Aphrodisiacs: Some are for Real

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What do herbs such as ginseng, cocoa, coffee, oats, yam, and the bark of a certain West African tree have in common? They’re just a few of the many items people have used through the ages to ignite sexual fireworks. The list also includes such nonherbal items as oysters, alcohol, powdered rhinoceros tusk, and ground Mediterranean beetle.

Scientists generally have dismissed each of these traditional and mostly herbal aphrodisiacs as sexually worthless and sometimes dangerous. But recent research shows that herbalists of yore were actually on to something. Scientists still haven’t identified anything that charms reluctant objects of desire into disrobing, but a surprising number of herbs have physiological effects that just might qualify them as aphrodisiacs. And if we define aphrodisiac as anything that adds extra zing to lovemaking, then the possibilities become as boundless as the erotic imagination.

Sexy history

In general, people believe in aphrodisiacs for three reasons: ancient mythology, medieval medical theory, and traditional herbal medicine.

The mythological genesis of some purported sex-boosters is hinted at by the word aphrodisiac, which comes from Aphrodite, Greek goddess of beauty and love. In Greek mythology, after Uranus was killed in a battle of the gods, his body fell into the sea, and Aphrodite arose from it. Because of this, people have long considered products of the sea to be sexual stimulants, especially oysters, whose soft flesh bears some fanciful resemblance to female genitalia. (It turns out that oysters have reproductive benefits–read on.)

Such similarities lie at the heart of the Middle Ages medical philosophy known as the Doctrine of Signatures. The idea was that the same God who had cursed humanity with illness had also blessed his children with natural cures, mostly herbal medicines, and that these cures were identifiable by their appearance, or “signature.” Plants with heart-shaped leaves were prescribed for heart disease, yellow flowers were used to treat jaundice, and so on. Using the same logic, plants with a phallic appearance–for example, carrots and bananas–were thought to promote erection, according to George Armelagos, Ph.D., a professor of anthropology at Emory University in Atlanta and co-author with Peter Farb of Consuming Passions: The Anthropology of Eating (Houghton Mifflin, 1980). By the same token, anything soft and moist was considered an aphrodisiac for women.

The Doctrine of Signatures held sway from China to Kenya, which helps explain why Asians for centuries have revered ginseng root as a male aphrodisiac. Some ginseng roots are shaped like little people, with a bodylike center, branches that resemble arms and legs, and, yes, protuberances that look rather penile.

In traditional herbal medicine, a plant containing any type of stimulant gained a reputation as a sexual stimulant. In the Middle East, Arab caliphs sipped coffee before visiting their harems. In Mexico and Italy, Montezuma and Casanova fortified themselves for sex by drinking hot chocolate. Chinese traditionalists believed that ginseng–which contains stimulants called ginsenosides that are thought to enhance work performance–enhanced performance of a more intimate nature. Traditionalists also considered herbs that affect the urinary tract to be genital stimulants, including diuretics such as sarsaparilla and saw palmetto.

Through the ages, several other herbs have clung tenaciously to aphrodisiac reputations, including the West African yohimbe tree (for more about this herb, see the article on page 42), wild yam, and damiana, whose scientific name is Turnera diffusa var. aphrodisiaca. Yet despite these traditional aphrodisiacs’ amorous reputations, scientists until recently dismissed them all as quaint frauds whose powers had less to do with sex than suggestion.

“It’s very difficult to separate their effects on the mind from their effects on the body,” says noted pharmacognosist Varro Tyler, Ph.D., recently retired from Purdue University School of Pharmacy in West Lafayette, Indiana. “Sexual enjoyment involves the mind as much as the body, so anything people consider arousing becomes arousing.”

Scientific substance

With all due respect to the power of suggestion, scientists in recent years have discovered that while the traditional aphrodisiacs don’t unleash unbridled lust, several stimulate more than just the imagination.

Caffeine (in coffee, tea, cocoa, chocolate, and colas). If your honey’s thoughts turn to dreamland just as yours turn to dallying, a cup of coffee with a chocolate bar on the side just might keep him or her awake long enough to make the most of the evening. But caffeine does more than simply keep the sandman at bay. In one study, University of Michigan urologist Ananias Diokno, M.D., found that regular coffee drinkers are considerably more sexually active than people who don’t drink coffee.

Chocolate. Chocolate contains not only caffeine but also PEA, short for phenylethylamine. Sexual medicine specialist Theresa Crenshaw, M.D., author of The Alchemy of Love and Lust (Putnam, 1996) and co-author with James Goldberg, Ph.D., of Sexual Pharmacology (Norton, 1996), calls PEA “the molecule of love.” It’s a natural form of the stimulant amphetamine and a natural antidepressant, according to Crenshaw. Both love and lust increase blood levels of PEA; PEA levels plummet after a heartbreak.

