70% Taking Common Antidepressants Suffer Sexual Side Effects

What’s the latest on treating depression with the spice saffron? Years ago, I covered a head-to-head comparison of saffron versus Prozac for the treatment of depression in my video Saffron vs. Prozac, and saffron seemed to work just as well as the drug. In the years since, five other studies have found that saffron beat out placebo or rivaled antidepressant medications.

It may be the spice’s red pigment, crocin, since that alone beat out placebo as an adjunct treatment, significantly decreasing symptoms of depression, symptoms of anxiety, and general psychological distress. Perhaps, its antioxidants played a role in “preventing free radical-induced damage in the brain.” The amount of crocin the researchers used was equivalent to about a half teaspoon of saffron a day.

If the spice works as well as the drugs, one could argue that the spice wins, since it doesn’t cause sexual dysfunction in the majority of men and women like most prescribed antidepressants do. SSRI drugs like Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft cause “adverse sexual side effects” in around 70 percent of people taking them. What’s more, physicians not only significantly underestimate the occurrence of side effects, but they also tend to underrate how much they impact the lives of their patients.

Not only is this not a problem with saffron, the spice may even be able to treat it, as I explore in my video Best Food for Antidepressant-Induced Sexual Dysfunction. “In folk medicine, there is a widely held belief that saffron might have aphrodisiac effects.” To test this, men with Prozac-induced sexual impairment were randomized to saffron or placebo for a month. By week four, the saffron group “resulted in significantly greater improvement in erectile function…and intercourse satisfaction,” and more than half of the men in the saffron group regained “normal erectile function.” The researchers concluded that saffron is an “efficacious treatment” for Prozac-related erectile dysfunction. It has all been found to be effective for female sexual dysfunction, as well, as you can see at 2:35 in my video. Female sexual function increased by week four, improving some of the Prozac-induced sexual problems but not others. So, it may be better to try saffron in the first place for the depression and avoid developing these sexual dysfunction problems, since they sometimes can persist even after stopping the drugs, potentially worsening one’s long-term depression prognosis.

This includes unusual side effects, such as genital anesthesia, where you literally lose sensation. It can happen in men and women. More rarely, antidepressants can induce a condition called restless genital syndrome. You’ve heard of restless legs syndrome? Well, this is a restless between-the-legs syndrome. These PSSDs, or Post-SSRI Sexual Dysfunctions, meaning dysfunctions that appear or persist after stopping taking these antidepressants, can be so serious that “prescribing physicians should mention the potential danger of the occurrence of genital (e.g., penile or vaginal) anesthesia to every patient prior to any SSRI treatment.” If you’re on one of these drugs, did your doctor warn you about that?

All hope is not lost, though. Evidently, penile anesthesia responds to low-power laser irradiation. After 20 laser treatments to his penis, one man, who had lost his penile sensation thanks to the drug Paxil, partially regained his “penile touch and temperature sensation.” However, he still couldn’t perform to his girlfriend’s satisfaction, and she evidently ended up leaving him over it, which certainly didn’t help his mood. But, before you feel too badly for him, compare a little penile light therapy to clitoridectomy, clitoris removal surgery, or another Paxil-related case where a woman’s symptoms only improved after six courses of electroshock therapy.

Pass the paella!


For more on the spice, check out:

Those drug side effects sound devastating, but depression is no walk in the park. However, when one balances risk and benefit, one assumes that there are actually benefits to taking them. That’s why the shocking science I explored in Do Antidepressant Drugs Really Work? is so important.

What else may boost mood? A healthy diet and exercise:

For more on sexual health generally, see:

What else can spices do? Here’s just a taste:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

Pill-Free Ways to improve Your Sex Life

“Sex is important to health,” according to the Harvard Health Letter. “Frequent sexual intercourse is associated with reduced heart attack risk.” But, as I discuss in my video Do Men Who Have More Sex Live Longer?, that seems to be the perfect case of reverse causation. They’re implying that more sex leads to healthier arteries, but isn’t the opposite more likely—that is, healthier arteries lead to more sex? Blood flow in the penis is so reflective of blood flow elsewhere that penile Doppler ultrasound can predict cardiovascular disease. However, low frequency of sexual activity may predict cardiovascular disease in men independently of erectile dysfunction. This suggests that sex may be more than “just fun” and may also be therapeutic, or at least so says an editor of the Journal of Sexual Medicine and colleagues in discussing whether or not “frequent sexual activity can be prescribed” to improve general health. In men, they suggest it’s because more sex means more testosterone.

