Put a little spice in your box

Viagra can now be bought over the counter at Boots. But hold on – look east and you will find far be

Good news for the sexually challenged – Viagra is now available without prescription at Boots. All you need do is walk in to your friendly pharmacist, be tested for glucose, blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and walk out with the magic blue pills.

By all accounts, we are in desperate need of the most successful drug ever manufactured. One in ten British men, I am reliably told, suffers from “erectile dysfunction”. Yet according to the research department at Boots, 47 per cent of men would rather suffer in silence than do something about their performance in bed.

Unfortunately, it is not likely to be the needy who will be queuing at Boots. Most Viagra poppers are healthy men making a lifestyle choice. A useless exercise, I would argue. There is research evidence which suggests that the blue pill has little or no benefit for such individuals, and acts only as a placebo. The one advantage for healthy men is a reduction in what is known in the jargon as “post-ejaculatory refractory time”. In other words, you’re ready for a second round much quicker.

For those looking to reduce their “refractory time”, or enhance their performance for whatever reason, I have another suggestion. Look east. As we all know, sex was first discovered as a leisure activity in the Orient. In non-western countries smoothing out the wrinkles and sorting out sexual struggles is both an established tradition and an ancient pastime. Indeed, there is hardly a non-western culture without an established herbal treatment for what the Kama Sutra calls “exhausted passion”.

Before you dismiss these herbal treatments as just so much folklore, consider this. We are talking about not rosemary and thyme, but exotic plants whose medicinal properties are intimately known in eastern societies; most scientific research into these plants is guided by what eastern cultures have learned about them over thousands of years. Folklore is not a static phenomenon; it evolves with the accumulation of knowledge. If the herbal treatments did not work they would not be used so consistently over such a long period of time.

In most eastern cultures sex is not viewed as a reductive exercise much like plumbing. Hence, simply pumping up the blood, which is exactly what Viagra (originally developed to counter angina) does, is not enough. You have to approach sex like a play in three acts: preparing for, engaging in, and recovering from it. So eastern remedies take a broader perspective, and try to tackle problems that can arise at any stage.

My grandfather, who was a hakim, an Islamic doctor, used to say that preparing for sex was perhaps the most important part of the whole process. It begins in the mind. If the mind is elsewhere, nothing can solve the problem. Sheikh Nefzawi, the 16th-century Arabian author of The Perfumed Garden, suggests that “feeble and relaxed constitution” is a major impediment to preparing for sex. You have to take lovemaking seriously and prepare for it by banishing stress, anxiety, jealousy and whatever else could affect the mind and body.

Both my grandfather and the good sheikh had their own remedies for the second act. My grandfather, who made his own medicine, used to advertise his services with the catchline, “Despair is forbidden. There is a cure for impotence.” His main ingredient was shilajit, a mineral and plant material compressed by layers of rock, which is freely available in the foothills of the Himalayas. An important tool in Ayurvedic medicine, shilajit has been used as an equivalent of Viagra for thousands of years. It looked awful and smelled like cow’s urine. He would grind it into fine powder, mix it with honey to make it more palatable, and hand it out, wrapped in neatly cut squares of newspaper, to men with long faces.

Nefzawi says that problems during the second act arise “from the tying of the aiguillettes”. “Sometimes in the encounter of man and woman,” he writes, “the former, though burning with desire, cannot accomplish the act of coition, owing to the state of inertia resisting all incitement to which his member is reduced. It is said that his aiguillette [needle] is tied.”

To untie the aiguillette, he recommends pre­parations containing certain plant roots mixed with cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and pepper. Nefzawi was a grand empiricist; he had himself experimented with all the lovemaking techniques he recommends. So when he declares, “I can warrant the efficacy of these preparations”, which will “cause the weakness to disappear and effect the cure”, I am happy to take his word.

