The "love" industry is booming, in case you hadn't noticed from your e-mail inbox lately. Spammers have hit on aphrodisiacs as a prime seller, and nutritional-supplement manufacturers are getting in on the action as well. What's usually missing is the clinical research to prove these "aphrodisiacs" work.
Can certain foods, drugs and scents really increase sexual desire? Millions of people swear they can, but the scientific evidence is still in question.
In this article, we'll find out what types of things people believe are aphrodisiacs and whether or not there really is anything to it.
By definition, aphrodisiacs are elements that evoke or stimulate sexual desire. Companies that produce drugs or concoctions that claim to enhance your sex life often mislabel these supplements as aphrodisiacs; in order to be a true aphrodisiac, they have to create desire -- not improve performance and ability. Viagra, for example, is not an aphrodisiac.
The Chemistry of Sexual Desire
Before we can determine if something works, we have to understand what it would have to do in order to work. In the case of aphrodisiacs: What happens in the body and brain when we are sexually excited? For both men and women, it all boils down to hormones -- specifically testosterone.
In other words, our sex drive is controlled by our hormone levels, with testosterone being the key. If the balance is off, things may not function as they should. When it's right, everything falls into place.
A chain reaction begins when we see, hear, feel, think, touch, smell or otherwise encounter something sexually stimulating. The process looks something like this: First, signals are sent from the limbic lobe of the brain via the nervous system to the pelvic region. These signals tell the blood vessels to dilate. This dilation creates an erection (in both men and women -- the female erectile tissues are found in the clitoris and the region around the vaginal entrance). The vessels then close so those erectile tissues stay erect. This erection is accompanied by rapid heart rate. At the same time, our brains are releasing norepinephrine and dopamine, neurotransmitters that tell our bodies that this is good and pleasurable. (For more about the chemical processes involved with love, read How Love Works.)
If we don't have enough testosterone, then interest in sex can dwindle. Other factors including stress, fatigue and depression can also have a big effect on sexual interest.
Unexpected Side Effects from Drugs
Aphrodisiacs with the most probable effects are those that have been discovered because people reported increased sexual activity as a side effect of a prescribed drug. Many drug companies are using this unexpected side effect to develop drugs that address the lack of sexual desire some people experience.
What Aphrodisiacs Do
Experts say that aphrodisiacs can work in two ways: There are those that create sexual desire by working on the mind, and there are those that create desire by affecting parts of the body. For example, something that increases blood flow in the sex organs might simulate the feelings of sexual intercourse and have the effect of creating desire. Likewise, there are things that can make our bodies produce more of the chemicals associated with sexual desire. Something that lowers inhibitions in the mind, such as alcohol or marijuana, might also create (or allow) the desire to have sex. Sometimes, just thinking something is an aphrodisiac makes it appear to work as one.
There are also things that quell desire. These are called anaphrodisiacs.
Researchers are finding that some foods, herbs and other supplements do stimulate production of hormones or other chemicals that affect our libidos. What they don't know is whether those chemicals are produced in a high enough quantity for us to really notice the difference. There isn't much hard research in the area, primarily because libido is a somewhat difficult thing to study.
According to the FDA, aphrodisiacs have no scientific basis and are simply myth. While this may be true, many people swear by the effects of certain foods, herbs or minerals.
What would make someone think that something like a rhino horn could have any power as an aphrodisiac? Well, for one thing, a rhino horn does bear a resemblance to an erect penis. It's this resemblance to sexual organs that has often made people think they must have some sexual powers. Vegetables such as carrots, asparagus and cucumbers have all been associated with aphrodisiacs, even if their chemical makeup shows no relationship (although some have been shown to have chemical characteristics that could possibly contribute to improved sexual desire).
If it looks like a sex organ, it must do something...
You are what you eat...
Aside from resemblance to sex organs, people throughout history have made aphrodisiac associations with animals that are known to be virile and prolific reproducers. Rabbits, tigers, goats and bulls, for instance, have reputations for prolific reproduction, strength and/or virility. Historically, people ingested the sex organs of these animals to achieve an aphrodisiac effect and/or to enhance sexual performance. Cave drawings depicted hunters eating the testicles of animals they killed, and the belief is that they hoped to take on the characteristics of that animal.
