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Herbal Viagra: What It Is and Risks

Kristin Hall, FNP

Reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP

Written by Geoffrey Whittaker

Published 02/15/2021

Updated 08/05/2023

Ah, convenience store penis pills: the final solution to all that ails your manhood, right there next to an egg salad sandwich. 

That confidence-inspiring packaging (we’d define its art style as somewhere between THC edibles and an extreme gum brand) is so reassuring, the pills definitely must be the sort of thing you want to want to put into your body to make your penis healthier, right?

Yeah, no. Wrong. 

Herbal ED supplements — herbal Viagra®, ginkgo biloba, ginseng, gas station sex pills, rhino pills and whatever your friend with the grow operation swears by — are likely more trouble than they are worth. 

We, along with medical experts, have some serious concerns about herbal ED meds and their over-the-gas-station-counter counterparts. At best, they’re unproven remedies for a problem with proven remedies. At the worst, they can be dangerous and sometimes illegally produced compounds with serious health implications. 

We’ve broken down why you really want to avoid them — at least until they’ve been more thoroughly studied and have some evidence to back their efficacy — and covered what they are, the common types, what the science says about benefits and risks and where to focus your attention instead (hint: it’s not the lottery cards either).

Let’s break this down as simply as possible. First we’ll cover what real Viagra is, then we’ll explain how its so-called cousin differs.

Viagra is the brand-name version of a medication called sildenafil citrate. It belongs to a class of medications called phosphodiesterase 5 inhibitors, more commonly known as PDE5 inhibitors. These medications inhibit an enzyme that can interfere with your ability to get hard. They are medically-prescribed drug treatments which, when taken properly, can increase blood flow to maintain erections. 

Like other PDE5s, Viagra has been thoroughly tested through decades of medical research, meta-analysis and systematic review, and has been found to be a safe and proven treatment.

Herb Viagra, on the other hand, is, well, none of these things. None at all.

In fact, herbal Viagra, also known as natural Viagra, doesn’t even have a medical definition. 

Instead, it’s something of an industry slang term applied to any and all over-the-counter natural remedies for ED, aphrodisiacs and pseudo-pharmaceuticals you can buy without a prescription.

Put simply, herbal Viagra is not always herbal, and should never actually be Viagra. It is an unregulated supplement promising the same effects as prescription ED medications like Viagra though “natural” compounds. 

Natural may seem like a comforting word, but mercury and cyanide are both naturally occurring, as are black widow spiders. Get it? Herb Viagra has about as much in common with Viagra, legally speaking,  as a can of Dr. Pepper has with a doctor (fun fact: it was not created by a doctor).

The types of so-called natural “Viagra” you see on the market may include:

You might think that if you mixed all of these in a blender and made pills at home, you’d end up with a super erection and magic sex powers. You might also assume your testosterone levels would skyrocket to new heights, that you’d be infused with tiger blood and that a urology expert would melt like the guys at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark at the mere sight of your now-invincible erections.

Unfortunately, you’d be very disappointed, because as far as experts are concerned, most of these just aren’t all that useful.

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To the credit of these herbal Viagra companies and the “herbs” listed above, most of them do have a study or two to corroborate some portion of their claims. The study data for dietary supplements and herbal supplements for ED might even look like the evidence for prescription medications if you turn your head and squint — a lot.

The fact is, however, that most of these sexual enhancement products only have a few verifiable instances of improving erectile function, while coming with big risks like high blood pressure.

Epimedium or horny goat weed, for example, has been shown to provide small improvements in erectile dysfunction in testing on animals, but there are no significant human studies showing these effects can translate to people. 

There’s also Chinese ginseng, red ginseng and L-arginine: three products frequently marketed for ED. But none of them have scientific evidence backing them as ED treatment.

Yohimbine is one of the few herbal ED treatments with limited research suggesting it may increase libido, but it isn’t clear how yohimbine measures up to regular ED medications. 

