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Health & Sex

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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?


Some aphrodisiacs came out of mythology. Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love (from whose name, of course, "aphrodisiac" is derived) was supposed to have held sparrows sacred. We think rabbits are promiscuous animals, hence the Playboy bunny and certain lewd sayings, but the ancient Greeks thought sparrows were especially lustful. Because of the association with Aphrodite, Europeans were inclined to eat sparrows, particularly their brains, as aphrodisiacs.

St. Thomas Aquinas, a 13th-century friar, also wrote a bit on aphrodisiacs. Like Galen, he thought aphrodisiac foods had to produce "vital spirit" and provide good nutrition. So meat, considered the heartiest food, was an aphrodisiac. Drinking wine produced the "vital spirit."

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.

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