Aphrodisiac Foods and What They Claim to Do
The following is a list of foods that reportedly act as aphrodisiacs. Some are said to be aphrodisiacs simply because of their shape and some because of their aromas, while others claim a chemical basis for their "love" powers. This is by no means a complete list and, unless otherwise noted, there is no readily available research to back up their claims.
Also known as anise, the ancient Greeks and Romans believed that you could increase desire by sucking on anise seeds. Aniseed does include estrogenic compounds (female hormones), which have been reported to induce similar effects to testosterone.
The avocado tree was called a "testicle tree" by the Aztecs because its fruit hangs in pairs on the tree, resembling the male testicles. Its aphrodisiac value is based on this resemblance.
In addition to the phallic shape of the banana itself, the banana flower also has a phallic shape. Bananas are rich in potassium and B vitamins, which are said to be necessary for sex-hormone production.
Basil (sweet basil)
For centuries, people said that basil stimulated the sex drive and boosted fertility as well as producing a general sense of well being. The scent of basil was said to drive men wild -- so much so that women would dust their breasts with dried and powdered basil. Basil is one of the many reported aphrodisiacs that may have the property of promoting circulation.
Cardamom is an aromatic spice. Certain cultures deem it a powerful aphrodisiac and also claim it is beneficial in treating impotence. It is high in cineole, which can increase blood flow in areas where it is applied.
Chocolate has forever been associated with love and romance. It was originally found in the South American rainforests. The Mayan civilizations worshipped the Cacao tree and called it "food of the gods." Rumor has it that the Aztec ruler Montezuma drank 50 goblets of chocolate each day to enhance his sexual abilities.
Researchers have studied chocolate and found it to contain phenylethylamine and serotonin, which are both "feel good" chemicals. They occur naturally in our bodies and are released by our brains when we are happy or feeling loving or passionate. It produces a euphoric feeling, like when you're in love.
In addition to those two chemicals, researchers at the Neuroscience Institute in San Diego, California, say that chocolate may also contain substances that have the same effect on the brain as marijuana. The substance is a neurotransmitter called anandamide. The amount of anandamide in chocolate is not enough to get a person "high" like marijuana, but it could be enough to contribute to the good feelings that serotonin and phenylethylamine produce. Does that mean it increases sexual desire? Probably not -- but if it makes you feel good, it might lower your inhibitions so that you're more receptive to suggestion.
The phallus-shaped carrot has been associated with sexual stimulation since ancient times and was used by early Middle Eastern royalty to aid seduction.
Eating chili peppers generates physiological responses in our bodies (e.g., sweating, increased heart rate and circulation) that are similar to those experienced when having sex. The capsaicin they contain is responsible for the effects and is also a good pain reliever. Another reported effect of eating large quantities of chili peppers is an irritation of the genitals and urinary tract that could feel similar to sexual excitement.
Aside from its phallic shape, the scent of cucumbers is believed to stimulate women by increasing blood flow to the vagina.
Figs are another fruit that claims aphrodisiac qualities based on its appearance. An open fig is thought to look similar to female sex organs.
Long ago, Tibetan monks were not allowed to enter the monastery if they had been eating garlic because of its reputation for stirring up passions. Garlic increases circulation.
People have deemed ginger root an aphrodisiac for centuries because of its scent and because it stimulates the circulatory system.
In medieval times, people drank mead, a fermented drink made from honey, to promote sexual desire. In ancient Persia, couples drank mead every day for a month (known as the "honey month" -- a.k.a. "honeymoon") after they married in order to get in the right frame of mind for a successful marriage. Honey is rich in B vitamins (needed for testosterone production) as well as boron (helps the body metabolize and use estrogen). Some studies have suggested that it may also enhance blood levels of testosterone.
In ancient China, people used licorice to enhance love and lust. The smell appears to be particularly stimulating. Alan R. Hirsch, MD, neurological director of the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago, conducted a study that looked at how different smells stimulated sexual arousal. He found that the smell of black licorice increased the blood flow to the penis by 13 percent. When combined with the smell of doughnuts, that percentage jumped to 32.
