It is virtually inevitable when lecturing on herbs that a man might surreptitiously take me aside and ask for an herb to improve sex. The first herb that always comes to mind is horny goat weed (Epimedium grandiflorum). Certainly, the suggestive common name makes it easy to remember. Its name is derived from a legend describing how a goatherder observed his goats getting sexually aroused after feeding on it.

Ethnobotanist Chris Kilham, who travels around the world in search of medicinal plants reported after ‘popping’ the question in China to a number of respected Chinese herbalists, “what do you think of epimedium? Is it truly effective?” He described how “there were knowing smiles all around, with the affirmative shaking of heads. “Oh yes, yes,” they exclaimed have all used epimedium for decades in our practices. It is the very best sexual tonic for both men and women.” In fact, Kilham describes a legendary goat-like creature called Yin Yang Huo (the herb’s Chinese name) who after grazing on the leaves would have sex over a hundred times a day.

Tonics and Aphrodisiacs

There is a difference in the use of herbs that temporarily act as an aphrodisiac and an herb like horny goat weed that builds hormonal function. Aphrodisiacs can be temporarily stimulating or have the ability to rejuvenate and build potency. Horny goat weed, classified in Traditional Chinese Medicine as a kidney yang tonic, does both by providing constituents that act as precursors to human sex hormones, testosterone, estrogen and progesterone. While an herbal aphrodisiac is exhaustive, like a drug, a hormone optimizing herb like horny goat weed builds potency and therefore confers much wider therapeutic benefits.

For women, horny goat weed contains phytoestrogens that help to regulate estrogen. It contains phytoestrogens which are different than human estrogen in that they occupy estrogen receptor sites in the body serving as building block estrogen precursors on an as needed basis. As a result horny goat weed is beneficial for women who are estrogen deficient. Epimedium leaf is beneficial for menstrual abnormalities, including PMS, infertility, low libido but also uncomfortable hot flashes associated with menopause.

For men, horny goat weed should be the first herb to consider either as a single herb treatment or in formula for treating erectile dysfunction (ED) and involuntary ejaculation. Epimedium leaf contains the flavonoid icariin, a known PDE5 inhibitor, used in sildenafil (Viagra) to facilitate penile erections. Synthetic icariin used in Viagra is concentrated, lacking the many co-factors found in plant medicines and can carry a number of contraindications and uncomfortable side effects. On the other hand, horny goat weed, called ‘herbal Viagra,’ when used in appropriate dose, has few side effects. However, it is estimated to be 80 times weaker than Viagra which means that some may have to take horny goat weed for as much as a month before realizing its benefits.

Horny Goat Weed (Yin Yang Huo) is classified in TCM as a Kidney and Liver Yang tonic having both acrid and sweet flavors and a warming energy. The recommended daily dose ranges from 3-15 g of the herb in decoction, and of the tincture 2-4 mL, which is about a half to a full teaspoon of the 5:1 extract two or three times daily.

While it can be used as a single herb for a short time, it is best to combine epimedium as a complex formula with herbs such as prepared rehmannia root (shu di huang), Japanese dogwood berry (Cornus japonicus), Dioscorea batata (shan yao), poria mushroom (fu ling), alisma (xe xie or water plantain) root, tree peony (moutan peony or mudan pi) and cinnamon twig (gui zhi).

As a Kidney and Liver Yang tonic it can be used for cold conditions associated with weak back and knees, joint pains, osteoarthritis, mental and physical fatigue, memory loss, high blood pressure, heart disease, bronchitis, menopausal disorders including hot flashes, weak bones (osteoporosis), and as an all-round warming tonic.

Sources of and Contraindications for Horny Goat Weed

Epimedium grandiflorum et species is a member of the Berberidaceae family.  There are 15 species that are used as Yin Yang Huo and they grow wild and abundantly in the mountains of China. Over 100 tons are harvested for the world’s herb market each year.

The two most common species of Horny goat weed used in Chinese medicine is Epimedium grandiflorum and Epimedium sagitatatum. However, Epimedium koreanum should be avoided as it is known to cause muscle spasm and loss of muscle coordination.

Taken at the recommended dose, horny goat weed is generally considered safe. However, there are some possible contraindications, among them being:

  • Pregnant or breastfeeding women
  • People with bleeding disorders
  • Individuals with low blood pressure or heartbeat irregularities
  • Women with hormone-sensitive conditions such as endometriosis, uterine fibroids, and cancers of the breast, ovaries, or prostate

Since horny goat weed can slow blood clotting, it should not be used prior to surgery.

Most of these contraindications are theoretical and are not deemed serious enough to warrant restrictions by regulating agencies.

With over 2000 years of use Chinese herbalists regard it as the best herb to restore sexual fire, boost erectile function, allay fatigue and relieve menopausal discomfort.

Growing Your Own Horny Goat Weed

Horny goat weed is commonly used in the West as an ornamental and plants suitable for cultivation as herbal medicine can be obtained online and in nurseries. Epimediums are easily grown in a shaded or part shaded area preferring a medium acidic well- drained soil, the leaves will usually burn in full afternoon sun.

I felt prompted to write this blog after successfully making a half gallon from some of the leaves on my home grown epimedium plant. The extract was 1:4 concentration with 70% alcohol which I intend to use in my clinics.

1 Comment

  1. I work in the Nutrition Department at Erewhon Natural Foods Market. I get asked what is the best herb for libido and performance frequently by both women and men, so I really appreciate this article!
    Question: Can this herb be taken everyday, indefinitely? If not, what would be the on and off time frames?
    Thank you!

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