Do Aphrodisiacs Really Work?

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
February 14, 2006
For thousands of years people have pursued plants, potions, scents, and stimulants believed to boost sexual desire.

The world's aphrodisiacs—named for Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty—range from the mundane to the downright bizarre.

Spicy foods, like chilies, have long been thought to boost the libido by inducing physical conditions similar to those of sexual arousal, such as an increased heart rate.

Rarer objects, like rhinoceros horns, enjoy a powerful mystique—not to mention a phallic form.

Rhino horn, consumed primarily in Asia, does contain high levels of calcium and phosphorus. When consumed by people with very poor diets, those nutrients could possibly make diners feel healthier, more vigorous, and thus more interested in sex.

Judging the effectiveness of any aphrodisiac can be difficult. Human studies are sparse, and where sex is concerned, results can be unreliable.

"It's important to know—when it comes to everything from food to pharmaceuticals that are used for sexual attraction and arousal—you always have to factor in a large placebo effect," said Jennifer Bass, a spokesperson for the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction at Indiana University in Bloomington.

"The mind is so important to the body." (Read a National Geographic article excerpt on love and the brain.)

Effectiveness Often in the Eye of the Beholder

Some foods or other substances may have physical benefits that could indirectly lead to increased sex drive without directly inducing such urges.

Foods that boost nutrition and overall health, for example, may help people feel better and more energetic—and thus more sexually aroused.

But most aphrodisiac consumers hunger for a more targeted approach.

If you have an email account, you're likely familiar with an enormous variety of supposed aphrodisiacs.

The FDA tracks such offerings and often warns fraudulent business with threats of regulatory action.

Not-So-Soft Drink?

WARNING: THIS BEVERAGE WILL AROUSE YOU, reads the label of a cherry-flavored "love drink" that may soon be hitting U.S. supermarket shelves.

The new pop, Turn On, is packed with the energy-drink staples ginseng and caffeine. But it's being marketed as a booster for a kind of workout you won't find at the gym.

Turn On's makers tout their "potent variety of active herbs, amino acids, vitamins, carbonation and aromas" as "a unique premium adult drink."

Not everyone is smitten. France and Denmark have already banned the drink, because it contains ingredients forbidden in those nations.

Perhaps the most legendary of all aphrodisiacs is Spanish fly, or cantharis, which is made from the remains of dried beetles known as Spanish flies (Cantharis vesicatoria).

Spanish fly named does create a rush of blood to the sexual organs, doctors say. But the aphrodisiac poisons and irritates the urogenital tract in the process.

Experts warn that misuse of Spanish fly can lead to serious medical problems.

Viagra in Your Fridge?

Aphrodisiac expert Amy Reiley holds a master of arts degree in gastronomy from the Cordon Bleu culinary schools and is the author of Fork Me, Spoon Me: The Sensual Cookbook.

Reiley says there are likely plenty of safe, effective aphrodisiacs already in your kitchen.

"I like to look at aphrodisiacs from both the folkloric and scientific perspectives," she explained.

"I try to promote those that have a basis in science as well as in history—and there are a lot of them."

Reiley likens culinary aphrodisiacs to vitamins—valuable pieces of a total nutritional puzzle rather than silver bullet cure-alls.

"People always ask me, What's the food that's going to act like Viagra?" she said, referring to the Pfizer pharmaceutical corporation's anti-impotence pill.

"The truth is there isn't one. Viagra was made by chemistry. But a lot of foods can promote sexual health by their nutritional value."

"I also think there's a little bit of the power of persuasion involved," Reiley continued.

"If someone tries these but adamantly believes that they will have no value as aphrodisiacs, well, they'll probably tell you that they had no effect."

Reiley admits to a few favorites, beginning with the oyster.

"They are a very sensual food, and they have a wonderful history as an aphrodisiac that goes all the way back to Aphrodite [and ancient Greece]," she said.

Oyster lovers got good news from a scientific study last year. Research unveiled at the American Chemical Society's March 2005 meeting suggested that oysters and other bivalves can raise the levels of sexual hormones in both men and women.

The shellfish also contain high quantities of zinc, which can stimulate and increase blood flow.

Oysters may be hot, but Reiley reports that much-heralded chocolate is not—at least as far as sexual arousal is concerned.

"Chocolate absolutely contains all of those things that people promote [for aphrodisiacs], like serotonin and phenyl ethylamine [PEA], which can give you a hormone rush that feels like the rush of intercourse," she said.

Alas, there's a rub.

"You're more likely to go into a diabetic coma than get that rush because you'd have to eat so much chocolate to get the effect," Reiley says.

Though chocoholics may scoff, Reiley reports that cheese could be a better alternative when it comes to jump-starting the libido.

"Cheese actually contains those same components but ten times more of them," she said. "You could realistically get that hormone rush from cheese."

Cheese also has some heavyweight historical proponents. The 18th-century Italian playboy Casanova is said to have sworn by the combination of red wine and stilton.

Reiley herself favors ginger. The fiery root has long been esteemed as an aphrodisiac in Asia but is little known as such in the West.

"It's one of my favorites because its effects are pretty much immediate," she said. "It makes the tongue tingle. It makes the lips swell and look just that much more kissable. It also helps raise your body temperature a little bit."

From the garden she recommends mint. The versatile herb may have one of the most practical applications of all—it's nature's breath freshener.

Lovers aren't likely to stop looking for that special something to give them an edge. Yet many experts stress that the brain remains the biggest sexual organ of all.

"The power of the mind is very strong when it comes to sexual interest, and sometimes just changing the way you think about something will work a [sexual] change, either consciously or subconsciously," said the Kinsey Institute's Bass.

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