Sarah Callard investigates the broadening range of natural products now available in the sexual health sector.
Issues related to sexual health are still a major problem in Britain, and incidences of diseases such as Chlamydia can have long term implications, such as infertility, if they are left untreated.
The term sexual health covers a broad range of conditions from loss of libido right through to infertility and sexually transmitted diseases, and sexual health problems drive a lot of consumers into health food stores looking for a natural solution to their problems.
Probably the biggest problem when it comes to sexual health is a lack of libido. Lorna Driver-Davies, nutritionist at the Nutri Centre, says: “We mostly hear from women but this may be because men are less likely to want to talk about it. We know that a lot of men suffer from performance anxiety or not feeling that they have the ‘drive’ for as long as they wished and both sexes tend to say that stress and tiredness have the biggest impact on their libido.
“Excess weight has been linked to low libido and often when someone loses weight they experience an increase in their sex drive,” she adds.
Exercising and eating healthily can also have other benefits for sexual health because, as Driver-Davies explains: “If you are fitter and feel happier about your body you are more likely to want to get naked with someone special”.
Retailer, Paul Maconaghie, from Framar Health, agrees that one of the most complaints they hear from customers is about low libido for men and women, and that nutrition and lifestyle can play a major role in improving libido for a variety of reasons. “Exercise is really important because it keeps a healthy supply of blood pumping around the body. It is also a way of dealing with stress and general apathy which can lead to low libido.”
But how do specific nutrients directly affect our sexual well-being? B vitamins and amino acids such as L-Arginine are vital for good sexual health.
“A healthy diet is really important, especially one rich in protein and fruit and vegetables,” says Driver-Davies. “We so often over-eat on carbohydrates and miss out on essential amino acids from protein which can promote libido — especially L-Arginine.”
The amino acid, L-Arginine, is seen by many as the ultimate supplement for maintaining sexual health because it is necessary for the normal functioning of the pituitary gland. The production of L-Arginine decreases with age and research shows it plays an important role in maintaining overall health and, particularly, male sexual health.
L-Arginine stimulates the release of nitric oxide from the walls of blood vessels, helping them expand, and thus promoting healthy circulation. It has been found to be particularly helpful for invigorating male sexual performance by enhancing healthy blood flow to the penis.
SX from Higher Nature is suitable for men and women suffering from low libido. It contains L-Arginine as well as B vitamins and helps to aid circulation and vascular health, thereby improving sexual health. Lifeplan’s L-Arginine supplement is also designed to improve sexual wellbeing.
It is thought to help increase the quality and numbers of sperm, as well as help correct sexual dysfunction.
“We so often over-eat on carbohydrates and miss out on essential amino acids from protein which can promote libido.”
Herbs for sexual health
Although L-Arginine is very beneficial for improving sexual health, the majority of the market is made up of herbs such as Siberian ginseng, maca and the amusingly-titled horny goat weed.
Ayurvedic medicine has a special school focusing on herbal aphrodisiacs and libido, according to Sebastian Pole, director of Pukka Herbs. “It is known as vajikarana and has the intention of rejuvenating reproductive strength to ensure a potent sex life and healthy off-spring,” he explains.
The two main Ayurvedic sexual rejuvenators are Ashwagandha and Shatavari. Ashwagandha is used to enhance male libido and fertility and Shatavari, also known as ‘the woman who has 100 husbands’ is a strong tonic to a woman’s reproductive system, helping to nourish sexual desire and fertility.
“The summer is associated with sexuality in Ayurveda because the heat of the sun warms your inner fire or passion leading to desire, creativity and action. Both Shatavari and Ashwagandha help to nourish reproductive fluids, as do aloe vera, ghee and hemp seed oil,” says Pole.
Other healthy herbs for good sex include rhodiola, Siberian Ginseng and damiana. Rhodiola and Sun Eleuthero, which is often called Siberian Ginseng, are both adaptogens, which help the body to sustain normal energy levels despite the stresses and strains of modern living.
Benefits of both these herbs include a better quality of sleep, improved performance and endurance (in the bedroom and elsewhere), a healthy blood circulation and an increase in libido.
