There’s no bedroom bummer quite like having to fly at half mast, but your penis problems are likely more common than you think: As many as 30 million American men suffer from erectile dysfunction, and one in four who seek treatment for ED are actually under the age of 40, according to a study in The Journal of Sexual Medicine. We all know there’s a little blue pill that can fix the failure to launch—but you don’t necessarily have to fill a ‘script to save your stiffy.
ED can be caused by a handful of things, but one thing’s for sure: You need a healthy supply of the neurotransmitter nitric oxide (NO) to get and maintain an erection. NO is produced in nerve tissue and helps jolt your Johnson by relaxing the smooth muscle so blood can fill the penis. After the initial release of NO, your body releases a cascade of chemicals—including more of the neurotransmitter—to help keep you hard and happy, according to a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The problem comes when your body can’t produce enough nitric oxide to get and keep you going. Meds like Viagra fix this problem, but herbs, vitamins, and amino acids have been eliminating erection problems long before the magic pill came around.
One caveat: Even though these supplements are all natural, vitamins and amino acids can interact with other medications, so be sure to talk to your doc before you add anything to your daily routine—especially since countless studies have shown ED is typically linked to larger health problems, including heart disease.
L-arginine, or arginine, is an amino acid found in red meat, poultry, fish, and dairy products that helps expand blood vessels and increase blood flow. “The body uses this semi-essential amino acid as the primary building block for nitric oxide,” explains Harry Fisch, M.D., clinical professor of urology and reproductive medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College/New York Presbyterian Hospital.
While the rationale behind why it would work is airtight, the research on arginine’s actual effect on erectile dysfunction is slim, points out Charles Walker, M.D., assistant professor of urology and cofounder of the Cardiovascular and Sexual Health clinic at Yale University. But given its solid safety profile, minimal side effects, and potential benefit on heart disease, it’s worth a try, he adds, especially when taken in conjunction with other herbs on this list, which studies have shown can be more effective.
However, you might actually be better off going one step back in the chain reaction and taking an L-citrulline supplement. While your body converts L-arginine to nitric oxide, it also metabolizes it too fast when the amino acid is taken in an oral supplement, according to a 2011 study from the University of Foggia in Italy. L-citrulline, which the body converts to L-arginine, is actually a better option to follow the same metabolic pathway and serve as a treatment for ED, the same study found.
2. Vitamin D
Researchers at Johns Hopkins University last year looked at 3,400 healthy Americans and found that men who were vitamin D deficient were 32% more likely to have trouble getting it up than those with sufficient levels, even after adjusting for other ED risk factors. In fact, the connection is so common, Walker says D levels are something he always checks in ED patients. Why? The sunshine vitamin is crucial for keeping the endothelial cells that line blood vessels healthy. Without enough of the stuff, blood flow is inhibited, affecting everything from your heart to your hard-on.
Derived from the bark of a West African evergreen tree, yohimbe was the go-to ‘script for a wonky willy prior to the advent of wonder drugs like Viagra, Walker says. “Yohimbe enhances sexual performance both by blocking certain neurotransmitters in the brain and by increasing the release of nitric oxide in the cavernosal nerves of the penis,” he explains. And it pairs well with other erection-friendly tablets: A 2010 study in the Iranian Journal of Psychiatry found that a combination of yohimbe and L-arginine successfully helps guys get it up. However, yohimbe also has a handful of side effects, including elevated blood pressure and anxiety, so definitely talk to your doctor before you start on the supp.
Despite the name, horny goat weed actually helps improve your erection, not libido. Botanically known as epimedium, this herb has been used by the Chinese for centuries to treat, among other things, low libido and erectile dysfunction. “A growing body of research shows that isolated icariin—the extract of epimedium—inhibits the enzyme phosphodiesterase-5 (PDE-5) and significantly increases nitric oxide synthase, helping to improve erectile function,” says Fisch. In fact, this is the same mechanism that Viagra works through (but the herb comes with a way better name).
A daily dose of niacin improves erectile function, particularly in men with high cholesterol, according to a 2011 study in The Journal of Sexual Medicine. The vitamin helps increase blood flow and reduce inflammation—one of the underlying causes of both high cholesterol and erectile dysfunction. “Vitamin B3 is also used to make sex hormones and other important chemical-signal molecules,” says Fisch. Like many of the others on our list, this tablet is most powerful when taken in conjunction with others: A cocktail of propionyl, L-carnitine, L-arginine, and niacin taken for three months improved 40% of erections in a study from researchers at Sapienza University of Rome in Italy.
Long considered an aphrodisiac by the Chinese, ginseng may do more than just rev your engine. A 2013 South Korean study found that taking the herb for just a few weeks improved guys’ performance in the bedroom, including helping them last longer before finishing. Meanwhile, a study in Spermatogenesis found that ginseng can also help make for harder, longer-lasting erections and improve testosterone levels, which in turn boosts libido. “Ginseng is a promising herbal therapy for ED because it helps promote relaxation of smooth muscle in the penis, increase dopamine levels in the brain, and increase pressure in the cavernosal nerves of the penis which helps nitric oxide synthesis,” Walker explains.
7. Folic Acid
A Turkish study last year found that men with moderate to severe ED had significantly lower levels of folic acid than guys without the problem. The B vitamin has been shown to stimulate nitric oxide, Walker says, which would explain why an absence of it would lead to an absence of an erection.
Ginkgo is an herb long used in Chinese medicine to improve blood flow and oxygen to the brain. There isn’t much research on its erection influence in humans, but a 2011 study analysis in Neuroscience found that an extract of Ginkgo biloba leaves did increase the activity of dopamine in rats’ brains, thereby improving their erections.
The herb is particularly effective for those whose willy woes are based on other medications: An older study from the University of California found ginkgo biloba is 76% effective in treating sexual dysfunction caused by antidepressants. “Gingko helps counteract sexual dysfunction caused by certain antidepressants called SSRIs by blocking serotonin activity in the erectile centers of the brain, ultimately leading to better synthesis and bioavailability of nitric oxide,” Walker explains.