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Ingredient SpotlightWellness

Health Benefits of Horny Goat Weed

By January 25, 2017 February 9th, 2017 No Comments

Horny goat weed, also called Epimedium or yin yang huo, is an herb that has been used for centuries in Chinese medicine for a variety of ailments. Its rather humorous name is believed to be linked to ancient Chinese stories about the sexual prowess of male goats who ate this particular herb regularly. The Chinese have used this herb for centuries to improve sexual performance for both men and women.

It is currently under investigation to help determine its potential for therapeutic use in balancing hormones and improving sexual performance. It has also been evaluated for a variety of potential health benefits such as improving back and joint pain, fatigue, memory loss, high blood pressure, liver disease, blood disorders, HIV/AIDS, polio, reducing menopausal symptoms, heart disease, and osteoporosis. The active ingredient in horny goat weed is called Icariin a flavonoid with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and a variety of health benefits. Currently, there is some promising research indicating potential benefits of horny goat weed, particularly in the areas of sexual health for men and women, osteoporosis prevention, and some preliminary findings on a variety of other diseases, including dementia and viral infections.

Men’s Health

One of the primary uses of horny goat weed is to help improve sexual performance, specifically erectile dysfunction. It is believed that taking his herb can help increase blood flow throughout the body, which will in turn help improve blood flow to the genitals. The mechanism proposed for the improvement in sexual function is that horny goat weed blocks the enzyme that restricts blood flow to the penis, similar to medications used for erectile dysfunction, such as Viagra. This herb is currently under investigation as a potential treatment for erectile problems with fewer side effects when compared to other medications available on the market. At this time, there are no published long-term human studies on the effectiveness of horny goat weed and erectile dysfunction, but animal studies do indicate that this herb may be effective in helping improve sexual health.

Another way that horny goat weed is effective in improving sexual health is that it may increase levels of testosterone. , But, low testosterone is not just about sexual function, it also has a significant impact on overall health. Low testosterone affects about 25% of men over the age of 45 years old. Men with low testosterone may have difficulty maintaining muscle mass, decreased energy, and of course poor sexual function. But, the effects of low testosterone don’t stop there, low levels have been linked to increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, depression, and increased fatigue. Helping improve testosterone levels can help a man feel better overall and improve health.

Most of the research on horny goat weed, erectile dysfunction, and testosterone has been conducted on animals at this time. One particular study found that oral Icariin, the active ingredient in horny goat weed, was effective in increasing testosterone levels and improving erectile function in castrated rats. This 2005 study found that supplementation with 1 mg/kg of body weight of active oral Icariin helped restore testosterone levels and improve erectile function after 4 weeks of treatment.  These results have been replicated in other rat studies with varied doses of Icariin. The results are promising for the rats, but human studies have yet to be conducted to determine long-term side effects and optimal effective dosage.

Women’s Health

The benefits of horny goat weed are not just for men, women can also benefit from this supplement. Horny goat weed contains phytoestrogens, compounds similar to hormonal estrogen found in plants. These phytoestrogens have been linked to a reduction of menopausal symptoms, preservation of bone density, and may be linked to reduced rates of hormone-related cancers such as breast cancer. Menopause is marked by a decrease in estrogen levels leading to a variety of uncomfortable symptoms including hot flashes, elevated cholesterol levels, weight gain, fatigue, insomnia, and mood swings. Phytoestrogens may naturally help to replace some of the estrogen lost during menopause, helping improve some of these symptoms, without the side effects of synthetic hormone replacement.

Estrogen isn’t the only hormone that is decreased during menopause, women can also suffer from low testosterone levels, just as men can. Some of the symptoms of low testosterone experienced by women are decreased libido, low energy, depression, weakened bones, and decreases in strength. Hormone replacement therapy is usually indicated to treat low hormone levels, but it may have significant negative side effects. Alternatives to hormone replacement are very appealing, especially for those struggling with the effects of low hormone levels.

Horny goat weed is one of the herbs that is being evaluated as a potential alternative to hormone replacement therapy. A 2008 study, found that horny goat weed may be effective in reducing common menopausal symptoms, specifically high cholesterol and low estrogen levels. Ninety female subjects were divided into two groups, half received a supplement of the herb the other half received a placebo water pill. After 6 months, both groups were evaluated for changes in estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, and cholesterol levels. The group receiving the supplement had significantly lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels, as well as higher estrogen levels.

Horny goat weed may be effective in mitigating some of the effects of menopause, including low testosterone and estrogen levels. Dosages between 600-1200 mg have been used safely and effectively to help improve symptoms. They only contraindication for post-menopausal women and the use of horny goat weed is for those who have been diagnosed with estrogen-sensitive cancers, since horny goat weed does have estrogenic effects. Otherwise, it seems that overall this herb is relatively safe in helping manage symptoms of menopause.

Osteoporosis

Horny goat weed may be beneficial for helping slow bone loss and reduce the risk of developing osteoporosis in post-menopausal women. Osteoporosis is a weakening of the bones, leading to actual holes forming in the bones. Ten million Americans have osteoporosis and 80% of these people are women. Women are more likely to be diagnosed with this disease because women have smaller, thinner bones, and due to decreased estrogen levels post-menopause. Osteoporosis puts women at risk for broken bones and fractures. Broken bones in older adults lead to poor health outcomes, infections, and a variety of other medical complications.