In ancient China, women prized nutmeg an aphrodisiac, and researchers have found it to increase mating behaviors in mice. There is no evidence to prove the same happens in humans. In quantity, nutmeg can produce a hallucinogenic effect.
Romans documented oysters as aphrodisiacs in the second century A.D. They are known to be high in zinc, which has been associated with improving sexual potency in men. (An additional hypothesis is that the oyster resembles the female genitals.) Recently, mussels, clams and oysters have been found to contain D-aspartic acid and NMDA (N-methyl-D-aspartate) compounds may be effective in releasing sex hormones like testosterone and estrogen. Scientists have not determined whether there are enough of those compounds in the shellfish to make any difference.
Papaya (like aniseed) is estrogenic, meaning it has compounds that act as the female hormone estrogen. It has been used as a folk remedy in promoting menstruation and milk production, facilitating childbirth and increasing the female libido.
People have been using pine nuts to stimulate the libido since Medieval times. Like oysters, they too are high in zinc. Pine nuts have been used for centuries to make up love potions. The Arabian medical scholar Galen recommended eating one hundred pine nuts before going to bed.
Now let's take a look at some aphrodisiac non-foods and how they're supposed to accomplish their effects.
Aphrodisiac Supplements and What They Claim to Do
Like the aphrodisiac foods listed on the previous page, some of the aphrodisiac ingredients often found in supplements may have some research to back their claims, but most do not.
Arginine is an amino acid found in meat, nuts, eggs, coconut milk and cheese. It forms nitric oxide in the body, which increases blood flow to the genitals. Arginine, when combined with other supplements, is said to enhance sexual desire in women.
According to pharmacognosist Albert Leung, Ph.D., and Arkansas herbalist Steven Foster, the epimedium herb has been proven to improve the sexual function of male animals in experiments. It acts somewhat as an androgen (sex hormone) and might stimulate sexual desire in women who are androgen-deficient.
Fennel is reported to increase the libido of both male and female rats. Fennel has compounds that mimic the female hormone estrogen. However, in doses greater than about a teaspoon, it can be toxic!
Ginseng is another long-touted aphrodisiac. Recently, the Journal of Urology reported, "the Mean International Index of Erectile Function scores were significantly higher in patients treated with Korean red ginseng than in those who received placebo." In animal studies, ingesting ginseng doesn't appear to have an immediate effect on testosterone levels, but the ginseng may trigger other mechanisms that lead to increased performance and libido.
Rhino horn is primarily fibrous tissue with fairly large amounts of calcium and phosphorus. Since low levels of these minerals can lead to weakness and general fatigue, taking large doses of these elements could increase stamina if levels were low to begin with. It's understandable, then, how it could have historically appeared to be an aphrodisiac (in addition to its resemblance to an erect penis). People who didn't have deficiencies of those minerals wouldn't have seen the same affect.
Probably one of the most famous aphrodisiacs is Spanish fly. It is made from a beetle that secretes an acid-like juice, called cantharidin, from its leg joints when threatened. Because it would be more difficult to remove just the juice, the entire beetle is dried and crushed to produce the powder. When Spanish fly powder is ingested, the body excretes the cantharidin in the urine. This causes intense irritation and burning in the urogenital tract, which then leads to itching and swelling of the genitals. This swelling and burning was once assumed to be sexual arousal and led to the belief that Spanish fly had aphrodisiac qualities. But cantharidin is highly toxic. The kidneys suffer inflammation as well and can be permanently damaged. Spanish fly can cause severe gastrointestinal disturbances, convulsions and even death.
Yohimbe is used both as an herbal aphrodisiac and in a prescription drug used for erectile dysfunction in men. It comes from bark stripped from a West African evergreen tree. Yohimbine, the primary active ingredient of yohimbe, blocks alpha-2 adrenergic receptors and increases dilation of blood vessels, which are both involved in achieving and maintaining an erection. The herbal form of yohimbe can be dangerous if taken in the wrong quantities.
Why are Rhinos Endangered?
