What Are Aphrodisiacs?
Aphrodisiacs are foods and herbs that are thought to get you in the mood for lovemaking or to increase your sex drive. The word comes from the name Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love.
Legend has it that Casanova, the Italian adventurer and perhaps history’s most famous lover, slurped down dozens of oysters before bedding down with his partners. But do foods and herbs really work as aphrodisiacs to heighten your mood or boost your sexual performance?
Foods considered aphrodisiacs are those that aim to stimulate the love senses (sight, smell, taste, and touch). But you can’t really eat your way to better sex. No food has been scientifically proven to stimulate the human sex organs. But foods and the act of eating can suggest sex to the mind, which in turn can help stimulate desire in the body. Here are some foods considered to be natural aphrodisiacs:
Nuts. Almonds, walnuts, and hazelnuts in particular help you better pump blood throughout your body. That may improve your heart health and blood pressure or help you get and keep an erection. Eating 2-3 ounces of pistachios each day also may be good.
Avocados. It’s one of the few fruits that contain healthy unsaturated fats. It also can help keep your hormones in balance. Avocados also have folate, a vitamin needed to make histamine, a compound released during orgasms.
Pomegranate. It’s called a superfood because it’s packed with antioxidants. Pomegranate juice may supersize your sex life, too. One study found that drinking a glass a day for 2 weeks improved testosterone levels in men and women. The hormone is plentiful in men and is needed for both sexes to kick the sex drive into high gear.
Chocolate. Ancient Aztecs considered it a powerful aphrodisiac. Chocolate contains the compound phenylethylamine, aka the “chemical of love.” But chocolate’s power as an aphrodisiac is probably more myth than reality.
Berries. Blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, and raspberries are aphrodisiac fruits, good for your overall health. They also may help men keep erections. Researchers found that foods rich in flavonoids—nutrients that give fruits and vegetables their color—are linked to a lower risk of erectile dysfunction (inability to get or keep an erection). Also, blackberries contain zinc, which may play a role in regulating testosterone production.
Alcohol. A drink or two may lower your inhibitions and put you in the mood for romance. One study found that women who drank a glass or two of red wine a day reported more desire, lubrication, and overall sexual satisfaction than nondrinkers.
But too much alcohol can cause sexual problems, such as not getting your penis hard or not having orgasms. Drink moderately, which is no more than one drink a day for a woman and not more than two for a man.
Certain qualities in foods are thought to elicit sensuality. Foods considered sexy are generally those that are:
- Spicy (but not too spicy)
So if you're planning a romantic encounter, you may want to take note for your menu.
Some herbs are said to increase sexual desire and performance or to cure erectile dysfunction. These may be brewed in a tea or taken as an herbal supplement. Talk to your doctor before adding herbs to your diet. They can interfere with some drugs. Here are some herbs to consider:
Ginkgo. This herb comes from fan-shaped leaves on trees found throughout Asia. It may increase blood flow to the genitals and improve sexual function in men and women. One study in women showed an improvement in sexual excitement when ginkgo was paired with sex therapy.
Ginseng. Some studies say ginseng may heighten sexual excitement in postmenopausal women and help men get and hold an erection. Red ginseng is particularly popular as an aphrodisiac. A review of several studies on red ginseng showed that it may work for erectile dysfunction, but further research is needed. Another study found ginseng was only slightly more effective than a placebo (dummy drug) for keeping an erection. People who are pregnant or have certain cancers shouldn’t take the herb.
Maca. This root vegetable grows in the Andes Mountains in South America and is usually ground into a powder. In a 12-week study, men reported an increase in desire after treatment with 3,000 milligrams of maca.
Tribulus. This is an herb that’s been used as an aphrodisiac in traditional Chinese and Indian medicine. One study showed that it helped sexual function in men with mild to moderate erectile dysfunction. But an earlier study didn’t find any improvement. Tribulus also may help get you more interested in sex. After using it, some women reported better lubrication and orgasms and generally more satisfying lovemaking.
Do Aphrodisiacs Work?
Research shows that when it comes to aphrodisiacs, it's mostly in our heads—they work if we think they will. This might be due to the placebo effect.
A placebo is an inactive substance, such as a sugar pill, given to someone who is under the impression it is a drug. It's often used by doctors when testing whether a new drug really works—one group of patients gets the new drug and the other gets the sugar pill, with neither group being aware of which one they got. Sometimes people feel better just from taking the sugar pill.
The “placebo effect” is when a person's physical or mental health seems to improve just from taking a placebo treatment.
So if you think eating raw oysters will give a jolt to your sex drive and sexual stamina, your anticipation of this powerful effect can help it come true. While it may be OK to experiment with different aphrodisiac foods on your own, you should talk to a doctor before trying aphrodisiac herbs and supplements.
What to Watch For
Some well-known substances touted as aphrodisiacs are too dangerous to try. These include:
Spanish fly. Several studies have shown that this can be possibly deadly. Spanish fly comes from the blister beetle and contains a poison called cantharidin. It can cause kidney damage, genital and gastrointestinal bleeding, and burning in the mouth, among other things.
Mad honey. This is a dangerous substance sometimes used as an aphrodisiac. It comes from the nectar of a rhododendron bush and is contaminated with a poison called grayanotoxin. It can cause heart problems, confusion, and other serious symptoms. If you take mad honey and feel sick, get medical help right away.
Yohimbe. This is made from the bark of a tree that grows in parts of Africa. It’s been used as an aphrodisiac for centuries. It supposedly can help men get erections. But yohimbe has been linked to heart attacks and seizures.
Treatment for Sexual Dysfunction
If you have any sexual problems, such as erectile dysfunction, vaginal dryness due to menopause or reasons, or a lack of interest in sex, it's best to talk to your doctor, rather than just trying an aphrodisiac. They may be able to suggest a drug, therapy, or some other treatment that has been proven to work on your sexual issue.