The hard truth about aphrodisiacs
To help the ancients feel frisky, the great minds of their time recommended different types of natural and herbal aphrodisiacs. It turns out they still work.
So, how’s your sex life? Don’t be shy—if it’s anything less than stellar, you’re not alone. In fact, since the beginning of recorded time, people have been searching for ways to improve the frequency, duration, and intensity of their coital couplings.
Whether it’s the cooling embers of a longstanding relationship that need stoking again, or just a little something lacking in your own personal mojo department, getting your groove back might be easier than you think.
To help the ancients feel frisky, the great minds of their time recommended different types of herbs, foods, and spices as aphrodisiacs. Today, little has changed in our quest for sexual supremacy, and it turns out some of those old-time remedies might have some use in the bedroom after all.
What is an aphrodisiac?
An aphrodisiac, by definition, is a substance that increases sexual desire. You might recognize Aphrodite’s name in there, the Greek goddess of love and sex.
The earliest aphrodisiacs were chosen mainly for their resemblance to male or female sexual organs, such as oysters, figs, bananas, and avocados, or to associations of strength and virility, such as rhinoceros horn and tiger penis.
We’ve since moved on to the world of pharmaceuticals in our modern quest for passion, most notably to the erection-enhancing juggernauts of Viagra, Levitra, and Cialis. These synthetic drugs are not true aphrodisiacs, since they address only the mechanical side of the system.
These drugs, helpful though they may be, can include a number of unpleasant or potentially dangerous side effects. These drugs also don’t address the unique arousal patterns and sexual responses of women.
The natural way
In the natural world there are two kinds of aphrodisiacs: the kind that work on the physical plumbing, by stimulating blood flow to the naughty bits and thereby increasing sexual interest and performance, and the kind that work on the brain, creating a mental state that suggests it’s time for some lovin’.
Since there’s been a lot of hearsay, conflicting reports, and anecdotal evidence about natural aphrodisiacs, it was time for someone to step up and do a survey of the real scientific literature around the spices, foods, and herbal extracts that could turn lacklustre into lusty.
Researchers John P. Melnyk and Massimo F. Marcone at the University of Guelph did exactly that and recently released their review on which of these spices, foods, and herbal extracts looked promising—and what was bunkum.
Plants for passion?
Long used in Africa as an aphrodisiac, the bark of the yohimbe tree contains an extract called yohimbine that has shown positive results in the treatment of erectile dysfunction. In studies with rats and dogs, the extract also increased the frequency and duration of the sex act, shortened the recovery time between episodes, and increased total semen output.
Yohimbine is a prescription drug here in Canada, and it has side effects (including high blood pressure, anxiety, and increased heart rate) that should be discussed with a professional. Health Canada advises consumers to avoid yohimbe products obtained without medical counselling.
The Chinese have used ginseng for centuries to boost energy, improve general health, and treat sexual dysfunction, and they’re certainly onto something. Recent research suggests that ginseng can boost both sexual desire and performance.
Compounds called ginsenosides work to increase blood flow to gonadal tissues and the central nervous system in male subjects. And finally, something for the ladies: women in menopause reported more frequent arousal and satisfaction when taking it, which may be due in part to ginseng’s phytoestrogen content.
Lepidium meyenii, also known as maca, is a Peruvian plant that has shown some promise as a libido booster for both men and women. The plant, used as food for both humans and animals, is well tolerated and has few reported side effects. Maca doesn’t change hormonal levels in subjects who take it, but it can improve mood and increase sexual desire and function in both men and women.
Most promising are studies showing that the plant can reverse sexual impairments as a result of antidepression medications (SSRIs), such as loss of libido and erectile dysfunction. Early test results on rats also show potential for reducing enlarged prostates.
Saffron and other spices
Saffron could become an expensive habit if further research confirms its success in animal studies. In fact, in one small study, men taking saffron for only 10 days reported improved sexual satisfaction and better erectile function.
Other spices, including cloves, sage, and nutmeg still await human trials to determine their effectiveness, but for now, a little sprinkle of your favourite spice isn’t doing you any harm.
Now before you rush out and buy a bale of saffron or a barrel of ginseng, know that the researchers’ conclusions were that, natural or not, more study is needed on all these substances to determine their effectiveness.
Because some of these products can interfere with medications or cause side effects of their own, it’s a good idea to consult your doctor or natural health practitioner to see if there are any contraindications. And while there’s probably little danger in trying maca or ginseng supplements, they’re no quick fix. Be prepared to wait at least six weeks to experience any appreciable results.
Lastly, the researchers warn against purported aphrodisiacs such as Spanish fly and the cane toad (Bufo marinus). These products, said to be made from ground beetles and the dried venomous secretions of the cane toad respectively, do little to help with sexual dysfunction, and can be highly toxic or even fatal.
All in your head?
While Melnyk and Marcone’s study discounted the aphrodisiac effects of chocolate and alcohol (noting the latter’s real threat as a performance impairer), when you ask people what foods make them feel sexy, champagne and chocolate often top the list.
Chocolate’s compounds of phenylethylamine and serotonin can give us a rush that feels like falling in love (although whether these compounds even reach the brain is contested). And while alcohol might not be a sexual enhancer or a libido booster in and of itself, its reputation for lowering inhibitions is legendary.
When it comes to matters of your own desire, obey the hippie motto: if it feels good, do it. If eating oysters makes you feel like a sexy beast, then guess what? You’re a sexy beast! If a shot of espresso or a glass of wine revs you up or mellows you out, then enjoy.
Sharing good food with a loved one, and the myriad pleasures of taste, smell, and texture, can be a powerful weapon in your romantic arsenal. After all, love doesn’t happen in a lab full of copulating rats. Thank goodness.
What’s your dysfunction?
No animal, vegetable, or mineral in the world can take the place of a healthy lifestyle (those lab rats were all in peak physical condition). If your libido’s lagging because of exhaustion, you’re going to need to budget some time for sex and sleep.
On the flip side, if you’re flat-lining in the lust department because of stress, a yoga practice or anything that requires calm, mindful breathing can help you relax and enjoy intimacy again.
Regular exercise can also be great for your sex drive, since it gets the blood moving, the heart and lungs pumping, makes you sweat and flush with colour … sound like anything familiar? Working out is also a proven body-image booster, and when you feel fit and attractive, you’re more likely to want to share some of that sexiness.
Eating well also helps you look and feel your best—a diet high in processed foods and low on nutrients is a passion killer, right up there with beige pantyhose and men in flip-flops.
Since one partner’s “not enough” may be another’s “just right,” talking honestly about your desires can be the very first step to improving sexual function. It seems obvious, but many of us are less than frank when it comes to discussing sex outside of the bedroom.
But it’s a talk worth having: how else can you learn about your partner’s—and your own—desires? Speaking of aphrodisiacs, just having these conversations can get things revved up again.