Chocolate contains high levels of PEA, which may account for its centuries-old reputation as a “comfort food” and aphrodisiac. However, some say the PEA in chocolate gets metabolized so quickly that it couldn’t have much libidinous effect. Perhaps. But giving chocolates is a longstanding worldwide courtship ritual. Maybe it’s the silky texture and creamy taste. Then again, maybe it’s the PEA.

Asian ginseng. The Chinese and Koreans insist that ginseng strengthens exhausted sperm and impotent genitals. U.S. scientists remain skeptical, including noted herbal medicine expert James Duke, Ph.D., author of many herb books, including Ginseng: A Concise Handbook (Reference Publications, 1989).

But Duke does cite several Asian animal studies showing that Panax ginseng stimulates sexual activity. Unlike coffee, ginseng doesn’t produce a quick buzz and must be used regularly for several months before its subtly stimulating effect becomes noticeable. To see whether ginseng gives you a libido boost, try a half-teaspoon of powdered root per cup of boiled water and take up to two cups a day, or follow package directions of other preparations.

Saw palmetto. Early American folk healers recommended the fruit of this small palm tree native to the southeastern United States as a diuretic and treatment for benign prostate enlargement, a common problem among men over fifty. Through the years, they extended saw palmetto’s use to the genitals and to women’s breasts, which it supposedly enlarged.

Recent research shows that saw palmetto won’t boost anyone’s libido or bra size, but it is a mild diuretic. And about a dozen double-blind studies show that saw pal­metto extract is about as effective in treating prostate enlargement as the standard pharmaceutical, Proscar. In one study, 305 men with symptoms of enlarged prostate–urinary difficulty and several nightly trips to the bathroom–were given 320 mg of saw palmetto extract daily for ninety days. At the end of the three-month period, 88 percent of the men reported significant improvement in urine flow and quality of life. (For more information about saw palmetto, see page 42 of the January/February 1999 issue of Herbs for Health.)

Wild yam. This tuber’s sexual reputation springs from its use as a treatment for gynecological ailments. Wild yam is a potent source of diosgenin, a chemical that resembles female sex hormones and was used in the manufacture of the first birth control pills before scientists figured out how to synthesize the required hormones in the lab.

There is no credible evidence that wild yam arouses women sexually, but it can make intercourse more comfortable for women over forty. Starting in the premenopausal years, as their estrogen levels begin to decline, many women develop vaginal dryness. When sexually aroused, they produce less vaginal lubrication and may experience discomfort during intercourse. Doctors recommend estrogen creams to increase vaginal lubrication. Herbalists tout wild yam salves for the same reason.

Oats. Many ranchers swear that horses fed wild oats become friskier and more libidinous. When humans behave that way, we say they’re “feeling their oats.” The research is scant, but many herbalists recommend wild oats, often in combination with ginseng and yohimbe, in tea blends that supposedly possess aphrodisiacal effects. Oat bran can at least provide an indirect sexual boost because of its effect on blood flow–it’s now common knowledge that eating oat bran helps reduce artery-clogging cholesterol. Keeping the arteries to the genitals clear means that more blood is available to produce erection in men and vaginal lubrication in women.

Ginkgo. Ginkgo, which has no traditional reputation as an aphrodisiac, is the newest arrival among sex-promoting herbs. During the past decade, a great deal of research has shown that it improves blood flow through the brain. Today, ginkgo is widely used in Europe to treat strokes and cerebral insufficiency, or poor circulation in the brain.

Ginkgo also boosts blood flow into the penis. In one study, fifty men with erection impairment caused by poor penile blood flow were given 240 mg of a standardized ginkgo extract daily for nine months. Thirty-nine of them, or 78 percent, regained their erections. Standardized gingko extracts are available at supplement shops and health-food stores. Follow package directions.

Oysters. Okay, oysters aren’t herbal, but their sexual reputation is so widely accepted that they’re worth mentioning here.

Scientists scoffed at oysters’ sexual reputation until nutritionists discovered that they are exceptionally rich in the essential trace mineral zinc. Zinc is intimately related to male sexual health–men with zinc-deficient diets are at high risk for infertility, prostate problems, and loss of libido. University of Rochester researchers have restored sperm counts in infertile men using zinc supplements. In addition to oysters, whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables also contain this mineral; by contrast, processed foods are often low in zinc.

Damiana. Whereas many traditional aphrodisiacs have shown at least some stimulating effects, nothing even remotely libidinous has ever been discovered about damiana, despite the aphrodisiaca in its ­scientific name. Nonetheless, its sex-enhancing reputation remains. It is touted–and without persuasive scientific evidence–in such recent books as Love Potions by Cynthia Watson, M.D. (Tarcher, 1993). In any event, this herb is safe, so it won’t hurt you or your honey. And if you really believe it’s an aphrodisiac, the marvelous placebo effect may turn it into one for you.


