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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 Macbeth.)

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 Research.

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 ago.

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Reviewed on February 11, 2003

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