When men have sex, they get a big spike in testosterone levels in their blood, but, interestingly, in contrast, they don’t get a testosterone boost when they masturbate, as you can see at 1:21 in my video. This may be because “testosterone increases with competitive success,” like if you win a sports game. While sex “is not usually regarded as a competitive event…one’s mental state following coitus could nevertheless be something like that of a winner,” as opposed to the mental state after masturbation.

As you can see at 2:00 in my video, the spike in sex hormones in the blood is so great that men’s beards actually grow faster on days they have sex. And, since low testosterone levels are associated with increased risk of mortality, this could help explain the health benefits of having sex.

So, do men who have more sex actually live longer? I searched Pubmed for sexual activity and longevity and found a study supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, titled “Sexual activity and longevity of the southern green stink bug”—clearly an example of our taxpayer dollars hard at work. I was less interested in whether or not screwworms live up to their namesake and more interested in a study on sex and death, in which the objective was “to examine the relation between frequency of orgasm and mortality.” The researchers found that men with “high orgasmic frequency” appeared to cut their risk of premature death in half and, apparently, the more, the better: There was an associated 36 percent drop in mortality odds for every additional 100 orgasms a year. “Conclusion: Sexual activity seems to have a protective effect on men’s health”—but, apparently, not if you cheat. “Unfaithfulness in men seems to be associated with a higher risk of major cardiovascular events,” like heart attacks and strokes. “Extramarital sex may be hazardous and stressful because the lover is often younger…[and] a secret sexual encounter” may be more stressful.

In a large autopsy series, the majority of cases of sudden death during sex occurred in men during extramarital intercourse. The absolute risk is low—“only one out of 580 men might be expected to suffer a sudden death attributable to sexual intercourse”—but for those at high risk, research shows that “[s]ex in familiar surroundings, in a comfortable room temperature, and with the usual partner adds less stress to the heart” and may be safer.

Speaking of safe sex, you thought drinking and driving was bad? “While it is generally assumed that sexual behavior happens in parked cars, there is little discussion…in the research literature of sexual activity in moving vehicles.” About one in five college students report engaging in sex while driving, nearly half while going more than 60 miles an hour. Researchers suggest maybe this is something students should be warned about in health class.

When done right, though, love may protect your lover’s life. Given the benefits of sexual activity, “intervention programmes could also be considered, perhaps based on the exciting ‘At least five a day’ campaign aimed at increasing fruit and vegetable consumption—although the numerical imperative may have to be adjusted.”

What are some pill-free ways to improve your sex life? Exercising, quitting smoking, not drinking too much alcohol, not weighing too much, and eating a healthy diet. But what does it mean to “eat a healthy diet”? As I discuss in my video Best Foods to Improve Sexual Function, heart-healthy lifestyle changes are sex-healthy lifestyle changes, which have been demonstrated in studies from around the world, including in women. “Sexual function in women is significantly affected” by coronary artery disease, atherosclerotic narrowing of blood flow through our arteries, including the arteries that supply our pelvis. So, high cholesterol may mean “lower arousal, orgasm, lubrication, and satisfaction,” and the same holds for high blood pressure.

Given this, putting women on a more plant-based diet may help with sexual functioning.   Researchers found that improvements in female sexual function index scores were related to an increased intake of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and beans, and a shift from animal to plant sources of fat. The same for men: a significant improvement in international Index of Erectile Function scores. In fact, the largest study on diet and erectile dysfunction found that each additional daily serving of fruits or vegetables may reduce the risk of ED by 10 percent. But why? It may be due to the anti-inflammatory effects. Two years on a healthier diet resulted in a significant reduction in systemic inflammation, as indicated by reduced levels of C-reactive protein. Fiber itself may play an anti-inflammatory role. Those who eat the most fiber tend to have significantly lower levels of inflammation in their bodies, as you can see at 2:06 in my video. The opposite was found for saturated fat, “associated with an increased likelihood of elevated CRP”, C-reactive protein levels.

We’re used to seeing changes in inflammatory markers over weeks, months, or years, but people don’t realize that the level of inflammation in our bodies can change after only a single meal. For example, there’s a pro-inflammatory signaling molecule in our bodies called interleukin 18, thought to play a role in destabilizing atherosclerotic plaque. As such, the level of interleukin 18 in the blood “ is a strong predictor” of cardiovascular death.

