An aphrodisiac is a substance that increases sexual desire, sexual pleasure, or sexual behavior. Substances range from a variety of plants, spices, foods, and synthetic chemicals. Therefore, they can be classified by their chemical properties (i.e., substances that are natural and unnatural). Natural aphrodisiacs like alcohol are further classified into plant-based and non-plant-based substances. Unnatural aphrodisiacs like Ecstasy are classified as those that are manufactured to imitate a natural substance. Aphrodisiacs can also be classified by their type of effects (i.e., psychological or physiological). Aphrodisiacs that contain hallucinogenic properties like Bufo toad have psychological effects on a person that can increase sexual desire and sexual pleasure. Aphrodisiacs that contain smooth muscle relaxing properties like yohimbine have physiological effects on a person that can affect hormone levels and increase blood flow.
It is important to note that substances which only affect a person's behavior are susceptible to the placebo effect. Placebo effects are defined as strong beliefs that manifest themselves and therefore are misconstrued to confirm a false positive. It is commonplace to see the placebo effect in the debate on why aphrodisiacs work; those that argue for the placebo effect say that individuals want to believe in the effectiveness of the substance. Other substances that impede on areas that aphrodisiacs aim to enhance are classified as anaphrodisiacs.
Both males and females can benefit from the use of aphrodisiacs, but they are more focused on males as their properties tend to increase testosterone levels rather than estrogen levels. This is in part due to the historical context of aphrodisiacs, which focused solely on males. Only recent attention has been paid to understanding how aphrodisiacs can aide female sexual function. In addition, cultural influence in appropriate sexual behavior from male and females also play a part in the research gap.
The name comes from the Greek ἀφροδισιακόν, aphrodisiakon, i.e. "sexual, aphrodisiac", from aphrodisios, i.e. "pertaining to Aphrodite", the Greek goddess of love. Throughout human history, food, drinks, and behaviors have had a reputation for making sex more attainable and/or pleasurable. However, from a historical and scientific standpoint, the alleged results may have been mainly due to mere belief by their users that they would be effective (placebo effect). Likewise, many medicines are reported to affect libido in inconsistent or idiopathic ways: enhancing or diminishing overall sexual desire depending on the situation of the subject. For example, Bupropion (Wellbutrin) is known as an antidepressant that can counteract other co-prescribed antidepressants having libido-diminishing effects. However, because Wellbutrin only increases the libido in the special case that it is already impaired by related medications, it is not generally classed as an aphrodisiac.
Ancient civilizations like Chinese, Indian, Egyptian, Roman, and Greek cultures believed that certain substances could provide the key to improving sexual desire, sexual pleasure, and/or sexual behavior. This was important because some men suffered from erectile dysfunction and could not reproduce. Men who were unable to have large families or who were unable to impregnate their wives were seen as a failure, whereas men who were able to conceive and therefore have large families were respected causing a great need for a solution. Others who did not suffer from this desired performance enhancers. Regardless of their usage, these substances gained popularity and began to be documented with information being passed down generations. Hindu cultures wrote poems dated back around 2000 to 1000 BC that spoke of performance enhancers, ingredients, and usage tips. Chinese cultures wrote text dated back to 2697 to 2595 BC. Roman and Chinese cultures documented their belief in aphrodisiac qualities in animal genitalia while Egyptian wrote tips for treating erectile dysfunction.
Ambrien, Bufo toad, yohimbine, horny goat weed, ginseng, alcohol, and food are recorded throughout these texts as containing aphrodisiac qualities. While numerous plants, extracts or manufactured hormones have been proposed as aphrodisiacs, there is little high-quality clinical evidence for the efficacy or long-term safety of using them.
Ambrien is found in the gut of sperm whales. It is commonly used in Arab cultures as relief medication for headaches or as a performance enhancer. The chemical structure of Ambrien has shown to increase testosterone levels triggering sexual desire and sexual behavior in animal studies only. Further research is needed to know the effects on humans.
Bufo toad is found in the skin and glands of Bufo toads. It is commonly used in West Indian and Chinese cultures. West Indian cultures use it as an aphrodisiac called ‘Love Stone’. Chinese cultures use Bufo toad as heart medication called Chan su. Research shows that it can have a negative effect on heart rate.
The substance is found in bark from yohim trees in West Africa and, therefore, plant-based. It was traditionally used in West African cultures where they boiled the bark and drank the water until its effects showed proven benefits in increasing sexual desire. It is now approved by the Food and Drug Administration and can be prescribed for sexual dysfunction in the United States and Canada. It is also found in over-the-counter health products. The chemical structure of yohimbine is an indole alkaloid that contains an adrenergic receptor blocker. This blocker effects the central nervous system, autonomic nervous system, and penile tissue and vascular smooth muscle cells that help men with physiological issues and treats psychogenic erectile dysfunction. Known side effects include nausea, anxiety, irregular heartbeats, and restlessness just to name a few.
