15 Aphrodisiacs for Better Sex
There’s good science behind the buzz/old-wives-tales about aphrodisiac foods like chocolate and oysters, and there are actually many foods and supplements that support sex drive and increased libido, says London nutritionist Dr. Adam Cunliffe. Cunliffe, who’s spent most of his career in the research space (though he does see a few lucky clients), says there’s data behind the old-school classics as well as some supplements, teas, and herbs to help us get our freak on. One surprise that shouldn’t have been so surprising: Adaptogens like ashwagandha—and really anything that reduces stress—often also have results between the sheets. Below, he updates us on the science and culture of aphrodisiacs and gives us a list of what he thinks are the most powerful ones—to cook and to take for Valentine’s Day and beyond.
A Q&A with Adam Cunliffe, Ph.D., RNutr
What can people who eat aphrodisiacs expect in terms of results? Is it more about drive, or stamina?
Like most natural remedies, the impact of natural aphrodisiacs tend to be subtler than pharmaceutical drugs like Viagra, but real nevertheless. Most supplements are based on active ingredients in potent foods (usually plants) that have been extracted and concentrated for more potent effects. Some of these, such as such as Mucuna pruriens, work more on the brain, increasing desire, whereas others, such as French maritime pine bark extract, work directly to improve blood flow and performance (for men in particular).
While there are long-range solutions (improved diet and exercise chief among them) that can improve sexual performance over time, one way to distinguish an aphrodisiac is as something you feel in the short-term—you should be able to experience the results the same day you take the remedy.
How important is presentation? Are there cooking methods that strengthen or weaken their effects?
Most healthy foods, including those with aphrodisiac qualities, are most effective when fresh and lightly cooked (i.e. raw oysters). We eat first with our eyes, so of course, beautifully presented food will create a certain impression that can lead to an improved sexual experience. By the same token, foods like avocados and fresh figs clearly have a sensuous texture and appearance. Such factors are probably mainly psychologically important, but the brain is the most important sex organ—so they shouldn’t’ be dismissed.
Are aphrodisiacs more powerful when they’re also a gift, like chocolate?
Gift-giving can be a useful romantic prelude because receiving a gift releases oxytocin, a “feel-good” chemical that promotes bonding and connection, in the brain of the recipient. That’s the reason your bill at a restaurant often comes with a mint or a chocolate—it mitigates the effect of a steep total. That oxytocin release occurs regardless of the gift itself—so jewelery would have the same effect as a chocolate—but the combination of an aphrodisiac given as a gift, given the right circumstance, can be genuinely seductive.
What’s the role of culture in the effects of aphrodisiacs? Are they different for different communities?
Every people and culture has its own idea of which foods may increase romantic feelings or be associated with fertility. Some of these don’t have any real scientific evidence to support them—for example, the long-standing belief that powdered rhinoceros horn is a sexual stimulant (which led to damaging and widespread poaching of the animals) has never been substantiated. That said, even aphrodisiacs with no scientific support can have a powerful placebo effect, particularly if they’re working to increase someone’s confidence.
The earliest examples of evidence-based aphrodisiacs find their origins in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine. Through a combination of traditional wisdom and modern science, many of the most effective natural aphrodisiacs, including the ones below, are much more thoroughly understood, and many are now available in concentrated nutraceutical supplements.
Indian ginseng (Ashwagandha): Ashwangandha (sometimes called Indian ginseng) has been clinically shown to improve the quantity and health of sperm, but it’s also powerful for reducing stress, which can be at the root of all kinds of fertility and conception problems. Ashwagandha is potent, so I recommend taking it as-needed, particularly because it’s slightly relaxing, and can begin to lose its efficacy if you take it all the time. Another note: Ashwagandha should not be taken during any phase of pregnancy, as its safety for pregnant women has not been established.
Chinese Mushrooms: In traditional Chinese medicine, mushrooms have a long history as therapeutics and tonics. Amongst the best studied is cordyceps sinensis, which can increase testosterone levels in both young and elderly men. It has also been shown to reduce fatigue and improve blood flow, making it a useful all-around energy and fertility booster. It may also directly stimulate sex centers in both the male and female brain. These aren’t really food mushrooms, so they’re, best taken as a daily supplement.
Mucuna Pruriens: Mucuna pruriens (also called velvet bean, or cow-itch, because touching the bean as it’s growing in its natural form can trigger a dermatitis reaction) is a legume of African and Asian origin. It contains L-dopa, which is converted to dopamine, the reward chemical in the brain—it’s the same system that ecstasy would work on, and while it’s certainly more mild, it has the effect of boosting that system. Many people find that Mucuna pruriens puts them in ‘the mood for love,’ but it’s also an energy-booster and anti-depressant. Try taking with a passiflora (passion flower) tea, which boosts and enhances the effect. The Mucuna pruriens bean itself is not really edible, so you’ll take it ground up in some kind of capsule.