Want more sexual heat? Then work up a sweat. One indisputable aphrodisiac is exercise. James White, Ph.D., professor emeritus of physical education at the University of California at San Diego, recruited ninety-five healthy but sedentary men with an average age of forty-seven to follow one of two exercise programs. One involved low-intensity, sixty-minute walks four times a week, the other an hour of aerobics, also done four times weekly. After nine months, both groups reported increased sexual desire and pleasure, but the aerobics group reported the greatest increase in fun in the sack. Exercise leads to fitness, and fitness boosts self-esteem, says Louanne Cole, Ph.D., a Fair Oaks, California, sex therapist. “You feel healthier and more attractive, and you project that, so you look more alluring to prospective lovers,” she says.

The same could be said for weight loss–shedding a few pounds often boosts interest in sex. A few years ago, Ronette Kolotkin, Ph.D., a psychologist at the Duke University Diet and Fitness Center, noticed that people who lost weight at the center often remarked that they felt more sexual. Curious, she surveyed seventy male participants in the program aged eighteen to sixty-five before and after a weight loss of eight to thirty pounds. “After losing weight,” Kolotkin says, “they all reported more sexual desire.” Excess weight makes most people feel less desirable and more anxious about being seen naked, she says. In other words, fat causes stress, and stress interferes with desire. Carrying extra weight also requires a good deal of energy. Dropping pounds frees that energy for use in more pleasurably erotic ways.

Finally, one type of birth control pill appears to increase women’s libido and enhance their sexual satisfaction. In a survey of 364 sexually active women ages eighteen to twenty-six, sex researcher Norma McCoy, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at San Francisco State University, compared the sexual effects of monophasic pills, which contain constant doses of estrogen and progestin, and triphasic pills, which have varying progestin levels. Women taking triphasic pills reported more sexual interest, more sexual fantasies, more arousal during sex, and greater satisfaction from lovemaking. McCoy speculates that, compared with monophasic pills, triphasics delay the suppression of luteinizing hormone, which controls the production of other sex hormones. Most women in the study who used triphasic pills took Orthonovum 7/7/7. (For more about sex hormones, see page 40.)

The five senses

Mention aphrodisiacs, and most people think only of things to ingest. But that view is as limited as the missionary position.

“The most neglected ingredient of great sex is the backdrop,” Crenshaw says. “When lovemaking becomes routine, the stimulating physical setting is usually the first thing to go. Instead of a satin robe and deep-pile carpet by a roaring fire in a ski chalet, it’s a dark bedroom on musty sheets when you’re both exhausted. For ordinary sex to become great sex, the setting is crucial. Appeal to your senses. Arouse all five of them.” In this endeavor, herbs have a great deal to offer.

Smell: aromatherapy. What’s the aroma of lust? Cinnamon, according to Alan Hirsch, M.D., neurologic director of the Smell and Taste Research Foundation in Chicago. Hirsch fitted male medical students’ penises with gauges that detected erection, then exposed the men to dozens of fragrances. The only one that got a rise was the smell of hot cinnamon buns. But other aromas can add sensuality to sex. Try placing herb-scented candles, a bouquet of flowers, or a fragrant herbal potpourri on your night table.

Taste: fine food. Food–and the conversation that goes along with it–can be a wonderful form of foreplay that makes what happens after dessert even more satisfying. Try treats with the traditionally “hot” spices ginger and cinnamon. But go easy on the alcohol (see “Beware the turnoffs” on page 38).

Touch: a hot bath or shower. “Every square inch of the body is a sensual playground,” sex therapist Louanne Cole says. To discover the sensuality of the whole body, try a hot bath or shower together using a fragrant herbal soap. Bathing is a wonderfully arousing prelude to lovemaking. The warmth relaxes muscles made tense by the daily grind. For extra enjoyment, dry off with warmed towels. Before you get into the water, drape your towels over a radiator or pop them into the dryer, so they’ll be warm when you use them.

Sharing massages is another way to get literally in touch with a lover. Massage is an intimate conversation without words. Simply pour some massage lotion on your hands and stroke your honey’s hands, arms, legs, feet, and everything else. Many herbal massage lotions are available at bath, body, and aromatherapy shops.

Sound: music. For some, nothing complements the sounds of intimate enjoyment better than your favorite music. And if your bedroom walls are thin, increasing the volume will mask love’s little noises and help you feel more comfortable.

Sight: candles. One reason so many people are in the dark about great sex is that they make love with the lights off. Try candles. They illuminate lovemaking with a shimmering, romantic glow.

San Francisco-based author Michael Castleman writes about both sexuality and herbal medicine, which led to his interest in, okay, passion for, aphrodisiacs. He is the author of Sexual Solutions: For Men and the Women Who Love Them (Simon & Schuster, 1989), a self-help guide to men’s sex problems, and The Healing Herbs (Bantam, 1995), a scientific investigation of herbal medicine.

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