The Risk of Male Enhancement Pills

Medically Reviewed

Judging by the number of male enhancement pills lining the shelves at supermarkets and nutrition stores across the country, it’s clear that many men are seeking to give their sexual health a boost with “natural” or herbal supplements that promise to improve male performance.

Experts point to a lack of reliable scientific research on these over-the-counter (OTC) supplements, sometimes called nutraceuticals, in terms of both their effectiveness and safety—particularly when used with prescription drugs. Concentrations of active ingredients can also vary from product to product, and nutraceuticals may contain unlisted drugs.

In a review in the November 2015 issue of the Journal of Sex Medicine, urologists at Wake Forest School of Medicine evaluated the effectiveness of the top 30 products sold by the retailer GNC that are marketed to improve men’s sexual health and erectile dysfunction (ED). The products go by such names as Prolongz, Extenze, Maca Man, and New Vigor.

Citing a lack of robust evidence, the researchers concluded they would not recommend any of the formulas marketed for improving sex drive or erection and recommended that men avoid them.

In other words, don’t believe the hype surrounding male enhancement pills that contain red ginseng (Panax or Korean ginseng); horny goat weed; vitamins B6, B12, B9 (folate), and B1 (thiamine); fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum); L-arginine; yohimbine; niacin; zinc, magnesium, and selenium; ginkgo biloba; maca; dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA); and Tribulus terrestris. Their side effects are largely unknown. Some, like Tribulus terrestris, can be toxic.

Experimenting with hormones or anything that affects them is always risky. Because of the potential for dangerous herb-drug interactions, older men with existing health conditions need to be especially wary when using natural or herbal remedies if they take multiple medications. Men already using prescription ED drugs may be putting themselves at risk for side effects if they use male enhancement pills, since some OTC supplements contain unlisted amounts of the drug phosphodiesterase 5, a key ingredient in prescription ED drugs.

The bottom line:

If you have erectile dysfunction or other sexual problems, consult your doctor, not the salesperson at the nutrition store or behind a website.