Natural Libido Enhancers

Consider nature’s ways to get your groove back.


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Recipe: Maca Magic Smoothie 

A particular torment of being human is that we, among all Earth’s inhabitants, can imagine how much better things could be for us. This conundrum is especially apparent in the area of sex and intimacy. There may be a few individuals who say, “My body works like a charm and I have all the sex and/or intimacy I want or need.” The rest of us, however, experience times when the flow isn’t flowing, the glow isn’t glowing or the hydraulics just aren’t working the way they should.

But a slump does not equal a trend: Nature offers plenty of assistance to build and maintain our sexual health and to get things back on track when our erotic get-up-and-go takes a hike. However, loss of sexual desire, menopause-related physical changes and erectile dysfunction are all complex situations with a long list of possible causes. Diagnosis and treatment should be made under the supervision of a trained medical professional.

Overall Health Means Sexual Health

For starters, the greatest sexual enhancer is a healthy body. If you read that as thin, read again. Plump can be sexy, skinny can be sexy and so can any shape in between. What’s not sexy is exhaustion, emotional and mental turmoil, pain and a body so stressed it can’t maintain its own essential energy, much less share that essence with another.

Stress has almost become synonymous with American life, so it’s no small wonder many of us wish we could find some way to soothe the jagged edges and help ourselves to a bed-sized serving of sensual sustenance. The good news is, there are natural ways to accomplish this. The other news is, we can’t just keep galloping on, pop a couple of capsules and expect instant results.

“Sometimes people think using herbs for sexuality means, ‘Take these pills, drink this tea and go for it,”’ Diana De Luca, herbalist and author of Botanica Erotica: Arousing Body, Mind, and Spirit (Healing Arts, 1998), says. “We want to find one herb that’s going to fix everything, but it’s far more important to look at your whole lifestyle. I work with people who are simply depleted — and they wonder why their sexual drive is gone.

“You know all that stuff your mom told you? ‘Eat your greens, drink water, exercise outdoors, get plenty of sleep, keep a positive attitude’ — that stuff? Not only is it the way to be healthy, it’s the prescription for a great sex life, too. Celebrating our sexuality and sensuality is an important part of our total health care, not an isolated phenomenon.”

A case in point, says Steven Foster, Herbs for Health’s lead editorial adviser and author of numerous books on herbs, is that all the risk factors for erectile dysfunction are the same as those for cardiovascular disease. Several studies have shown that the higher a man’s cholesterol, the more likely he is to suffer erection impairment. Some of the herbs reputed to treat this problem, such as ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) and yohimbe (Pausinystalia yohimbe), work because they improve vascular dilation and increase microcirculation to the extremities. A better alternative, Foster says, is to control the lifestyle choices that lead to clogged arteries in the first place: Get adequate aerobic exercise, limit your intake of alcohol and drugs, eat a healthy diet and don’t smoke.

“Erectile dysfunction is not an inevitable result of aging,” Foster says. “Sexual vigor is vigor, period.” Clogged arteries, overconsumption of alcohol, diabetes, sleep deprivation and the side effects of numerous prescription drugs — not coincidentally, many of those most prescribed to people in their mature years — all can result in loss of sexual desire and/or sexual function.

Where herbs can be most helpful, say the experts, is in boosting overall health before problems start. For instance, rather than having to take prescription high blood pressure drugs that warn of “sexual side effects,” try feeding your body dependable blood-pressure-lowering herbs, such as garlic (Allium sativum) and hawthorn (Crataegus spp.). Antidepressant drugs are legendary for their sexual side effects: diminished sex drive and difficulty reaching orgasm. As an alternative, nourish yourself with licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra), St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum), ginkgo, ginger (Zingiber officinale) or purslane (Portulaca oleracea). If your depression is severe, you may still need pharmaceutical drugs, but it makes sense to give natural options a try first and do what you can to preserve the sexual side of you.

Making Time for Intimacy

Brigitte Mars, an herbalist and author based in Boulder, Colorado, says in addition to caring for our whole bodies, it’s essential we take into account the schedules and needs of our partners. For example, Mars says, men often have the highest rates of arousal in the morning, while women typically are more interested at night — a complicated pas de deux in any case, made more challenging by our out-of-control schedules.

“If you’re trying to rush and make love before you both dash off to work in the morning,” Mars says, “or trying to get together with whatever energy you have left as the last thing in a busy day, what you end up with is leftover sex. You need to schedule time for each other and share intimacy in a relaxed way.” She suggests taking a bubble bath together and massaging each other with lotion containing aromatic essential oils. “Eat a light supper, go to bed early and save some of your hunger for your beloved,” she says.

