Aphrodisiacs Through the Ages
Can what you eat put you "in the mood"? Would-be lovers have been cooking up aphrodisiac appetizers for thousands of years. But do any of them really work?
Wine, Spanish Fly, and Thou
Alcohol is one of the only things known for ages as an
aphrodisiac that has any real effect on sexual desire. A little alcohol can
dissolve inhibitions and put you in the mood, but overindulgence is said to
have the opposite effect on performance, now as in Shakespeare's time. ("It
increases the desire but it takes away the performance" comes from
Coffee is another old one, and it's still sometimes considered
an aphrodisiac. "Every time you have an excitation, you have an effect of
disinhibition," says Paola Sandroni, MD, a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic.
She reviewed the scientific evidence that exists on many supposed aphrodisiacs,
and published her findings in the journal Clinical Autonomic
But to call coffee or anything that contains caffeine an
aphrodisiac would be misleading. "I think the effect is much more
general," she says. In the same way, cocaine and amphetamines may seem to
be aphrodisiacs because they stimulate the central nervous system, but they
have no specific effects on sexual desire
Sandroni also looked at studies on ambergris, which comes from
the guts of whales and is used in perfumes. Some consider ambergris an
aphrodisiac and there is evidence to support this notion. In animal studies, it
increased levels of testosterone in the blood, which is essential to the male
sex drive, and is thought to play a part in women's libido as well.
Next to oysters, the most well known aphrodisiac is the fabled
"Spanish fly." It's not just a legend. Such a thing does exist. Its
active ingredient is the chemical cantharidin, which is found in blister
beetles. Cantharidin irritates genital membranes, and so it is believed to be
arousing. It's also deadly, causing kidney malfunction or gastrointestinal
hemorrhages in people who ingest too much. A quick Internet search is all it
takes to find some for sale. Sandroni says she was "horrified" to see
how easy it is to buy.
Then there's the "herbal Viagra" pitched in spam
emails. This is yohimbe bark. Some claim, falsely, that arginine, an amino acid
in yohimbe, can restore erectile function and act as an aphrodisiac. "The
only saving grace there is that arginine in large quantity is not harmful,"
says Cynthia Finley, a dietician at Johns Hopkins University.
The Roman poet Ovid wrote in The Art of Love, after
giving a litany of aphrodisiacs, "Prescribe no more my muse, nor medicines
give / Beauty and youth need no provocative." Similarly, Finley says she
thinks the only true aphrodisiac is good health achieved by a balanced diet --
which isn't all that different from what St. Thomas Aquinas said 800 years