It doesn’t matter what you call it—getting a boner, a hard-on, or wood—internet searches for stronger erections won’t stop. That’s especially true for people who are living with erectile dysfunction. It’s no surprise that the market for erectile dysfunction treatments is expected to reach 4.7 billion dollars in revenue by 2026.
There’s a big market for erection-boosting medications including Cialis and Viagra, especially given how easily you can access them via a prescription from your doctor and via telehealth companies like Hims and Roman that have them delivered to your door. But what about other options, like those over-the-counter supplements for a better sex life you see advertised on television or through random Instagram ads? Are those safe supplements for better sex and stronger erections?
Of the many supplements out there that claim to boost your erection and give you a better hard-on, many are dubious. There are significant dangers when it comes to “herbal Viagra,” explains Jamin Brahmbhatt, MD, a urologist and sexual wellness expert at Orlando Health. This term is used to describe the natural supplements advertised to boost your erection.
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If you go to a convenience store and see something behind the counter with a name like “Boner Blaster 5,000,” it’s a surefire way to know a supplement is not legit. “Even if you buy them at a big retailer, and they seem to be made of ‘natural’ ingredients, be cautious,” he says. “No one is regulating this stuff.” That’s concerning. It’s not clear what you could be putting in your body and there’s always the chance it could harm your overall health—including your sexual health.
Is it all bad, though? Are any of these over-the-counter erection supplements safe and effective for your sex life? Surprisingly, yes, there are a few. Here is what to know about a few expert-approved sex supplements that are good for your health and your erectile health.
Omega-3 fatty acids are a maybe when it comes to protecting your heart and your erections. The research goes back and forth about whether fish oil supplements are really helpful for the heart. If the scales tip toward them being helpful to your heart, then your erections may benefit as well, explains Brahmbhatt. That’s because heart-healthy changes are geared toward improving blood flow and increasing the size of blood vessels, he says.
Your penis has the smallest blood vessels in your body, meaning they’re easier to get clogged up. And impeded blood flow is bad for erections, so anything that improves blood flow is good.
At first, it might not make sense that many blood pressure medications list erectile dysfunction as a side effect, he adds. That’s because they modulate the way that blood vessels open and close, which can reduce flow overall, especially down south.
By contrast, omega-3 fatty acids can have the opposite effect because they lower inflammation that might be affecting blood vessels, while also reducing blood clotting. That can help boost your blood flow. While you can get your omegas from supplements, getting them from foods such as fatty fish is your best bet.
L-arginine is an essential amino acid that can be good for both heart health and erectile issues, Brahmbhatt says.
In fact, a study in the journal Andrology found that patients with severe or complete erectile dysfunction had L-arginine levels that were significantly lower than that of men with milder forms of ED. L-arginine might help trigger the production of nitric oxide, a compound important in getting and maintaining erections.
In addition, “L-Arginine is a peripheral vasodilator via a pathway similar to PDE5 inhibitors [those include Cialis and Viagra]. Vasodilation is associated with increased blood flow and thus possibly better erections,” says Peter Tsambarli, MD, assistant professor of urology at RUSH University Medical Center in Chicago.
L-arginine is found in most protein-rich foods such as red meat, poultry, beans, and dairy products, according to according to the Mayo Clinic, which has marked it as generally safe but cautions people who take blood pressure meds to talk to a doctor first.
This is good advice for any supplements if you’re on blood pressure medications, Brahmbhatt says. That’s because a product like L-arginine can reduce your blood pressure—which is great if it’s a bit too high, but not if you’re already bringing it down with meds. In that case, you may see a sudden and dramatic drop in pressure that could cause you to faint, or in extreme cases, have a stroke.
If you’re not on those meds and want to try the amino acid, Brahmbhatt suggests starting at a dose of about six grams a day to see how you tolerate it. In some people, the supplement can cause side effects including nausea, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and bloating.
In addition to L-Arginine, L-Citrulline may help with stronger erections. This is because L-Citrulline is converted in the body to L-Arginine, explains Tsambarli. L-Citrulline can also aid in the production of nitric oxide. “Nitric oxide is involved in vasodilation (widening and opening up of blood vessels) which can begin and maintain the erectile response,” says Michael Eisenberg, MD, professor of urology at Stanford Health.
A 2001 study published in Expert Opinion Pharmacotherapy states that “NO is the principal agent responsible for relaxation of penile smooth muscle.” (FYI, penile erection is a vascular phenomenon that directly results from smooth muscle relaxation along with arterial dilation and venous restriction.)
Some studies suggest that men with vitamin D deficiencies are more likely to have erectile dysfunction, says Brahmbhatt. That may be because low levels of the vitamin are associated with diseases like hypertension, coronary artery disease, and peripheral vascular disease. Basically, blood flow issues that affect your system can also raise your risk of ED.
Although you can get some vitamin D from foods including salmon and eggs, along with sunshine, most people in the U.S. are lacking the vitamin, especially if you live in the northern part of the country, says Brianna Elliott, R.D., a coach at nutrition counseling service EvolutionEat.
She adds that the longer you maintain low levels, the more effects you might see, including potential ED. But how much you should take is a moving target. The National Institutes of Health recommends 600 IU, while the Endocrine Society suggests much higher levels of up to 2,000 IU daily.
“This would be a good topic for your next doctor visit,” Elliott says, noting that it’s easy to test for vitamin D levels, and from there, you can get a recommendation about dosage amounts based on that information.
Folic Acid (B9)
Another supplement that is good for overall health and wellness, including erectile health, is folic acid or B9. Some research has linked improvement in sexual performance with folic acid supplementation, which lowered levels of the amino acid homocysteine, explains Tsambarli. “Homocysteine levels were previously found to be higher in men with ED than their counterparts who were not suffering from ED.”
The bottom line on sexual supplements?
Despite the fact that there are some supplements that may help with erections to a certain extent, supplements are not held to the standards of pharmaceuticals. Always choose supplements with a third-party verification, like NSF or USP. “I always attempt to temper expectations when utilizing supplements for sexual performance,” says Tsambarli.
In general, here’s the best possible “supplement” you can take for your sex life: lifestyle changes. A healthy diet, regular exercise, good sleep habits, and lower stress levels all go a long way toward improving your health, as you’ve heard a million times.
“Overall health and sexual health are closely related,” explains Dr. Eisenberg. “Thus, anything that benefits heart health can also benefit sexual health. A good diet, exercise, and maintaining a good body weight can all help [as well].”
“Diet and exercise have consistently outperformed supplements and have a significant and reliable impact on sexual performance,” says Tsambarli.
“It’s definitely easier to stop at the gas station and get some shady supplement that makes promises about boosting your libido or increasing your girth,” Brahmbhatt says. “But play it safe, skip that junk, and do what’s proven to help your sex life: healthy lifestyle habits.”
Elizabeth Millard is a freelance writer focusing on health, wellness, fitness, and food.
Ashley Martens is a Wellness Writer based in Chicago, Illinois. With a digital marketing background and her knowledge of general nutrition and a lifelong passion for all things health and wellness, Ashley covers topics that can help people live happier and healthier lives.