People hoping to boost their sex lives with the help of "mad" honey may find themselves in the emergency room instead, according to a new report.

The honey, produced from the nectar of a particular rhododendron species, has long been linked to food poisoning, with most of the documented cases seen in Turkey. In the country's Black Sea region, mad honey is used as an alternative medicine for gastrointestinal problems and, more often, as a sexual stimulant.

Reporting in the Annals of Emergency Medicine, Turkish researchers document 21 cases of mad-honey poisoning that passed through their ER over five years. Nearly all patients were middle-aged and older men — a demographic that, according to local beekeepers, usually buys mad honey as a way to enhance sexual performance.

The problem with mad honey is its concentration of substances called grayanotoxins, some of which can cause low blood pressure, slowed heart rate, vomiting, dizziness and fainting.

In Turkey, most mad-honey buyers know they are getting a "special honey," and discuss possible side effects with the beekeepers selling it, according to Dr. Ahmet Demircan, of Gazi University in Ankara, Turkey, the lead researcher on the new study.

Poisoning typically happens because the consumer downs more mad honey than is recommended, Demircan told Reuters Health in an email.

For their study, Demircan and his colleagues reviewed the records of more than 200,000 patients treated in their ER between December 2002 and January 2008. They identified 21 cases of mad-honey poisoning; patients typically developed symptoms like dizziness, nausea and vomiting about one hour after ingesting the honey.

Of the 21 patients, 18 were men, and the group as a whole ranged in age from 41 to 86. All were treated successfully and released from the hospital within 18 to 48 hours, the researchers report.

Demircan's team also conducted a survey of local beekeepers specializing in mad honey to get an idea of the typical reasons customers buy the product. According to beekeepers, men in their 40s and 50s usually seek out the honey to improve their sexual function.

The findings, according to Demircan, suggest that ER doctors should consider the possibility of mad-honey poisoning in cases where low blood pressure and slowed heart rate cannot be attributed to other, more common causes — especially in middle-aged men.

And while most cases have been seen in Turkey, the researcher said that ERs elsewhere should be aware of mad-honey poisoning. He pointed to case reports from Europe where men of Turkish descent ended up in the ER with apparent mad-honey poisoning.

Other researchers have also pointed out that, with the growing consumption of imported and unprocessed "natural" honey worldwide, the possibility of honey intoxication should be kept in mind whenever a healthy person has an unexplained drop in blood pressure and heart rate.

Processed honey is unlikely to contain grayanotoxins.

SOURCE: Annals of Emergency Medicine, December 2009.