Horny goat weed
Horny goat weed (epimedii herba) is found in a group of flowering plants used in Chinese folk medicine. Its intended use was to treat medical conditions and improve sexual desire, sexual pleasure, and/or sexual behavior. The chemical structure of horny goat weed consists of icariin, a flavanol glycoside. Icariin has been shown to improve hormone regulation amongst other benefits. Animal studies show a positive correlation to aphrodisiac qualities, but further research is needed to know the effects on humans.
Ginseng is found in Korea and is grouped in the Panaz family, known as Chinese ginseng. The chemical structure of ginseng consists of ginsenosides and saponin glycosides. There are three different ways to process ginseng. Fresh ginseng is cut at four years of growth, white ginseng is cut at four to six years of growth, and red ginseng is cut, dried and steamed at six years of growth. Red ginseng has been reported to improve sexual behavior more than the others. Known side effects are mild gastrointestinal upset.
Alcohol and marijuana
Alcohol has been associated as an aphrodisiac possibly due to its effect as a central nervous system depressant. This can increase sexual desire and sexual behavior through disinhibition. Since it affects people physiologically and psychologically, it is hard to know exactly what people are experiencing especially with different levels of consumption (i.e., aphrodisiac qualities or the expectancy effect). Alcohol taken in moderate quantities can elicit a positive increase in sexual desire whereas larger quantities are associated with difficulties reaching sexual pleasure. Chronic alcohol consumption is related to sexual dysfunction. Marijuana reports are mixed with half of users claiming an increase in sexual desire and sexual pleasure while the other half reports no effect. Marijuana strain, consumption, and individual sensitivity are known factors that affect results.
See the Cannabis and sex for more information.
Many cultures have turned to food as a source of increasing sexual desire; however, significant research is lacking in the study of aphrodisiac qualities in food . Most claims can be linked to the placebo effect aforementioned . Misconceptions revolve around the visual appearance of these foods in relation to male and female genitalia (i.e., carrots, bananas, oysters, and the like) . Other beliefs arise from the thought of consuming animal genitals and absorbing their properties (i.e., cow cod soup in Jamaica or Ballut in the Philippines) . The story of Aphrodite, who was born from the sea, is another reason why individuals believe seafood is another source of aphrodisiacs . Foods that contain volatile oils have gained little recognition in its ability to improve sexual desire, sexual pleasure, and/or sexual behavior because of its irritant when released through the urinary tract . Chocolate has been reported to increase sexual desire for women who consume chocolate over those who do not . Cloves and sage has been reported to demonstrate aphrodisiac qualities but its effects are not yet specified .
Ecstasy users have reported an increase in sexual desire and sexual pleasure; however, there has been reports in delays in orgasm in both sexes and erectile difficulties in men.
Poppers, an inhalant, have been linked to increased sexual pleasure. Known side effects are headaches, nausea, and temporary erectile difficulties.
See the Sex and drugs page for more information on this.
Libido in males is linked to levels of sex hormones, particularly testosterone. When a reduced sex drive occurs in individuals with relatively low levels of testosterone, particularly in postmenopausal women or men over age 60, dietary supplements that are purported to increase serum testosterone concentrations have been used with intent to increase libido, although with limited benefit. Long-term therapy with synthetic oral testosterone is associated with increased risk of cardiovascular diseases.
Amphetamine and methamphetamine are phenethylamine derivatives which are known to increase libido and cause frequent or prolonged erections as potential side effects, particularly at high supratherapeutic doses where sexual hyperexcitability and hypersexuality can occur; however, in some individuals who use these drugs, libido is reduced.
Solid evidence is hard to obtain as these substances come from many different environments cross-culturally and therefore affect results due to variations in its growth and extraction. The same is also true for unnatural substances as variations in consumption and individual sensitivity can affect results. Folk medicine and self-prescribed methods can be potentially harmful as side effects are not fully known and therefore are not made aware to the people searching this topic on the internet.
The invention of an aphrodisiac is the basis of a number of films including Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, Spanish Fly, She'll Follow You Anywhere, Love Potion No. 9 and A Serbian Film. The first segment of Woody Allen's Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) is called "Do Aphrodisiacs Work?", and casts Allen as a court jester trying to seduce the queen.
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ADVERSE REACTIONS ... changes in libido; frequent or prolonged erections. [emphasis added]
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