You've never heard of pheromones? Well, it's
time to learn about the part they play in your sex life, because it could be
substantial. The concept of a human pheromone, or sexual scent of attraction,
has been debated and researched for years.
In most animals, the relationship between pheromones and
mating is straightforward. Sea urchins, for example, release pheromones into
the surrounding water, sending a chemical message that triggers other urchins
in the colony to eject their sex cells simultaneously.
By Heather Johnson Durocher
An e-mail here, a smile there. Maybe that "innocent" friendship
with your guy friend isn't so innocent after all....
I'll call him John.
The first time we met, he actually struck me as a bit arrogant. He irritated
me enough that I mentioned him to my husband in a "Can you believe this
guy?" kind of way. But I interacted with John only occasionally, always
through work and mostly over e-mail, so it wasn't a huge deal. He's just
one of those people...
Human pheromones, on the other hand, are highly
individualized, and not always noticeable. In 1986 Dr. Winifred Cutler, a
biologist and behavioral endocrinologist, codiscovered pheromones in our
underarms. She and her team of researchers found that once any overbearing
underarm sweat was removed, what remained were the odorless materials
containing the pheromones.
Dr. Cutler's original studies in the '70s showed that women
who have regular sex with men have more regular menstrual cycles than women who
have sporadic sex. Regular sex delayed the decline of estrogen and made women
more fertile. This led the research team to look for what the man was providing
in the equation. By 1986 they realized it was pheromones.
There's more on how pheromones affect women's menstrual
cycles. Think back to college, or to growing up if you had sisters. Most women
who live with or near other women adjust their menstrual cycle timing to each
other. A recent study at the University of Chicago by Martha McClintock exposed
a group of women to a whiff of perspiration from other women. It caused their
menstrual cycles to speed up or slow down depending on the time in the month
the sweat was collected -- before, during or after ovulation. This was the
first proof that people produce and respond to pheromones.
Although it's now clear that pheromones exist, the way our
body processes them has yet to be determined. Animals have a vomeronasal organ
(VNO), which perceives the substance and then leads them to mate. Some
anatomists don't think humans have a VNO; others think they've found pits
inside our nostrils that might be VNOs, but may not work.
Implications for Fertility and Depression
Despite the gap in our knowledge, these remarkable studies about pheromones
and menstrual cycles have brought to light the idea that pheromones could be
used as fertility treatments for couples who want to conceive, or as
contraceptives for those who don't. And couples who are having sexual problems
could use pheromones combined with traditional therapy to enhance desire. It's
also possible, some researchers say, that pheromones could be a mood enhancer,
alleviating depression and stress. And the most far-reaching hypothesis so far
is that pheromone treatment could control prostate activity in men to reduce
the risk of cancer.