Sex pill alternatives carry hidden risks

Mixing herbals and medications can kill.

By Times Staff and Times wires
Published November 13, 2007

LOS ANGELES - Many of the pills marketed as safe herbal alternatives to Viagra and other prescription sex medications pose a hidden danger: For men on common heart and blood-pressure drugs, popping one could lead to a stroke, or even death.

"All-natural" products with names like Stamina-RX and Vigor-25 promise rare Asian ingredients, but many work because they contain unregulated versions of the very pharmaceuticals they are supposed to replace.

That poses a danger for the estimated 5.5-million American men who take nitrates to lower blood pressure and regulate heart disease - who are generally older and more likely to need help with erectile dysfunction. When mixed, nitrates and impotency pharmaceuticals can slow blood flow, leading to a heart attack or stroke.

The all-natural message can be appealing to such men, warned by their doctors and ubiquitous TV commercials not to take Viagra, Cialis or Levitra.

Spiked herbal impotency pills are emerging as a public health concern that officials haven't figured out how to track, much less tame. Emergency rooms and poison hotlines are starting to log more related incidents, and sales of "natural sexual enhancers" are booming - rising to nearly $400-million last year.

James Neal-Kababick, director of Oregon-based Flora Research Laboratories, said about 90 percent of the hundreds of samples he has analyzed contained forms of patented pharmaceuticals - some with doses more than twice that of prescription erectile dysfunction medicine.

While no deaths have been reported, emergency room visits attributed to all-natural sex pills have been logged in Georgia, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Diego and elsewhere.

GNC, a national chain that sells Stamina-RX and Magna-RX among others, did not return phone calls from the St. Petersburg Times on Monday, and other local health food stores declined to discuss the alternatives to Viagra they stock.

Louise Hamilton, owner of Great American Natural Products in St. Petersburg, said she won't offer the products. "Is it safe because it's all natural? No. It's very controversial."

Dr. Bruce Robinson, chief of geriatrics at Sarasota Memorial Hospital, said he doesn't know if his patients are taking the supplements because they won't tell him. "Most people know their doctors aren't fans of herbals," he said.

Some herbal labels warn off users with heart or blood-pressure problems if they have taken their medicine within six hours; some doctors say 24 hours or more would be safer.