Canned heat

Makers of the supplement ArginMax say its key ingredient, the amino acid L-arginine, can enhance sexual arousal. Some experts aren’t buying the concept. (The Daily Wellness Co. / February 5, 2008)

The product: You can bet that lots of couples this Valentine's Day will be exchanging chocolates, lighting candles and sharing bottles of wine -- time-honored strategies for setting the "mood." But what if your desires have sunk so low that even Godiva and a nice pinot can't rescue you?

On Valentine's Day and every other day, sagging libidos mean big business. Following a tradition that probably dates back to the world's first medicine men, lots of companies offer supplements, herbs and tonics that supposedly stoke sexual desire. Ads for these products typically blend suggestive come-ons with pictures of attractive people who have evidently breached their sexual barriers.

And then there's ArginMax, a supplement that takes a different approach: The company website provides links to actual scientific studies published in real medical journals, a rarity in the world of libido remedies.

ArginMax comes in two formulas, one for men and one for women. As the name suggests, each variety contains L-arginine, an amino acid that's a common ingredient in both bodybuilding and sexual supplements. There's a reason for its popularity: Cells in the body use L-arginine to make nitric oxide, a compound that helps relax blood vessels and increase blood flow, a potentially helpful process if your plans include sex. Both versions also contain ginkgo (an herb that enhances blood flow), ginseng (a mild stimulant) and a variety of vitamins and minerals. The women's formula includes damiana, an herb that is said to calm anxiety.

ArginMax is sold online and at GNC stores across the country. Users are instructed to take six capsules a day. A one-month supply costs about $30.

The claims: According to the ArginMax website, the women's formula is "designed to take a more natural, gentle and gradual approach toward sexual health and wellness." The men's formula is said to "improve your overall level in sexual fitness." For both men and women, enhanced desire is a major selling point. The site says ArginMax can increase "libido and sexual stamina," but stops short of calling it an aphrodisiac.

"It's really for anyone who experiences a lackluster sexual drive," says Denny Kwock, general manager of the Daily Wellness Co., the Honolulu-based outfit behind ArginMax. The mix of amino acids and herbs does more than simply rouse blood flow, he says. "We believe that it goes straight to the central nervous system to enhance libido."

The bottom line: "It's worth a try," says Beverly Whipple, professor emerita at Rutgers University and author of "The G Spot and Other Discoveries About Human Sexuality." ArginMax is one of very few sexual supplements that's supported by placebo-controlled clinical trials, she says.

Whipple was a co-author of the most recent ArginMax study, published in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy in 2006. In the trial, 108 women of varying ages took either ArginMax or a placebo every day for four weeks. At the end of the study, more than two-thirds of pre-and perimenopausal women taking ArginMax reported increased satisfaction with their sex lives. About one-third of those taking a placebo reported improvements too. Half of postmenopausal women taking ArginMax said they felt more desire, compared with only 8% taking a placebo.

A study of 21 men with erectile dysfunction published in the Hawaii Medical Journal in 1998 found that ArginMax may help enhance erections and male sexual satisfaction. The study wasn't placebo-controlled, but 19 men reported at least some improvements.

Some experts aren't convinced, though. Abdulmaged Traish, a professor of biochemistry and urology and director of research at the Institute for Sexual Medicine at Boston University School of Medicine, says the studies of ArginMax have all been very small, and researchers relied on patient reports -- not laboratory measurements -- to gauge success. Patients in sex studies are sometimes too embarrassed, boastful or hopeful to accurately describe their personal results, he says.

Traish is especially skeptical of the namesake ingredient. Just as a stadium only has a certain number of seats, cells in the body only have so much room for L-arginine, he says, so adding more of the amino acid to the bloodstream won't increase the supply inside cells.

It's possible, he adds, that the vitamins, minerals and herbs in ArginMax might make a person feel healthier -- and, perhaps, a little more ready for sex.

"There might be something to it, but it's not from the arginine," he says.

Is there a consumer product you'd like the Healthy Skeptic to examine? E-mail the details to health@latimes.com.