The Athenian Way
When I was a child, my family vacationed on the Greek island of Kerkyra. I was very young at the time, but I still have vivid memories of eucalyptus-scented evenings, during which the locals would regale my family with tales of lusty gods, beautiful nymphs and epic heroes taken straight from the pages of Homer’s Theogony.
Out of all the characters in Greek mythology, my favorite was Pan, the pipe-playing (and pipe-laying) patron of shepherds and hunters. A towering beast with the hindquarters of a goat, Pan was legendary for his lusty, lecherous ways. Greek mythology is steeped in tales of his debauchery: like the time he tricked moon goddess Selene into sleeping with him by disguising himself in a sheepskin.
Pan wasn’t much of a renaissance deity. When Sapphic nymph Echo refused to submit to his “affections,” for example, he had his followers tear her to pieces. Likewise, when water nymph Syrinx turned herself into a stand of reeds to dodge his lechery, Pan hacked them/her down and turned them/her) into his signature pan pipes.
Naughty as he was, Pan still appealed to me because he represented the very basest instincts of masculine sexuality—even down to being portrayed as sporting a monstrous, veiny erection wherever he went. (Pan’s son, Priapus, suffered a similar affectation. The medical term priapism—a permanent erection—is named after him.)
Getting Your Goat On
Lately, I’d begun to develop a case of Pan Envy. I was desperate to be as virile as a Greek God, but finding it tough because I spend most of my days running on four hours of sleep and half a pot of coffee.
In an effort to tap into Pan’s profligacy, I recently tried Horny Goat Weed, an herbal product I’d figured that had been named in honor of the original horny goat of Greek legend. This supplement was said to increase libido and strengthen erections, so I thought I’d see if it could give a little Zeus-like thunderclap to my suburban sexuality.
Horny Goat Weed is made from the leaves of hardy perennial Epimedium, native to south China, and actually earned its soubriquet entirely independently of my favorite Greek God. Chinese shepherds coined the name after noticing their docile flocks getting decidedly frisky after grazing on it (the British later nicknamed it “Rowdy Lamb” for much the same reason.)
While I was disappointed to learn that the name Horny Goat Weed had nothing to do with Pan, I was still curious to try it—especially since research on the Internet suggested that Epimedium had some real science backing up its claims (unlike most other herbal products reputed to rev the sex drive).
My studies revealed that Epimedium works because it contains a naturally occurring flavonoid called icariin, which has been clinically proven to share many of the same mechanisms as modern erectile dysfunction treatments like Viagra. Both icariin and Viagra work by inhibiting phosphodiesterase type 5 (PDE5), an enzyme that affects the performance of smooth muscle cells (like those supplying the penis with blood.) It doesn’t give a guy an instant boner—he still needs to be sexually aroused—but it does make it considerably easier to get hard and stay that way by relaxing the muscle tissue.
What appealed to me about icariin over Viagra was the fact that Horny Goat Weed only blocked PDE5, whereas Viagra (and comparative drug Cialis) also block unrelated enzyme PDE6 (which causes many of the side-effects, including “pink vision.”)
Further investigation suggested that the active ingredient in Horny Goat Weed had a few benefits that Viagra doesn’t: like increasing the production of nitric oxide (promoting blood flow and blood oxygenation to the genitals) and mimicking the effects of male hormone testosterone, with predictable benefits. Plus, more immediately, you don’t need a prescription to get hold of Horny Goat Weed…and it doesn’t cost $10 a pill.
The Fine Print
But does it work? And, if so, why aren’t the growers of Horny Goat Weed billionaires like the folks at Pfizer?
One simple reason is that it takes a lot more icariin to deliver comparable results—ten times more, according to research. While the largest dose of Viagra you can buy is a teeny-tiny (but highly effective) 100mg, you’d need 1,000mg of pure icariin to match it.
And that’s where getting horny gets thorny—because as I soon found out, you can’t just pop into GMC and ask for a bottle of icariin. This feisty flavonoid isn’t available in a pure form, and the only way to reap the benefits is to consume the plant it comes in. This causes problems, because unlike Viagra—which is “stiffly” regulated by the FDA—there are no rules in place about marketing supplements such as Epimedium.
Just look online: The most popular types of Horny Goat Weed supplement come in pill form, and while they’re generally similar in size and consistency, they vary hugely in price. You can get a bottle of Horny Goat Weed pills from the local Dollar Tree (by the way, I wouldn’t recommend buying any of your pharmaceuticals from there) or easily drop 50 bucks on a bottle of “top grade” stuff from GNC.
So what’s the difference? Generally it’s the percentage of icariin these pills contain. The cheapest supplements can contain as little as 6 percent icariin by volume; meaning you’d have to swallow over a hundred Viagra-sized pills to get the same effect as a single one from Pfizer. More expensive supplements contain a higher percentage of icariin, so while you’ll need fewer pills to match the cheaper stuff, you still need a lot more to equal expensive pharmaceutical products.
And that’s the problem since Horny Goat Weed pills taste terrible, even by the yucky standards of most herbal supplements. Epimedium pills consist of tightly compressed leaf matter, giving them a decidedly “grassy” taste. I found they flared up my acid reflux something fierce—and gave me wicked gas (two side effects which undermine the “sexy” benefits.)
A much easier way to consume Horny Goat Weed is in the form of Extract of Epimedium; a solution of the plant in alcohol. Extract contains about 12 percent icariin by volume, making it twice as strong as the cheapest pill supplements. It’s also easier to take. An eyedropper allows you to place the solution directly under your tongue, giving more immediate (if equally foul-tasting) results. The major drawback is the scarcity of Extract of Epimedium. I was only able to find it online.
My favorite Horny Goat Weed supplement came in the form of tea (a logical enough choice, I guess, since I’m British.) Horny Goat Weed Tea, is very expensive (a box cost me almost $30) and tastes so sketchy isn’t likely to replace Lipton’s in the Coffee & Tea aisle of your local supermarket any time soon. However, it delivered the best results of all the supplements I tried.
(Since the antioxidants in green tea come in the form of flavonoids, similar to icariin, I guess it’s only logical that the benefits of Epimedium could be delivered in the same way.)
After drinking a cup of that stuff, I felt invigorated and decidedly frisky, as I often do after a “cuppa,” and noticed that my erection popped up quicker and felt firmer during the resultant sexual escapades. It really worked. (Okay, so I wasn’t exactly overwhelmed by the results—no woodland nymphs got ravished as a result of me taking it—but there were immediate and noticeable benefits.)
Extract of Epimedium and Horny Goat Weed pills had similar, if milder results. While I definitely felt a positive influence on my Pan pipe after taking each of them, I did notice that the pills especially did weird things to my digestion—including “grassy burps,” as my wife called them. Yet my erection still felt firmer and fuller as a result of taking the supplements…so perhaps it was a side effect worth dealing with.
Even after taking Horny Goat Weed, I don’t think I’d be ready to claim Pan’s carnal crown (my erections were neither permanent, nor a foot long.) Nevertheless, I was still fairly impressed. Horny Goat Weed doesn’t deliver the same dramatic results as Viagra or Cialis, but it actually works—and offers a natural alternative to pharmaceuticals without any of the associated side effects.