There are some medications that can help maintain bone mass, as well as adequate intake of calcium and vitamin D. But, horny goat weed may also help protect women’s bones. A 2007 study evaluated the effect of horny goat weed on bone mass and other biochemical marker related to the development of osteoporosis. One hundred healthy post-menopausal women were randomized into either a supplement group or placebo group, both groups also received 300mg of calcium. Bone density, estrogen levels, and bone turnover rates were measured at 12 and 24 months. A significant difference was found in bone density in those who took the supplement versus those women in the placebo group. Estrogen levels were also improved and bone turnover was decreased. This small study shows some promise that horny goat weed may help decrease bone loss and increase bone density.

Although this is only one study, it is promising for women who are at risk for developing osteoporosis. There is also some indication that Icariin may help the body form bone more easily and may increase bone mineralization. People at risk for osteoporosis may want to consider a horny goat weed supplement, in addition to increasing calcium and vitamin D intake to help strengthen bones.

Other Health Benefits

            Horny goat weed may also help decrease inflammation. Inflammation is a natural process in reaction to injury. If you accidentally cut your finger, you may experience swelling, warmth, redness, and a little immobility in that area for a few days as your body works to heal the wound. This process is known as “inflammation” and is extremely beneficial for acute injuries such as a cut or wound. This type of inflammation goes away after a few days. But, current environmental triggers, such as poor diet, pollution, smoking, alcohol intake, and high-stress levels, triggers a constant low-grade inflammation. These external factors trigger the inflammatory response, but the immune system has no actual injury to react to. This is called systemic inflammation and has been linked to a myriad of diseases, such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and autoimmune disease.

The cure for almost all chronic disease may lie in helping reduce systemic inflammation. Horny goat weed has been shown to inhibit the inflammatory process in several animal studies likely due to its flavonoid content. Flavonoids are powerful antioxidants found in fruits and vegetables that may help reduce the risk of disease. More research is needed to determine the potency and dosage of horny goat weed needed to optimize flavonoid activity and reduce inflammation.

Horny goat weed has also been investigated for a variety of other diseases and its potency is likely related to its anti-inflammatory power.  It has been shown to improve kidney function in rats due to its ability to reduce inflammation. It has also been shown to inhibit the activity of several viruses, including herpes simplex and hepatitis A. At this time, horny goat weed is not a cure for any of these diseases as further research is still needed.

Due to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity, icariin has been indicated to be protective of the neurons in the brain. Maintaining memory, learning ability, and brain health is one of the key factors in preventing dementia, which affects over 47.5 million people worldwide. In animal studies, it has been shown to improve memory and increase learning ability. It may also be protective against stroke. Researchers believe that horny goat weed is protective due to active flavonoid icariin which helps reduce brain inflammation.

Dosage and Safety

Horny goat weed seems to be generally safe to take with no significant side effects reported in healthy people who took the supplement for up to two years. Longer studies are needed to determine any long-term side effects.  There has been only one case study published of a toxicity related to taking horny goat weed. A 66-year old man experienced abnormal heart rhythm, increased heart rate, and irritated mood after taking the supplement for two weeks, but the dosage and brand were unknown. This particular case was also found to be taking a variety of other medications in addition to the horny goat weed, so it is difficult to determine which caused these symptoms or if it was an interaction between everything he was taking.

Although horny goat weed is generally safe for healthy people, some should use caution when taking horny goat weed and it is always best to discuss any supplements with your doctor if you are unsure. The herb is not recommended for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding because not enough is known about the effect it may have on a developing fetus. People with bleeding disorders should use caution because horny goat weed does increase blood flow and may increase the risk of bleeding. Since it increases bleeding, anyone preparing for any type of surgery should not take horny goat weed.

As previously discussed due to its estrogen-like properties, it can increase estrogen levels, and may not be indicated for people who have been diagnosed with estrogen-sensitive cancers, such as breast or uterine cancer. It may lower blood pressure, therefore people who already have low blood pressure should avoid taking this supplement as it may drop blood pressure too low.

Horny goat weed must be taken in supplement form as it is not found in food. The effective dose is estimated to be between 900-1200mg per day. Overall, although more research is needed to determine exact dosages for specific diseases, horny goat weed may be effective for helping both men and women improve hormone levels. It can also have an effect on reducing the risk of developing osteoporosis and seems to be a safe addition to any treatment plan to help maintain bone strength.

Ana Reisdorf, MS, RD

Author Ana Reisdorf, MS, RD

Ana Reisdorf is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with 10-years experience in the field of nutrition and dietetics. After graduating from California State University, Long Beach, she began her career as health educator, helping those who were preparing for weight loss surgery or who needed to learn about diabetes, heart disease, or other nutrition-related conditions. This experience helped her gain a deep understanding of the psychological, social, and environmental aspects of how we choose to eat. She also has extensive experience in medical nutrition therapy, through her work in both acute and long-term care. This work has allowed her to truly hone her nutrition skills to help make an impact on the health and lives of her patients. Currently, she works to share her passion for nutrition on a larger scale as an author. She has written for various online publications, such as thenest.com and Dr. Josh Axe. Her latest article “Beauty and Nutrition” was published in Today’s Dietitian magazine. Ana brings her extensive nutrition experience, understanding of psychology, and compassion to every client interaction. She has a passion for helping people achieve ideal health and make transformational changes in their lives.

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