Furthermore, natural alternatives to Viagra can have a lot of side effects — sometimes even more than Viagra itself.

Herbal ED treatments lack scientifically proven benefits for the most part, but the side effects and risks are pretty well-established. 

Most of them can cause a variety of symptoms similar to those experienced with prescription ED medications, like headaches and blood pressure fluctuations.

But they can also cause more serious symptoms that can really screw with your general health.

  • Yohimbine can cause hypertension, insomnia and sweating. 

  • In rare cases (primarily in people with epilepsy), ginkgo biloba can cause seizures. 

  • One study of L-arginine was stopped early because six people died in the treatment group, compared with none in the placebo group. Men — especially those at risk of cardiovascular issues like heart disease — should be particularly careful.

And because these “medications” aren’t medically tested or produced with medical levels of rigor, they aren’t as safe. In 2015 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advised consumers that they shouldn't buy or use products marketed as herbal Viagra pills. 

The reason? It contained a hidden drug ingredient. That ingredient, it turns out, was sildenafil (generic Viagra), the active ingredient in the real version of Viagra, which was neither disclosed on the label nor, ya know, legal.

The point is, gents, that these medications are unsafe. Unlike traditional medications, they are not thoroughly vetted and are not held to the same standards of testing and safety. Period. 

Choose your chew

If you’ve been struggling with ED or just beginning to see symptoms, there are better ways to address this problem than grabbing untested packets and pills off a shelf. 

The first and most important thing you should do if you’re in need of treatment is seek out professional medical help. 

Healthcare professionals will be able to address your particular needs, and help you find a safe and effective treatment. 

Plus, they might spot other conditions commonly associated with ED symptoms — everything from obesity and diabetes to anxiety and depression

And they may recommend treatments for these conditions in addition to proven remedies for your decreased performance.

In addition to lifestyle changes and therapy, you might also receive recommendations for medications likeCialis® or Viagra (tadalafil or sildenafil, in their respective generic forms) as well as Stendra® (avanafil) and our chewable ED meds hard mints — all of which are prescription PDE5 inhibitors that regulate blood flow to your penis, and are proven to help treat erectile dysfunction.

If you’re nervous or ashamed to consult a healthcare provider about this, you can stop worrying about that right there. 

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ED is a fairly common condition, affecting an estimated 30 million to 50 million men nationwide. If you’ve got a group of four friends, at least one of them is potentially suffering from the same problem. 

Buying something less-than-safe off a rack to avoid difficult conversations is not a solution — if anything, it can potentially make things worse.

There’s a reason this stuff isn’t sold in pharmacies, but rather in gas stations and bodegas next to the bin full of $2 DVDs like Paul Blart: Mall Cop. The reason is that, like a Paul Blart DVD, herbal ED treatments aren’t proven to treat any medical conditions. 

Basically what you need to know about that stuff is this:

  • Herbal Viagra is a less-regulated market of supplements for sexual dysfunction and sexual performance issues than medications like Viagra (sildenafil), Levitra® (vardenafil), Cialis (tadalafil) and others.

  • While it may seem like these supplements have no benefits to offer in the sexual function department, there are a few claims they can verify. 

  • Ultimately, however, the scientific evidence backing them is scarce at best — they’re certainly not going to be recommended by healthcare professionals for problems like erectile dysfunction or premature ejaculation.

  • For effective erectile dysfunction treatments, you can’t go with vitamins and supplements for ED or OTC Viagra — it’s just too risky.

  • Instead, you’re better off with proven treatments. 

Want help with those? We offer medications for ED, as well as therapy and other sexual health services. Start working on the problem the safe way today.

