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Paul Spencer Sochaczewski

When Too Much of a Good Thing Can Be Way Too Much

Posted on 30. Aug, 2007 by in Curious Travel

When Too Much of a Good Thing Can Be Way Too Much

BULAWAYO, Zimbabwe

While the world has been focusing on the horrors of AIDS in Africa, a bit of medical good news has burst forth from Africa.

Zimbabwe traditional healer George Moyo has become a media star by selling vuka-vuka, a concoction of plants that he claims are a powerful aphrodisiac.

Vuka-vuka (pronounced VOO-ka VOO-ka), which means “wake up” in Ndebele, surged to fame when CNN broadcast a feature on Moyo’s success in treating his patients living near the town of Bulawayo with his special mixture of plants. To illustrate its efficacy Mr. Moyo shows photos of his 23 children.

Moyo’s initiative brought to mind Mae West’s insight that “too much of a good thing can be wonderful.”

Does that dictum apply to erections?

I punched up vuka-vuka on Yahoo and received 1,200 hits.  One company in the UK has cornered the market, offering 20 tablets for US$ 24.95; a South African company offers 60 capsules for US$30.

I’m willing to believe that traditional remedies can sometimes be effective.  “Maybe I should order a few,” I suggested to natural products chemist Kurt Hostettmann at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland.  “You know, just out of scientific curiosity.”

“Not such a great idea,” he advised. “You might get more than you bargain for.”

Professor Hostettmann and his colleagues are developing quick diagnostic techniques to search for overly-active ingredients in over-the-counter aphrodisiacs.

“These over-the-counter preparations can be dangerous,” he says. “You don’t know what you’re getting.  They might mix in yohimbine or Spanish fly (catharidine) and you have no way of knowing how that’s going to hit you.”  Hostettmann explained that overdoses of aphrodisiacs have often resulted in priapism (a painful, prolonged erection that sometimes has to be deflated by draining the blood in the penis), toxic kidney reactions, and rape when a guy has an erection and no socially acceptable way to dispense of it.

According to Hostettmann, author of Tout savoir sur les aphrodisiaques naturels (Everything there is to know about natural aphrodisiacs), you can forget traditional aphrodisiacs which are based on the doctrine of signatures, in which a substance is said to have an effect on the part of the human body which it resembles. So don’t waste your money on rhino horn (like eating your fingernails), coco-de-mer (shaped like round, ample buttocks), or tiger’s penis.

He says there are only three physiologically proven male aphrodisiacs: yohimbine, papaverine and Spanish fly.

Yohimbine is an alkaloid derived from various trees, particularly Pausinystalia yohimbe, a West African tree. It achieved notoriety when a Stanford (California) University researcher published that rats that were given yohimbine achieved up to 50 erections in one hour.  Hundreds of Stanford students then clamored for a place in the human trials.  Who would have thought that college students would be so keen to further the cause of science?

Papaverine is an alkaloid derived from Papaver somniferum, the infamous opium poppy.  It only works when injected into the base of the penis.

Spanish fly isn’t a fly at all, but an emerald-colored Mediterranean-region scarab beetle sometimes called Lytta vesicatoria and sometimes Cantharis vesicatoria. Hippocrates and  Pliny the Elder noted the aphrodisiac power of the compound cantharidine, which is obtained by crushing the dried beetles.

Spanish fly, which is prohibited for human use in Switzerland, although it is sometimes given to horses in stud, was immortalized in Roald Dahl’s novel My Uncle Oswald.  In the book Oswald entices the beautiful and randy Yasmin Howcomely to offer chocolates filled with Spanish fly to the world’s greatest geniuses and leaders (think James Joyce, King Albert, Henry Ford, Picasso) in order to get them to, well, donate their sperm in a precursor to the Nobel Prize sperm bank.

“Spanish fly can show up in strange places,” Hostettmann notes, telling the story of the one hundred French legionnaires in North Africa who, in the 1850s, suffered dramatic and serious priapism. The army doctor who examined the men found that they had all eaten frogs legs, and that the frogs had eaten blister beetles – Spanish fly. The catharidine accumulated in the frog’s muscles. The result was a lot of unhappy soldiers.

In another report, Professor Thomas Eisner of Cornell University noted that in the West African country of Benin, catharidine-rich scarab beetles are eaten by wild geese.  Men who then ate the geese had the surprising – and painful – side effect of persistent erections.

I was increasingly glad I hadn’t sent in my credit card details to the vuka-vuka merchant.

Nevertheless, the University of Lausanne researchers seem a happy lot.  In the common room used by several grad students a high shelf running along all four walls is lined with empty Champagne bottles — Moet and Chandon, Veuve Cliquot, Laurent Perrier.  Perhaps the scientists have been taking their homework home with them, popping vuka-vuka pills, dining on frogs legs and goose liver pâté and celebrating the results with the bubbly.

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