We recently talked with industry experts about low libido in women. While each of the experts discussed changes to lifestyle and communication with partners, more than a few experts mentioned the use of herbal supplements for low libido.
For example, Dawn Cutillo, an expert on hormone education, founder of the BeBalanced Hormone Weight Loss Centers franchise, and author of The Hormone Shift, mentioned the use of maca. “This is an adaptogen herb that helps the stress response and buffers our bodies against stress. It also helps the adrenal gland rebuild,” says Cutillo, “This herb can be taken in a liquid form or capsule, but the best form is in a transdermal topical cream that goes directly into the bloodstream.”
We analyzed the published research on these supplements to see if there is any evidence of sexual health benefits.
Maca (Lepidium meyenii)
In a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial, male participants received a placebo or one of two different doses of maca (1,500 mg or 3,000 mg) to determine the potential influence of maca on sexual desire as an effect of changes in mood or serum testosterone levels. Researchers recorded scores for the Hamilton test for depression, Hamilton test for anxiety, and participants’ self-perceived scores for sexual desire at four, eight, and twelve weeks of treatment.
Starting at eight weeks, researchers noted improvements in sexual desire in those treated with maca. However, serum testosterone and estradiol levels did not differ significantly between men treated with maca and those given a placebo. This suggests that maca improves sexual desire without affecting testosterone levels.1
Tongkat Ali (Eurycoma longifolia)
In a rat study, researchers evaluated the effects of tongkat ali on rat libido based on doses of 200, 400, and 800 mg per kg of body weight twice a day for a period of 10 days. Results of the study found that tongkat ali showed a dose-dependent increase in the frequency of mounting. The study suggests that Eurycoma longifolia may stimulate sexual arousal and desire.2
Horny Goat Weed/Epimedium Extract
Horny goat weed was discovered when the herds of ancient farmers displayed increased sexual activity after they grazed on certain plants. Scientists have isolated the active ingredient in horny goat weed, icariin, which can now be taken the form of supplement. Do these horny goat weed extracts work?
In a study, Epimedium koreanum dry extracts were suspended in a wheat germ oil using lecithin and beeswax, allowing for easy oral administration. Researchers used rats to evaluate two compositions of this Epimedium extract standardized based on icariin content. The two compositions were administered twice daily over a period of 10 days with a control group that received olive oil for 10 days.
Researchers studied the number of complete intromissions, the number of ejaculations, and latent period of ejaculation. Results showed an increase in the number of intromissions and ejaculations and reduction in latent period of ejaculation in rats given both compositions of Epimedium. This suggests that Epimedium koreanum extracts may increase libido and erectile function in rats.3
In a rat study, researchers split subjects into five groups. The first group was the control group and received a saline solution. The experimental groups were given a Mucuna pruriens extract in doses of 150, 200, and 250 mg per kg of body weight. The last group received sildenafil citrate in doses of 5 mg per kg of body weight.
Results of this study showed that rat groups given the Mucuna pruriens extracts showed significant increases in mounting frequency, intromission frequency, and ejaculation latency along with decreases in mounting latency, intromission latency, post-ejaculatory interval, and inter-intromission interval. Increases in sexual activity of male rats were most significant at doses of 200 mg/kg, with enhancements in all parameters with no significant effects on normal behavior.4
In a separate study, Mucuna pruriens extracts were administered to 75 healthy, fertile men and 75 men undergoing infertility treatments. Researchers noted improved semen quality in treated men and suggested that Macuna pruriens works via the hypothalamus-pituitary-gonadal axis to improve sexual health.5
In a rat study, researchers gave adult Sprague-Dawley rats 10, 50, or 100 mg/kg of panax ginseng or a sesame oil vehicle for 28 days. Researchers then measured copulatory behavior parameters. Results of the study showed that the rats administered with the ginseng extract had decreased latency in mounting, intromission, and ejaculation compare to controls. Hormone analyses also showed no changes to luteinizing hormone or serum testosterone levels. This suggests that panax ginseng may help to stimulate copulatory behavior without affecting hormone levels.6
Saw palmetto is known to affect hormones, particularly DHT, but studies suggest that it may not have any effect on libido. Researchers administered varying doses of saw palmetto extract and royal palm fruit extract to groups of rats. Results of the study showed no significant differences in the average number of mounts, intromissions, mount latency, or intromission latency in groups treated with either extract compared to controls. There were no differences in mating behaviors or adverse effects. This suggests that saw palmetto may not significantly affect sexual activity in male rats despite its known effect on hormones.7
In a study involving 202 healthy women reporting low sex drives, researchers administered a formulation combining muira puama and ginkgo biloba. After one month of treatment, self-assessment questionnaires showed significantly higher scores in 65 percent of participants. Researchers noted statistically significant improvements in frequency of sexual desires, intercourse, and fantasies, along with improved satisfaction with sex life, intensity of sexual desire, ability to reach orgasm, and intensity of orgasm. These findings support the potential positive effects of the muira puama and ginkgo biloba combination on female sex drive, though further study is necessary.8
As noted in the above study, ginkgo biloba may have an effect on women’s libidos. In an open trial, ginkgo biloba extracts were found to be 84 percent effective in reducing sexual dysfunction caused by antidepressant SSRIs.9 However, a separate double-blind, placebo-controlled trial for ginkgo biloba’s effects on sexual dysfunction suggest otherwise. The results of this two-month trial showed no significant difference between the effects of the placebo and ginkgo biloba. In fact, both showed comparable improvements to sexual function, suggesting that it may be a result of the placebo effect.10
The placebo effect is powerful, an idea supported by Tamsin Nicholson of Yekize, an organization committed to raising awareness about the placebo effect. “As we mentioned, low libido often has a psychological, rather than a physical cause, and placebos have been proven to be an effective way to treat these types of conditions,” Nicholson says, “A paper in the Journal of Sex Medicine by Bradford and Zolbrod (2010) demonstrated that about 35 percent of women experienced a significant improvement in their sex drive when taking a placebo. The women experienced benefits in both psychological arousal and physical arousal (i.e. increased vaginal lubrication). Recent studies by Ted Kaptchuk (Harvard Medical School) have also demonstrated that you can still experience the placebo effect if you know you are taking a placebo (open-label placebos).”
If you are experiencing a low sex drive, it may be helpful to use a supplement containing multiple ingredients that have demonstrated benefits for sexual health, such as DrFormulas™ Libido Support.