15 Sources

  1. Sooriyamoorthy T, Leslie SW. Erectile Dysfunction. [Updated 2023 May 30]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK562253/.
  2. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.-h). Treatment for erectile dysfunction - NIDDK. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
  3. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.-a). Erectile dysfunction/sexual enhancement. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/erectile-dysfunctionsexual-enhancement.
  4. Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. (n.d.-b). Public notification: Herb viagra contains hidden drug ingredient. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/drugs/medication-health-fraud/public-notification-herb-viagra-contains-hidden-drug-ingredient.
  5. Leisegang, K., & Finelli, R. (2021). Alternative medicine and herbal remedies in the treatment of erectile dysfunction: A systematic review. Arab journal of urology, 19(3), 323–339. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8451697/.
  6. Lee, H. W., Lee, M. S., Kim, T. H., Alraek, T., Zaslawski, C., Kim, J. W., & Moon, D. G. (2021). Ginseng for erectile dysfunction. The Cochrane database of systematic reviews, 4(4), CD012654. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8094213/.
  7. Adeniyi, A.A., Brindley, G.S., Pryor, J.P., and Ralph, D.J. (2007). Yohimbine in the treatment of orgasmic dysfunction. Asian Journal of Andrology. Retrieved April 27, 2023 from http://www.asiaandro.com/archive/1008-682X/9/403.htm.
  8. Brunetti, P., Lo Faro, A. F., Tini, A., Busardò, F. P., & Carlier, J. (2020). Pharmacology of Herbal Sexual Enhancers: A Review of Psychiatric and Neurological Adverse Effects. Pharmaceuticals (Basel, Switzerland), 13(10), 309. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7602496/.
  9. Yohimbine. (n.d.). ScienceDirect. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/biochemistry-genetics-and-molecular-biology/yohimbine
  10. LiverTox: Clinical and Research Information on Drug-Induced Liver Injury [Internet]. Bethesda (MD): National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; 2012-. Horny Goat Weed. [Updated 2022 Aug 8]. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK583203/.
  11. Shindel, A. W., Xin, Z. C., Lin, G., Fandel, T. M., Huang, Y. C., Banie, L., Breyer, B. N., Garcia, M. M., Lin, C. S., & Lue, T. F. (2010). Erectogenic and neurotrophic effects of icariin, a purified extract of horny goat weed (Epimedium spp.) in vitro and in vivo. The journal of sexual medicine, 7(4 Pt 1), 1518–1528. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3551978/.
  12. Jang, D. J., Lee, M. S., Shin, B. C., Lee, Y. C., & Ernst, E. (2008). Red ginseng for treating erectile dysfunction: a systematic review. British journal of clinical pharmacology, 66(4), 444–450. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2561113/.
  13. Schulman SP, Becker LC, Kass DA, et al. L-arginine therapy in acute myocardial infarction: the Vascular Interaction With Age in Myocardial Infarction (VINTAGE MI) randomized clinical trial. JAMA. 2006;295(1):58-64. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16391217/
  14. Dhaliwal A, Gupta M. PDE5 Inhibitors. [Updated 2023 Apr 10]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK549843/.
  15. HIGHLIGHTS OF PRESCRIBING INFORMATION : VIAGRA® (sildenafil citrate) tablets, for oral use . (n.d.-i). https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/drugsatfda_docs/label/2014/20895s039s042lbl.pdf.
Editorial Standards

Hims & Hers has strict sourcing guidelines to ensure our content is accurate and current. We rely on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We strive to use primary sources and refrain from using tertiary references. See a mistake? Let us know at [email protected]!

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. Learn more about our editorial standards here.

Kristin Hall, FNP

Kristin Hall is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with decades of experience in clinical practice and leadership. 

She has an extensive background in Family Medicine as both a front-line healthcare provider and clinical leader through her work as a primary care provider, retail health clinician and as Principal Investigator with the NIH

Certified through the American Nurses Credentialing Center, she brings her expertise in Family Medicine into your home by helping people improve their health and actively participate in their own healthcare. 

Kristin is a St. Louis native and earned her master’s degree in Nursing from St. Louis University, and is also a member of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners. You can find Kristin on LinkedIn for more information.

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