What would happen if you fed people one of three different types of meals: sausage-egg-butter-oil sandwiches, cheeseless pizza with white flour crust, or the same cheeseless pizza but with whole-wheat crust? Within hours of eating the sausage sandwich, interleukin 18 levels shot up about 20 percent, an effect not seen after eating the plant-based pizza. In contrast, those eating the whole food, plant-based pizza made with the whole-wheat crust had about a 20 percent drop in interleukin 18 levels within hours of consumption, reinforcing dietary recommendations to eat a diet high in fiber and starches, and low in saturated fat to prevent chronic diseases.

But the billions in profits are in pills, not plants, which is why the pharmacology of the female orgasm has been studied ever since 1972 when a researcher at Tulane University implanted tubes deep within the brain of a woman so he could inject drugs directly into her brain and was able to induce repetitive orgasms. A man who had electrodes placed into similar parts of his brain was given a device for a few hours that allowed him to press the button himself to stimulate the electrode. He pressed the button up to 1,500 times.


For more on male reproductive health, see:

Also check out my other men’s health videos, such as:

What effect might that inflammation directly following an unhealthy meal have on our artery function? Check out my three-part endotoxins series starting with The Leaky Gut Theory of Why Animal Products Cause Inflammation.

And why exactly is fiber anti-inflammatory? Watch my video Prebiotics: Tending Our Inner Garden.

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

What Are the Benefits of Organic?

The medical literature has been historically hostile to organic foods, blaming in part erroneous information supplied by the health food movement for our ignorance of nutrition. But until just a few generations ago, all food was organic. It’s kind of ironic that what we now call conventional food really isn’t very conventional for our species.

By eating organic, we can reduce our exposure to pesticides, but it remains unclear whether such a reduction in exposure is clinically relevant. In my video, Are Organic Foods Safer?, I talked about some of the test tube studies comparing health-related properties of organic versus conventional foods. Organic produce was found to have higher antioxidant and antimutagenic activity combined with better inhibition of cancer cell proliferation, but in terms of studies on actual people rather than petri dishes, there isn’t much science either way.

Why can’t you just compare the health of those who buy organic to those who don’t? Organic consumers do report being significantly healthier than conventional consumers, but they also tend to eat more plant foods in general and less soda and alcohol, processed meat, or milk, and just eat healthier in general. No wonder they feel so much better!

Therefore, there is an urgent need for interventional trials, or studies following cohorts of people eating organic over time like the Million Women Study in the UK, which was the first to examine the association between the consumption of organic food and subsequent risk of cancer. The only significant risk reduction they found, though, was for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. This is consistent with data showing a higher risk of developing lymphoma in those who have higher levels of pesticides stored in their butt fat, a study undertaken because farmworkers have been found to have higher rates of lymphoma.

Parental farmworker exposure is also associated with a birth defect of the penis called hypospadias; and so, researchers decided to see if moms who failed to choose organic were at increased risk. Indeed, they found that frequent consumption of conventional high-fat dairy products was associated with about double the odds of the birth defect. This could just be because those that choose organic have other related healthy behaviors, or it could be that high-fat foods, like dairy products, bioamplify the fat-soluble toxins in our environment.

In my video, Are Organic Foods Healthier?, you can see two other general population pesticide studies that have raised concerns. One study found about a 50 to 70% increase in the odds of ADHD among children with pesticide levels in their urine, and another that found triple the odds of testicular cancer among men with higher levels of organochlorine pesticides in their blood. 90% of such pollutants come from fish, meat, and dairy, which may help explain rising testicular cancer rates in many Western countries since World War II. 

What about interventional trials? All we have in the medical literature so far are studies showing organically grown food provides health benefits to fruit flies raised on diets of conventional versus organic produce when subjected to a variety of tests designed to assess overall fly health. And what do you know—flies raised on diets made from organically grown produce lived longer. Hmm, insects eating insecticides don’t do as well. Not exactly much of a breakthrough!


For how to best get pesticides off of conventional produce, see my video How to Make Your Own Fruit and Vegetable Wash.                                                                                                  

Pesticides are one thing, but Are Organic Foods More Nutritious?

Overall, Are the Benefits of Organic Food Underrated or Overrated?

For more on the impact of food contaminants during pregnancy, see:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations: