What do ginseng, chocolate, oysters, coffee, alcohol, powdered rhinoceros tusk, a ground up Mediterranean beetle, and the bark of a certain West African tree have in common? They are just a few of the many items people have used through the ages to set off sexual fireworks. For almost as long, scientists have dismissed these traditional aphrodisiacs as sexually worthless—and sometimes dangerous.
But old beliefs die hard when they promise to add extra zing to lovemaking. The rhinoceros has been hunted almost to extinction in part because its powdered horn reputedly boosts virility. (It doesn’t.) And Spanish fly, a drug made by pulverizing the Mediterranean Cantharis beetle, is no libido-booster, but it can be poisonous.
Until the 1980s, scientists insisted that nothing ingested, inhaled, or injected could possibly have the effect promised in that old rock song, “Love Potion #9,” whose narrator recalls that after downing the herbal brew, he “started kissing everything in sight.” The sad fact is that there are many more ways to kill sexual interest than enhance it.
Nonetheless, belief in aphrodisiacs runs deep. It’s embedded in the very terms we use to describe sexual attraction. Why do people fall head over heels for each other? Chemistry.
Recent research shows that those love-sick chemists of yore were on to something. Science has still not identified anything that charms reluctant objects of desire into disrobing. But a surprising number of herbs, drugs, and foods have physiological effects that just might make reluctant paramours more receptive to erotic invitations.
Note: All the herbs discussed below are considered safe in recommended amounts, but idiosyncratic side effects are possible.
The caffeine in coffee is a powerful central nervous system stimulant,” says ethnobotanist Chris Kilham, author of Hot Plants: Nature’s Proven Sex Boosters for Men and Women. “It excites nerves all over the body, including the ones involved in sex.”
In one study, University of Michigan researchers surveyed 744 married couples, age 60 or older, and discovered that women who were daily coffee drinkers were more likely to call themselves sexually active—62 percent versus just 38 percent of the women who abstained from coffee.
Most coffee drinkers consume one to two cups a day, and become tolerant to their accustomed intake. To get an extra buzz they may feel aphrodisiac, you have to consume a bit more than usual—and risk insomnia, jitters, and irritability.
Chocolate contains caffeine but considerably less than coffee. However, chocolate stimulates release of endorphins, the body’s own mood-elevating compounds. Endorphin-related mood enhancement just might make people more receptive to sexual invitations.
Chocolate also contains phenylethylamine (PEA), a natural form of amphetamine with antidepressant action. Both love and lust boost blood levels of PEA, but after heartbreak, PEA levels plummet. Chocolate contains high levels of PEA. The broken-hearted sometimes binge on chocolate—perhaps to raise their PEA. “Chocolate is not a great sex enhancer,” Kilham explains, “But it recreates the brain chemistry of being in love. And if that makes you feel more sexual, then chocolate might be considered aphrodisiac.”
The ancient Mayans used this herb as a sex-booster, and early botanists dubbed it Damiana aphrodisiaca. With a name like that, you’d think scientists would have flocked to research it, but oddly, only one study has investigated damiana’s sexual effects. In 1999, Italian researchers showed that it “improves the copulatory performance of sexually sluggish or impotent rats … [which] seems to support damiana’s folk reputation as a sex stimulant.” But one lone animal study years ago isn’t much, and a pharmacological analysis of this plant concluded: “No substantive data are available to support its aphrodisiac effects.” Kilham agrees: “As far as I can tell, sexual claims for damiana are baseless.”
Ginkgo has no historical reputation as an aphrodisiac, but since the 1980s, many studies have shown that it improves blood flow through the brain, slowing the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. Ginkgo also boosts blood flow through the genitals.
At the University of California, San Francisco, researchers gave ginkgo (240 mg/day) to 63 men and women suffering sexual side effects from antidepressants: libido loss, erectile dysfunction, loss of vaginal lubrication, and orgasm difficulties. After two years, the herb ameliorated sexual side effects in 76 percent of the men, and 91 percent of the women.
Unfortunately this study had no placebo group. However, placebos usually benefit around one-third of those who use them. The response rate in this study was two to three times that, suggesting real benefit.
Ginseng subtly enhances physical vitality. It’s only a short step from this to sex enhancement. In addition, ginseng increases the body’s production of nitric oxide, a compound essential to blood flow into the genitals.
Korean researchers gave 45 men with erection problems either a placebo or ginseng (900 mg three times a day). After eight weeks, the ginseng group experienced significant erection improvement. Another Korean study came up with similar results.
“Ginseng provides an unquestionable boost for libido and men’s erections,” Kilham says. “But people often don’t take enough for long enough. You have to use what that Korean studies used, around 900 mg three times a day for a few months.”
When Spanish conquerors settled at high altitude in the Peruvian Andes, the fertility of their livestock declined. The Incas showed them a cure, this Andean ground cover. Eventually, maca’s folk reputation grew from fertility-enhancer to sex booster—which just might be true.
Chinese researchers treated male rats with either a placebo or the herb for 22 days, then placed each one with sexually receptive females. Subsequently, the females’ vaginas were examined for sperm. Compared with females mated with control rats, those mated with maca-treated animals were more than twice as likely to contain sperm, demonstrating greater sexual activity in the maca-treated animals. “Give maca to animals,” Kilman explains, “and they copulate like crazy.”
Maca might also be a sex-booster in humans. In the one trial to date, Peruvian researchers gave men a daily placebo or maca (1500 or 3000 mg). After eight weeks, the men who took the herb reported greater sexual desire. One human trial can’t be considered definitive. “But personally,” Kilham says, “I think it’s one of the best sex-enhancing plants on the planet. You have to use a lot of it to get an effect, 500 mg/day. Peruvian doctors routinely give it to men who complain of erection problems.”
Some people consider it sex-killing, but many won’t make love without it. See my previous posts on the subject.
This Amazonian shrub is known as “potency wood.” French researchers surveyed the sexuality of 202 healthy women complaining of low libido, then gave them a combination of muira puama and ginkgo. Two-thirds reported improved sexual function: greater libido, more frequent intercourse, increased likelihood of orgasm, more intense orgasms, and greater sexual satisfaction.
In India, this herb is an age-old treatment for sex problems. It contains protodioscine, a compound the body converts into the male sex hormone dehydroepiandosterone. Tribulus also boosts nitric oxide, which increases blood flow into the genitals. In two animal studies, the herb increased erection firmness and sexual frequency of male rats. But no persuasive human trials have been conducted to date, so the jury is still out.
For centuries, the bark of the West African yohimbe tree was reputed to restore faltering erections. Scientists laughed—until the 1980s, when several studies showed that a chemical in the bark, yohimbine, increases blood flow into the penis.Subsequent studies confirmed yohimbine’s benefits. Years before Viagra, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved yohimbine as a prescription treatment for erection problems under the brand names Yocon and Aphrodyne.
Yohimbine may also boost women’s sexual arousal. University of Texas researchers gave 25 women complaining of arousal difficulties either a placebo or a combination of yohimbine and the amino acid L-arginine, which the body converts into nitric oxide. The women then viewed erotic videos. Compared with those taking the placebo, the women who took the herb-amino acid preparation reported greater sexual arousal.
NOTE: Yohimbine drugs are available by prescription only, however, many yohimbine preparations are available over the counter (OTC). Unfortunately, according to an analysis by FDA chemists, many OTC products contain only trace amounts of yohimbine, nowhere near enough to have sexual effects. If you’re interested in using yohimbine for a boost in bed, ask your doctor for a prescription.