The most important lesson to remember is that you, your lover and your respective bodies are not things. If we begin to interact with ourselves and our bodies as living, breathing beings worthy of love, attention and nourishment, we will have gone a great distance in establishing a healthy sexual life.

“To be more orgasmic in love,” Mars says, “we should be more orgasmic in life — laugh more, love more and experience the rush of life!”

Though you’ve taken care of your basic health needs, wrestled your schedules into submission and communicated deeply and well with your partner to smolder any resentments that might poison your passion, you may still need some extra oomph from Mother Nature. Happily, our lovely planet’s medicine chest is full of herbal helpers — far too many, in fact, to mention here.

These plant partners fall generally into three categories: tonics, stimulants (aphrodisiacs), and lotions and potions. Sometimes, in nature’s fecund free-for-all, the categories tumble over each other and get as tangled as honeysuckle vines. Oats (Avena sativa), for example, are a nourishing tonic, a sexual stimulant and a great source for lubrication. (Feeling or sowing your oats is much more than a colorful metaphor for feeling frisky.) The Peruvian herb maca (Lepidium meyenii) has a centuries-old reputation as a tonic and a fertility booster and lately has been gaining a reputation for increasing sexual vitality and desire in women and men.

Feed Your Desire

What you stir up in the kitchen can spice up your sex life as well as your dinner table: Many culinary herbs are also good for sexual vitality. For instance, Mars says, garlic is considered such an effective aphrodisiac that some Hindu monks and nuns are prohibited from eating it because of the difficulty it presents in keeping vows of celibacy. Food for sexual energy is “warming” in nature and can include cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, aniseed and vanilla.

Cinnamon, ginger, vanilla? You guessed it: “Cinnamon rolls are my favorite aphrodisiac,” De Luca says. Another delicious option is chocolate, whose long-standing association with love and romance may be deserved because it boosts chemicals in the body (called endorphins) that make us feel good. Does chocolate make sex sweeter? Well, if you really need an excuse to eat chocolate, this one should work just fine.

Some libido-lifting culinary favorites include aromatic seeds such as fennel, caraway, dill, anise, cumin, coriander and cardamom, which not only are reputed to increase sexual vigor but also sweeten the breath — two advantages that may well be related. Cooking with rosemary, sweet basil and peppermint can provide a lift to spirits and bodies as well.

Damiana (Turnera diffusa) is a somewhat controversial herb, believed for centuries in the Southwest and Mexico to be a sexual stimulant but dismissed by others, such as herbalist James Duke, as having no real research to support its aphrodisiac reputation. However, even Duke cites anecdotal support for that reputation.

According to Mars, damiana is high in phosphorus, which may contribute to its energizing ability. It’s said to improve orgasmic ability, boost nerve sensitivity and strengthen the reproductive system. Duke says he’s never heard of any cases of damiana toxicity, so if you want to give it a try, it probably won’t hurt anything. Books by Mars, De Luca and others include recipes for damiana cordials and liqueurs.

Treats for All the Senses

Feeding our sense of smell can enhance pleasure. Scents such as vanilla and musk have been shown to stimulate brain waves, so it stands to reason that other aromatic oils will produce similar responses. Sandalwood, ylang ylang, jasmine, rose and clary sage are a few scents that make sense as aphrodisiacs. Try them in an aromatherapy diffuser, or add a few drops to a bath or favorite massage oil.

De Luca suggests we consider some other healing and rejuvenating qualities of plants as we look at ways to kindle our passion. A walk in the forest or through a strongly scented flower garden can please our senses of smell, touch and sight, in addition to filling our lungs with air made even fresher by the inspiration and expiration of the plants.

“I grew up in a resort area in Northern California,” De Luca says. “And I watched time after time as couples would come up from the Bay Area for a long weekend. They’d arrive all rigid and tense with each other, and over the weekend, they’d just begin to unfurl, like flower petals. They would awaken to their senses and to each other and end up walking around hand in hand like young lovers again.

“We aren’t healed just by taking herbs in tablets and little pills,” she explains. “It’s the beauty of nature that can truly heal us. Picking rose petals and feeling their velvety softness; walking in the redwood forest. My husband just brought me some stargazer lilies, and their scent is filling the entire house. I walk past them and see them with their little tongues stuck out; I smell that lovely scent, and they’re such a treat for my senses.”

