlikely any action will be taken."

What this means is that an industry of opportunists trading on men's fears and anxieties revolving around sexual performance is raking in money. One Australian company was hauled over the coals by UK regulatory body the Advertising Standards Authority in February 2009 for an "offensive" poster. The company argued that only by directly confronting a reluctant audience could they get their message across but the ASA agreed with complainants that the ad had crossed the line. Dr Boynton contributed to a BBC Watchdog programme about the company.

"The company ran a helpline and, as well as calling men 'losers' if they didn't buy their products, they would also tell married guys that their wives would leave them for other men if they couldn't get an erection. They were totally unethical and put untold pressure on men to buy their pills."

John Tomlinson, director of a men's sexual health clinic, is also aware of the firm, which he claims charged hefty fees for their wares.

"I had one patient who was 20 years old and suffered from premature ejaculation. He paid $600 upfront and what they gave him didn't work," he claims. "Eventually after a while he sued them. It's a big problem for men in the middle-east and Asia who are constantly being exploited by these unscrupulous companies."

Health dangers
Presently it's difficult to know just how many men have suffered physical problems due to the anonymity of obtaining such products. "It's possible that some men might have experienced problems and then not confessed to their doctors that they've been taking these pills," says Dr Moffatt.

"By and large they are biologically harmless, but some of the stuff sold as 'herbal Viagra' often contains random amounts of generic Viagra made by someone who isn't regulated, and that is illegal. Now, this can be dangerous because the taker doesn't know what the dosage is and could take too much of it."

Genuine help and information
"Most men don't have an actual physical problem — they just think they have a problem," says Dr Boynton. "It might be that they just desire a stronger erection or are anxious about a new relationship or functioning due to a disappointing experience, so they end up taking clinical medication for a non-medical problem."

The emphasis being that men should learn that it's perfectly normal to feel anxious about performing with a new partner and equally — unless there is a consistent issue with getting an erection — most guys shouldn't worry about it unduly.

"For men who believe they may have a genuine psychological or physical problem their first port of call should be their GP, who can assess the situation clinically and prescribe the right kind of treatment, be it medication (registered and monitored for side effects) or psychological help in the form of therapy."

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