Other benefits include a reduction in irritability, an increased work capacity and a decrease in anxiety. As part of Men’s Health Week in June, naturopathic physician Harald Gaier
has launched a campaign to raise awareness about sexual health. He advocates the use of oil extracted from pine nuts of the Siberian Cedar, Pinus sibirica. “In Siberia, the tree, which grows to 80 metres and lives for 100 odd years, is referred to as the Queen of Taiga, because it’s nuts provide the men there with tremendous health and sexual vitality,” he explains.
Other herbs traditionally used for sexual health include the roots of the Muira Puama bush which have been drunk by the peoples of Brazil for centuries, and Damiana Aphrodisiaca, a South American shrub, drunk on special occasions. Higher Nature combines the two herbs in its Muira Puama and Damiana Aphrodisiaca product, designed for men and women.
Julie Lamble at Lifeplan recommends that if you take ginseng you ensure that it is the correct potentcy: “Ginseng has a long history of use in traditional Chinese medicine for improving strength, vigour and vitality but be sure to select a ginseng supplement which provides 30% ginsenosides.” She also recommends the herb ginkgo biloba for its antioxidant properties. She says, “…the antioxidants help promote blood-flow around the body, especially to the extremeties, and can benefit those suffering from impotence.”
Loss of libido in women has also been linked with the menopause when many women have to cope with a number of symptoms brought on by hormonal changes.Phil Rasmussen, a medical herbalist who created the Kiwiherb Herbal Remedies range, found that when he prescribed black cohosh and sage to his menopausal patients a significant number of women reported improvements in libido.
Getting your oats
Avena sativa, an extract from wild oats straw, is the active ingredient, alongside the herb maca, in the product Herbal vY for Men from Swiss Health. It is thought that avena sativa works by enabling impr-oved sexual activity and increasing prowess. Its partner product, Herbal vX for Women combines ginseng with maca to build up general vitality and strengthen bodily functions.
There are an increasing number of products on the market aimed at providing a natural alternative to the products already available. Higher Nature’s V Gel is a formula of organic aloe vera designed to nourish dry, sensitive vaginal skin and encourage vaginal moisture during sex.
One company that has made a real impact in this market is Yes. Lynda Lawrence, spokesperson for the brand, says: “Lack of lubrication is a big problem for a lot of women of all ages and for a number of reasons. Once they find the right lubricant it can quite literally change their lives.”
Yes recently launched another lubricant product, Yes Baby, for couples trying to conceive. “So many couples are unaware that conventional lubricants kill sperm and this new product is a fertility friendly lubricant system that also restores the vagina to its natural post ovulation pH and therefore protects against infections,” explains Lawrence.
The Condomania Range of condoms and sexual health products from Sutherland Health aims to offer consumers an alternative to the existing products on the market. They are manufactured to decrease the risk of allergy via a process that reduces the level of proteins in the latex, and they are Vegetarian Society approved and suitable for vegans. Another range of condoms, which are registered with the Vegan Society, is Fusion condoms from NVS.
It is estimated that around 2.5 million men in the UK suffer from infertility. Research has shown that nutrients can play a key role in improving fertility levels. Selenium is an important nutrient that has been found to improve sperm quality and mobility and zinc has been found to boost low sperm counts and low semen zinc levels. A number of products have been developed to cater for this market including Wassen’s Selenium-ACE and Zinc-ACE, and Fertility Plus for Men from the Natural Health Practise, which is formulated by Marilyn Glenville. It contains all
the key nutrients to boost fertility, including zinc and selenium.
View from the shop floor
“The most common sexual health concerns people ask about in our shop are Erectile Dysfunction (ED) and low libido in both men and women,” says Paul Maconaghie from Framar Health in Belfast.
“ED may be due to prescribed drugs or health conditions and in that case we would generally refer them back to their GP or advise them to see one of our qualified practitioners,” he says. “Low libido could be due to a number of reasons such as being overweight, too much alcohol consumption, smoking or high stress levels.”
Maconaghie says their best selling remedies for sexual health include Prelox which is distributed by Pharma Nord; Tigra Men Sex Formula which combines ginseng, damiana, wild yam and sarsparilla; the supplement VigRX, and the herbs horny goat weed, maca, and Herbal X for women. One thing he would like to see improved is the availability of products for women: “There is a shortage of choice for women so this is an area manufacturers could develop,” suggests Maconaghie.