De Luca offers a word of caution for those who would attempt to create herbal aphrodisiacs, particularly those based on historical accounts of herbs used for this purpose. These “recipes” often don’t include information on correct amounts nor on contraindications. Focus on the tonic and nourishing effects of plants, she advises, including — but not limited to — culinary seduction and other pleasurable feasts for the senses.

When considering herbal approaches to erection challenges, Foster reminds us that most of the literature on these remedies precedes Viagra, a drug that is effective, readily available and good enough for Bob Dole. However, if you’re put off by the drug’s side effects — including stomachaches, facial flushing, headaches and, in rare cases, death — you might consider some of the following advice.

Sometimes, a man’s performance problems are more related to anxiety than plumbing. In these cases, natural remedies for relaxation can be useful. Try valerian (Valeriana officinalis), skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora), California poppy (Eschscholzia californica), kava (Piper methysticum) or fresh oats. If you’re really freaked out, try a few drops of Bach Original Flower Essences’ famous stress-relieving formula, Rescue Remedy, but then pause to ask yourself why you’re getting so worked-up-in-a-bad-way. Maybe you’re just not ready yet, maybe this partner isn’t The One, or maybe you need a little more conversation before you dive into the Big Event.

Maybe you’re just tired — testosterone levels can drop from fatigue, depression, overwork, stress and insufficient sleep. Or maybe you’ve been riding your bicycle too much. Poor circulation can take its toll, as can nerve damage, and both are possible when you’ve spent several hours a day on a bike saddle. If you want to continue both riding and pleasing your sweetie, make sure to stand up every few minutes and change position so you don’t expose yourself to too much pressure in one place.

If your strategy is to have a couple of beers to relax yourself before seducing or being seduced, you might reconsider. Alcohol is a powerful depressant of the central nervous system and can interfere with erections in men and sexual responsiveness in women. The hops (Humulus lupulus) in beer slightly increase prolactin and increase estrogen, which makes testosterone levels drop — precisely what you don’t want to happen before a romantic interlude. Stick with the herbal teas — Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) is a good bet — and ask for a little ginger and cinnamon sprinkled in for good measure.

In his book The Green Pharmacy (Rodale, 1997), Duke recommends a bowl of fava beans as the best herbal approach to erection difficulties. Fava beans have an age-old reputation as an aphrodisiac, and science bears out that they’re our best food source for the compound L-dopa. When given in large doses, this compound can cause priapism, a painful, persistent erection. Duke says you’d have to eat a bale of beans to cause such a condition, but in smaller quantities — a helping of 8 to 16 ounces, for example — you might get enough to give an erection a boost.

Maca is an ancient herb of the Incas. It grows in Peru at 10,000 to 15,000 feet in exceedingly harsh conditions and has a lengthy reputation for increasing endurance, stamina and sexual virility. Unlike yohimbe, an herb with similar properties, maca does not produce high blood pressure, nervousness or sleep difficulties.

Ginkgo is best known for increasing blood flow through the brain. It also improves blood flow into the body’s extremities, and a dose of 60 to 240 mg daily has been shown to improve erectile dysfunction.

Saw palmetto (Serenoa repens), a well-established remedy for benign prostate enlargement, also is reputed to be a useful herbal treatment for erectile dysfunction.

Menopausal Changes

The aspect of aging that may seem least fair to women is that once we’ve finally worked through the worst of our hang-ups and inhibitions, our bodies begin to change in ways that can hamper our ability to express all that juicy freedom. Or, to paraphrase Carol Burnett, you finally get your head together and your body falls apart.

However, where sex is concerned, humans are nothing if not inventive. There are so many delightful and delicious ways of coping with such affronts as vaginal dryness and thinning of the vaginal walls, you might even forget you ever had a problem.

A great place to start is with that humble bowl of oatmeal in the morning. Over and over, oats appear in the literature as a sexual enhancer. In the first place, eating a bowl of oatmeal every day helps reduce artery-clogging cholesterol, which means the arteries to the genitals are able to produce more blood flow. This means more erections in men and more lubrication in women — a happy circumstance. Oats also relax and nourish the central nervous system, Mars says, and can be infused and used externally to provide additional lubrication.

Other herbs that promote vaginal lubrication include black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa), fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), longan (Euphoria longan) and vitex (Vitex agnus-castus).

A great deal of literature is available on natural therapies to encourage health and minimize discomfort during menopause. These therapies involve supporting the liver and kidneys, building the blood, promoting vaginal elasticity, strengthening the bones and balancing estrogen activity. For more information, see the menopause sections in The Green Pharmacy or Rosemary Gladstar’s Herbal Healing for Women (Fireside, 1993).

K.C. Compton is the editor-in-chief at The Herb Companion.