Contrary to popular belief, rhinos are not endangered because of the use of their horns as aphrodisiacs. According to the World Wildlife Organization, rhino horn is a valuable ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine and is used effectively to reduce fevers, for delirium, for high blood pressure and to treat other ailments. The use of rhino horn is now banned throughout most of Asia; but hundreds of rhinos were killed each year prior to the ban, and many are still killed illegally. In addition to their use in medicines, rhino horns are carved to make the handles of ceremonial daggers.
Other Types of Aphrodisiacs
Scents have a powerful affect when it comes to romance. The memory of a scent of a romantic partner can stay with us long after the romance is gone -- so much so that when we run across the scent years later, we're immediately taken back with a flood of feelings and memories. Does that mean that scent is an aphrodisiac?
In a way, yes, in that scent can evoke desires -- but typically not in an otherwise unwilling partner. For example, Alan R. Hirsch, MD, neurological director of the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago, conducted a study that looked at how different smells stimulated sexual arousal. He found that several scents were effective -- some more than others. The smell of cheese pizza, for instance, increased blood flow to the penis by 5 percent, buttered popcorn by 9 percent, and lavender and pumpkin pie each by 40 percent. For women, lavender and pumpkin pie also had a stimulating effect; however, the smell of Good & Plenty® (licorice) combined with the scent of cucumber created the greatest increase in blood flow to the vagina.
Human pheromones, which still carry some weight in the field of love research, may actually create sexual interest. The word "pheromone" comes from the Greek words pherein and hormone, meaning "excitement carrier."
In the animal world, pheromones are individual scent "prints" found in urine or sweat that dictate sexual behavior and attract the opposite sex. They help animals identify each other and choose a mate with an immune system different enough from their own to ensure healthy offspring. They have a special organ in their noses called the vomeronasal organ (VNO) that detects this odorless chemical.
Scientists at the Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia and its counterpart in France discovered the existence of human pheromones in 1986. They found these chemicals in human sweat. A human VNO has also been found in some, but not all, people. Even if the VNO isn't present in all of us -- and may not be working in those who do have it -- there is still evidence that smell is an important aspect of love (note the booming perfume industry). Researchers conducted an informal experiment using identical twins. Both twins sat at a bar for an evening, and one of them was sprayed with manufactured pheromones. The result was that the twin who got the pheromone boost was approached three times more often than the twin who didn't.
Music can set the mood, carry the mood and ruin the mood. What appears to be the most effective element of music is the memory we associate with it. If you have fond memories of slow dancing to a special song with someone you loved in the past, it's a good bet that same song will have an effect on you later in life. After all, the dance is a bit of a mating ritual that most of us have experienced at some point in our lives.
Not only is it good for your health, but it's also good for your sex life. According to Discovery Health, the aphrodisiac qualities of exercise are associated with the endorphins that are released in the brain with vigorous activity -- like the runner's high. Endorphins are those "feel good" chemicals. Other aphrodisiac affects of exercise come from exercises that increase blood flow to the genitals. These exercises position the body in various ways that stimulate blood flow and can improve sexual abilities and desire.
Exercise and building muscle mass usually increases testosterone levels, too, which may be another reason why exercise increases sex drive.
So is there really something to aphrodisiacs, or is it all in our heads?
Is it All in Our Heads?
Some say the power of aphrodisiacs is all in our heads. In other words, it's a placebo effect -- if we think something is going to put us in the mood for love, we'll find ourselves there. The aphrodisiac we consumed may or may not have anything to do with it.
Are we already halfway there simply by thinking it's going to work? The answer, according to most sources, is yes. Some studies have shown that agents that appear to work amazingly well one time might have no effect the next time, even on the same people. This leads most scientists to believe that aphrodisiacs have a greater effect in our heads than in other parts of our anatomies. After all, the body's most powerful sex organ is the brain. If your head isn't in the right place, nothing is going to happen.
It's possible that historic claims about the aphrodisiac effects of certain foods or supplements could have held more truth at the time than they do today because overall nutrition wasn't as good then. Food was not as readily available and undernourishment was common. Taking or eating something that was rich in nutrients would have had a more profound effect on overall health, which in turn affects sexual desire, making it appear that the food, herb, or supplement had aphrodisiac qualities. People are simply healthier now than in the past, so it's more difficult to see the effects of particular nutrient-rich foods.
For more information on aphrodisiacs and related topics, check out the links below.