The science behind aphrodisiacs

By Ginger Manley | Posted: Wednesday March 12, 2014

February 2014

Dear Ginger

Are there any foods or drinks that are really aphrodisiacs? My girlfriend assures me that if I eat enough chocolate or drink enough red wine I will be in the mood, but I'm afraid I will just get fat or become addicted. Please do not use my name.


Dear Anonymous

I am wondering how the conversation between you and your girlfriend is going to go when she reads this?

                She: Hey, did you send this question to Ginger?

                You: Who me? Why would you even think such a thing?

                She: Because it's exactly what we have talked about.

                You: I'll bet lots of folks wonder about this.

 You can tell her, truthfully, that lots of folks do wonder and there is actually some recent scientific data to answer this question that is as old as time.

The interesting thing about aphrodisiacs--and its polar opposite, anaphrodisiacs (things that decrease sexual interest or experiences)--is that every culture in every age has had stories, myths, and beliefs about what might help enhance or curb sexual activities, and in the case of modern people, no amount of scientific evidence seems to sway centuries-held notions. Technically speaking, an aphrodisiac is any substance--like a food or drink--that aids in the arousal of a person who uses it. Nowadays, however, the use of the term is often broadened to include not only things we swallow, like foods, drinks pills, and potions, but also things we smell, like perfume or incense, and things we touch and hear or see, like feathers and lotions and music and pornography. In other words, anything that has a positive impact on the sexual senses can be called an aphrodisiac.

While Asia, especially China and India, have long traditions of use of herbal and animal substances to aid male sexual prowess--think tiger penis soup and rhino horn on the oyster half shell (Asian Aphrodisiacs: From Bangkok to Beijing-the Search for the Ultimate Turn-on, by Jerry Hopkins, Tuttle Publishing, 2006), western society also has its obsessions and devotees both to sexual stimulants and to the control of sexual expression. The story of creation in the Bible shows Adam and Eve taken in by a fruit, probably a fig, which became the basis of more than one religious practice controlling eroticism. The apple did not become part of the story for many decades, according to Stewart Lee Allen whose mammoth tome, In the devil's garden: a sinful history of forbidden food (Random House Digital, 2007) details centuries of forbidden foods--organized as The Seven Deadly Sins--through every culture in the world. Who knew there were so many ways to get in trouble through our quest for nutrition--or the obsessive avoidance thereof?

Most traditional aphrodisiacs have targeted male sexual function, primarily erection, with varying degrees of success. This changed in 1998 with the introduction of sildenafil (Viagra™), which quickly became available worldwide and has been a very effective treatment for ED. Because rare and endangered creatures were being illegally killed to obtain their sexual or other organs, many hoped the availability of Viagra™ in the Asian market would decrease poaching. Alas, rhinoceros horn and tiger penis are still eagerly sought, probably because they are less expensive and have fewer side effects than the prescription. Current research on traditional aphrodisiacs is inconclusive about beneficial properties of any commonly used remedies, especially for those used by women. One recent study (Malviya N et al, 2011. Acta Poloniae Pharmaceutica-Drug Research, Vol. 68 No1, pp 3-8) does indicate that nutmeg enhances male erections in laboratory rats.

In about 2003 the famously thin and beautiful Angelina Jolie claimed that her fabulous shape could be attributed less to pumping iron and more to engaging in passionate sex. What could follow for Jolie-wannabees but The Ultimate Sex Diet: The Super Sex Diet that Works (Kerry McCloskey, 2004). In an obvious rebuff of ram’s testicle mixed with honey, goat eyes, and deer sperm, all of which McCloskey says will send a person running more for the bathroom than the bedroom, the author recommends asparagus, artichoke, arugula, bean sprouts ("they look like sperm"), carrots, cucumbers and tomatoes--the latter which he says was actually what Eve picked in the garden. If you're not interested in getting buff but just want a good time and great food, there's Simple Sexy Food (Linda De Villers, 2012), "an aphrodisiac cookbook like no other" according to the author, who is a certified sex therapist. Even such formerly staid publications as Good Housekeeping (February, 2013) have jumped in with full-page photos and recipes for "six famous in-the-mood foods," including honey, red wine, asparagus, oysters, pomegranate juice, and chili peppers.

But what about chocolate and wine, your girlfriend is saying about now? Chocolate, or more correctly cocoa or cacao, is the western world's primary gift to the topic of aphrodisiacs. From Central America where it is grown and was first used some 3000 years ago until the present day, chocolate is perhaps the best-known and most widely used aphrodisiac, given and received for its effect on all the senses, and today widely prescribed for its benefit not just on the love-making heart but also on the physiological heart. In Mexico hot chocolate is further amped with both cinnamon and cayenne pepper--and is often topped with whipped cream--an aphrodisiac just waiting in a cup!

Vanderbilt cardiologist, Julie Damp, M.D., tells us that dark chocolate contains flavonoids, a kind of antioxidant, which "has been shown to be associated with lower blood pressure, lower blood sugar levels, and improvement in the way your blood vessels dilate and relax."

In addition, Dr. Damp endorses the medical value of red wines, which also contain flavonoids. She cautions that more needs to be known about exact mechanisms and about the effect of overindulgence on weight gain, but she recommends giving your loved one a box of dark chocolates and a bottle of red wine as a gesture of love and as a measure of health promotion.

So here's my recommendation: Buy your girlfriend a great bottle of red wine and a small box of good quality dark chocolates (maybe also adding a few chocolate covered cherries with ooey, gooey centers that spill deliciously into your mouths), then prepare for her a three course dinner of arugula and bean sprout salad with hearts of artichokes, cucumbers, carrots, tomatoes, and pomegranate seeds, lightly covered with a honey Dijon and fig dressing; oysters on the half shell with roasted asparagus;  Mom's apple pie, with just a smidge of nutmeg and lots of fresh whipped cream on top, served with Mexican hot chocolate. But leave off the tiger penis soup!

Happy Homework!



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