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Sexual Supplements: The Hidden Dangers

October 19, 2015

Before I started my Urology training I used to walk down the aisles of stores and chuckle at the supplements eyeing for a man’s attention. But now when I see these supplements heavily marketed in stores or online I don’t chuckle. I get concerned. The recent tragedy surrounding Lamar Odom has renewed interest in sexual supplements. These supplements are not regulated by the FDA and can be dangerous to your health, which is why the FDA is constantly warning consumers about sexual enhancing supplements. Research has found that some pills are tainted with derivatives of Viagra/Cialis, pesticides, metals, and even common household paint.

The Base Problem

Erectile dysfunction (ED) is very common and is increasing in prevalence. The disorder currently affects 70 percent of 70-year-old men. Over 322 million men worldwide are expected to suffer from ED in 2025. Men are bombarded with “solutions” to the issue through controversial advertisements and marketing ploys. Coupled with the psychosocial pressure for male performance and the possibility of self-esteem issues, the issue of ED creates a perfect storm. A problem that prevalent guarantees that people will look for help, even if it is not sanctioned by their physicians. Prescription treatments can be expensive­– ­one dose can cost up to $40– and therefore supplements have become popular, cheaper alternatives.

How common is the problem?

The overall supplement industry is growing exponentially. An estimated 150 million Americans own one or more of the 85,000+ available supplements. These supplements do have risks and have led to an estimated 23,000 emergency room visits per year. Over 3% of these emergency visits are linked to sexual enhancement supplements.

What’s wrong with the ingredients?

Products regulated by the FDA are required to contain only the listed ingredients. This guarantees that the foods you eat and drugs you buy are safe for your consumption. The supplement market does not have to answer to the FDA. Without strict regulation, companies may not disclose every ingredient and there are no standards in dosing. On several occasions, the FDA has found off-the-shelf supplements laced with the active ingredients of Viagra, Cialis, and anabolic steroids. The same “Reload” that Lamar Odom is thought to have taken was recalled in 2013. A 2014 study found two-thirds of recalled supplements were still available for purchase six months after FDA recalls.

What if they are combined with other drugs?

Viagra and Cialis work by allowing penile blood vessels walls to relax and allow increased blood flow for improved erections. This same relaxation of blood vessels can happen in the body by lowering blood pressure. Because of this effect, users can have falls, heart attacks, and even strokes whether or not the medicine is combined with another product.

Combination with illegal or regulated substances is accompanied by even greater risk. Drugs like cocaine, ecstasy, and alcohol have dangerous side effects when used alone. When combined with any type of herbal supplement, we have seen heart attacks, confusion, seizures, and stroke.

What do you recommend about supplements?

If it sounds too good to be true, it’s too good to true. Think of your body as luxury car. Would you ever put cheap oil or gas through the engine? Then why do the same for your body? We have to be informed consumers. Be careful and always talk to your health care professional before starting any new supplement or medication. As we have learned from Lamar Odom’s story, that conversation could save your life.