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what herbs The Perfumed Garden is recommending. There are, however, candidates. There is the Lebanese hairy root plant (Ferula hermonis), known locally as shirsh zallouh. A member of the parsley family, it is found high on the mountains and has been used as an enhancement drug for centuries. There is also the bark of the yohimbe tree (Pausinystalia yohimbe), which is commonly used as an aphrodisiac in West Africa.

Chinese medicine provides us with a whole range of herbs that can help with distressed aiguillettes. Indeed, the Chinese have been generously chewing ginseng for thousands of years to increase their flagging libidos. Ginseng is the main ingredient in many treatments that go under the general rubric of “Chinese Viagra”, such as the widely available “Super Dragon”.

I suspect the Chinese herbalists were rather taken aback when Viagra came on the market. They probably thought the insensitive west was yet again encroaching on their turf. So they have fought back by updating their cures with an extra ingredient: a compound called sildenafil citrate, which also just happens to be the key ingredient of Viagra. Legal battles notwithstanding, there is now an association of Chinese Viagra producers, blessed by China’s Medicine Regulation Law. They market a plethora of herbal pills, with added extras. Some, such as the banned brand Weige, contain phentolamine mesylate, a chemical similar to sildenafil citrate. My advice would be to leave these modernised fakes, designed for instant gratification, well alone. Go for the more traditional, long-term options, which are widely available at Chinese medicine shops on almost every high street in Britain.

There are two herbal aids I can recommend from personal experience. The first is called Tongkat Ali (Eurycoma longifolia), which is actually a slender tree that grows to about ten metres high, native to the rainforests of south-east Asia. The root of the tree has been used as a remedy for malaria, fevers, high blood pressure and the enhancement of libido for centuries. I first discovered Tongkat Ali when I was living in Kuala Lumpur. A traditional doctor gave me some to cure my dysentery, which it did. But it also acted as a strong sexual stimulant. I soon realised that the myth of the “lazy native”, which originates in Malaysia, had origins other than those ascribed to orientalism. The truth is that the natives spent their working lives chewing Tongkat Ali and their leisure time reaping its benefits. They were mostly too busy to pay any attention to their colonial masters. It was sexual jealousy more than anything else that led the colonial administrators to describe them as idle and good for nothing.

The Malaysian government, always slow to act, has finally discovered the economic potential of Tongkat Ali. It is being harvested in industrial proportions, with plantations springing up all over the country. Its main ingredients have been rigorously researched in animal and human studies and patented in conjunction with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A proprietary method for extracting the beneficial compound from its roots has been developed. The end product is available under the brand name “LJ100: Standardised Tongkat Ali Extract”. It works not so much by giving an instant boost to your blood flow as by improving your immune system and circulation over time.

The second comes from the Hamdard Foundation, a respected national institution in Pakistan that promotes Islamic medicine. Called “Habb-e-Amber Momyaie”, and based on a formula developed by 11th-century Muslim scientists, including the celebrated physician Ibn Sina and the polymath al-Baruni, it contains absolutely no man-made chemicals. Most of the ingredients are those recommended by Nefzawi, such as cinnamon, nutmeg and butter beans, plus essential oils such as agarwood, extracts of flowers and barks of shrubs and trees indigenous to India. It is designed to improve your “feeble and relaxed constitution” and to have a long-term effect. The pills are large and covered in gold foil. You take one in the morning and one just before going to bed, with milk. Six weeks to two months later, as I can attest and as it says in the Kama Sutra, “you have the vitality of a bull”.

The ancient Hindu text has something to say about the final act: recovering from sex. It suggests that you stay away from seedy affairs which can lead you into trouble or give you disease, and from partners who do not care about honour or dishonour, and who are coarse, pitiless and shameless and can be bought for money. This kind of sex is likely to make recovery a long and painful affair. To make a joyful recovery, “you should not use techniques that are doubtful, dangerous for the body, obtained by killing living creatures, or made of impure substances”. Sound and time-tested advice.

Ziauddin Sardar is most recently co-author, with Merryl Wyn Davies, of “Balti Britain”, published by Granta Books (£20)