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The Aphrodisiac: Foods and Libido

The influence of food on sexual behavior.

Even before Madame Pompadour ate truffles, vanilla, and celery to heighten her desire for Louis XIV, food and sexual delight went hand in hand. Nearly every food from artichoke to passion fruit has been considered an aphrodisiac. The ancient Romans were said to prefer such exotic aphrodisiacs as hippo snouts and hyena eyeballs, and traditional Chinese medicine espoused the use of such rare delicacies as rhino horn. Foods serve a psychological purpose as well as a biological one--and for centuries.

Named after Aphrodite--the Greek goddess of sexual love and beauty--an aphrodisiac is a food, drink, drug, scent, or device that supposedly has powers to increase sexual desire, or libido. Foods that are exotic or suggestive of certain body parts are especially desirable as aphrodisiacs. The avocado tree, for example, was called a "testicle tree" by the Aztecs because its fruit hangs in pairs. And its aphrodisiac value is based on this resemblance. The phallus-shaped carrot has been associated with sexual stimulation since ancient times and was used by early Middle Eastern royalty to aid seduction. The fig it another fruit that claims to be an aphrodisiac, based on its appearance.

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If you consider the food-brain connection, there may be a lot to this aphrodisiac business. After all, the brain is your biggest sex organ, and if you are preoccupied mentally with other issues, it can affect your ability to enjoy sex and achieve an orgasm. In reality, your mind is doing most of the work. On the flip side we know that food substances can also hinder sexual drive, consider alcohol and sugar abuse. Bottom line: Like so many aspects of brain health, your sex drive is affected by what you put in your body.

The use of food as an aphrodisiac may be more truth than myth. Take oysters, for example. Oysters were first called aphrodisiacs by the ancient Romans who wrote about the immoral behavior of women who ate them. For one thing, oysters are high in zinc, which are supposed to increase sperm count. For another, they're high in omega-3 fatty acids, which improves  nervous system function. The banana is another. Considered an aphrodisiac due to its shape, bananas are rich in potassium and B vitamins, which are said to be necessary for sex-hormone production.

There's more: A healthy diet promotes weight loss and thus holds libido-boosting potential. Obesity is a known risk factor for erectile dysfunction and low testosterone, so peeling off pounds can help pump out more testosterone, and thus enhance sexual function. Slimming down simply makes anyone, man or woman, feel better about themselves and sexually more desirable.

Myth or truth? Maybe foods really do deliver. If so, here are some foods that may kick-start your love life:

Grab Granola

Leonardo Da Vinci, through his dissection of the penises of cadavers, was the first scientist to realize that during an erection the penis fills with blood. Today, it's well known that better circulation to the extremities results in greater erectile response, as well as increased sexual response in women. One nutrient that helps is the amino acid arginine. Though you can get it in supplements, arginine is also plentiful in granola, oatmeal, peanuts, cashews, walnuts, dairy, green vegetables, root vegetables, garlic, ginseng, soybeans, chickpeas and seeds.

Good Fats Are Good for Sex

Another way to increase blood flow is through your choice of dietary fats. For an erection, anything that's good for your heart is good for your penis. Too much saturated fat can, over time, clog arteries and, in doing so, prevent adequate blood flow to the genital region. This not only interferes with function but also  sexual pleasure. Too little fat, on the other hand, is also bad. Your body requires fat to produce your hormones, including sex hormones like testosterone and estrogen. Both are needed for a healthy sex drive. To make sure you get enough fat, choose healthy fats in moderate amounts (no more than a few teaspoons a day). Some examples include olive oil, canola oil, walnut oil, nuts, and seeds.

For a Good Time, Try Soy

Soy, cultivated for more than 3000 years, is both a drug and a food. It contains isoflavones, which help the vaginal area remain lubricated. However, it's important to note that women who have a history of breast cancer should not eat large amounts of soy, because its estrogen-like characteristics may actually increase the risk of reoccurrence. As for men, studies show that soy is also beneficial to the prostate, a crucial male sex organ. Among the most popular soy foods: soymilk, soy cheese (tofu), soy meat (made from textured soy in granule form). Most of these products are soy flour derivatives, while tofu is obtained by curdling soymilk.

Pile on Papaya

Like soy, papaya is estrogenic, meaning it has compounds that act as the female hormone estrogen. It has been used as a folk remedy in promoting menstruation and milk production, facilitating childbirth, and increasing the female libido.

Pining for Nuts

People have been using pine nuts to stimulate the libido since Medieval times. Like oysters, they are high in zinc. Pine nuts have been used for centuries to make up love potions. The medical scholar Galen recommended eating one hundred pine nuts before going to bed.

Brain Power Cookbook (Plume Pub. 2009) by Drs. Frank Lawlis and Maggie Robinson.

G. Frank Lawlis, PhD, is principal content and oversight adviser of the Dr. Phil Show.

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