Maca: Cultivated in South America for over 3,000 years, Maca improves sexual function in both men and women, and promotes healthy ovulation in women. It typically comes in a powder, ground up and dried from the root. Scientists studying maca found that while it was increasing sexual drive and performance, there was no effect on sex hormones—when they started looking in more detail, they realized it was impacting the psychology of sex, including patients ability to create effective sexual fantasies. By most accounts, maca powder tastes relatively bitter and bad, so it’s best mixed into smoothies or other foods. It’s safe enough to take every day—you’ll find a portion of it in Moon Juice’s Sex Dust.
Ginseng (Korean Ginseng): Ginseng, another traditional Chinese medicinal herb, is good for general vitality and energy. Some studies have shown it to be effective in both men and women for increasing desire and performance, as well as improving reproductive capacity. You can reasonably take it every day—it’s an adaptogen, so if you get out of whack in any direction, it will gently bring you back to center. Traditionally chewed, I think it’s nicest prepared as a tea. A warning, though: Ginseng can aggravate high blood pressure, so anyone with hypertension should steer clear.
Ashwagandha goop, $36
Cordyceps goop, $50
Mucuna Pruriens goop, $36
Sex Dust goop, $30
Horny Goat Weed: Horny goat weed is considered to be an old faithful amongst herbal aphrodisiacs; it was reputedly given its name by Chinese goat herders who noticed their flocks’ sexual behaviour increased when grazing in fields of it. Horny Goat Weed contains a compound called Icariin, which has been shown to have Viagra-like activity and can promote stronger longer lasting erections. Icariin is a PDE inhibitor, so in men, it keeps the blood flowing more effectively in the right place by opening up the blood vessels (just be careful to stop taking it before a surgery, as it keeps blood flow thin). Horny goat weed is found in most mixed herbal aphrodisiacs; often, you’ll find it in a capsule mixed with other potent herbs, like maca (as it is in Moon Juice’s Sex Dust).
Histidine: The opposite of the groggy, tired effect of taking an antihistamine, the amino acid histidine has generally stimulating effects, making you more aware and sensitive (it’s actually good for people who are looking to lose weight). Histidine is an essential amino acid for children, but as adults we can synthesize it in our bodies, so it becomes non-essential. Taken as a supplement, it has been shown to reliably enhance orgasm, and has been reported to facilitate orgasms in women who’ve never had one before, since it stimulates the vulva reflex. People with allergies, eczma, asthma or food intolerances should be careful, as histidine can aggravate those conditions.
Pycnogenol: This supplement is extracted from the bark of French maritime pine trees, and it’s both an effective natural aphrodisiac and a fertility enhancer men and women. Pycnogenol is clinically proven to treat erectile dysfunction and enhance sperm motility (aka their ability to swim fast and strong enough to reach the egg), and has strong aphrodisiac qualities in women.It’s especially effective when combined with arginine, an amino acid that’s primarily used for heart health—products like Prelox and Lady Prelox (which you can pick up at Walgreens) come with a pre-made mix that can be taken daily for increased sexual activity, and there’s a lot of clinical evidence proving that they work.
Avocado: The shape and texture of avocados are undeniably sexy, but they’re also packed with vitamin E, which is associated with fertility for both sexes.
Basil: We don’t actually know what specifically in basil makes it such a potent aphrodisiac, but many suspect that it’s the fresh, sensual fragrance.
Almonds: Thoughts of a sexual nature are driven by your hormones, and hormone synthesis is closely connected to good nutrition. The high omega-3 content in almonds, or any nuts, really, help support that process.
Chocolate: As mentioned above, any gift will cause a release of oxytocin in the recipient, which leads to feelings of attraction and bonding. But chocolate also has a chemical composition with feel-good compounds. Theobromine, a central nervous system stimulant, is similar to caffeine but is said to have mood-boosting capabilities as well. Chocolate also contains phenethylamine, which, along with theobromine, can trigger endorphin and dopamine release.
Sultan’s Paste (Mesir Mecunu): Once a Turkish secret (though it’s now more widely available), Sultan’s Paste is made up of over 40 herbs and spices including fenugreek, saffron and ginger. Its’ ingredients really can improve blood flow and increase energy and desire; while it’s hard to pin down exactly which are the most active ingredients, fenugreek in particular has measurable aphrodisiac qualities for men and women. Sultan’s Paste has a molasses-like consistency, and it comes in a jar. You can eat it straight off the spoon (it has a sweet, spicy, exotic taste), spread it on toast, or mix it with water to for a tonic. It’s great for a pick-me-up.
Pomegranate: Cut or bite into a pomegranate and it’s obviously sexy! Reputed since antiquity as a ‘food of love’, pomegranate is delicious, high in antioxidants and has recently been shown to increase testosterone and sex drive in both men and women. Eat it fresh with the seeds, or drink it as a juice.
Oysters: Though many dismiss them as a wives tale, the high concentration of zinc in oysters is actually associated with fertility and sperm production, particularly in men.They also contain essential amino acids that promote good sexual function.
Having completed a Masters degree and Ph.D. in Human Nutrition, Dr. Adam Cunliffe spent two years working with critical care patients in the intensive therapy unit at the Royal London Hosptal. He then established a career as a researcher and educator, teaching at several major London Universities. He is the founder of Cavendish Health Services, a successful nutrition and health screening and advisory service at the University of Westminster.
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