What Is an Aphrodisiac?
Medically reviewed by Anju Goel, MD, MPH
You may have heard of aphrodisiac in the form of oysters or chocolate. An aphrodisiac is any food or substance that increases sexual desire or improves sexual performance. The term comes from the Greek name for the goddess of love, Aphrodite.
The idea that foods and other substances could enhance sexual desire has been around for centuries, and is popular in many cultures around the world. However, in most cases, there isn’t much scientific data to back up the claims that certain foods or substances have significant effects on our sexual appetites or performances.
Types of Aphrodisiacs
Researchers have classified aphrodisiacs into three main categories, according to their sexual side effects. These categories are:
Substances that increase potency, such as intensity of erections
Substances that enhance sexual pleasure
Substances that boost sexual desire
Aphrodisiacs can also be grouped based on type of substance. Some of the most common types of aphrodisiacs include:
Foods that are thought to increase sexual desire, such as chocolate, oysters, and honey
Herbal supplements that are thought to have aphrodisiac effects, like Tribulus, maca, or ginseng
Prescribed medications, such as Viagra, which enhance sexual performance
Effects of Aphrodisiacs
Aphrodisiacs work by increasing sexual potency, such as enhancing erections, and by increasing your sex drive and your pleasure during sex. This is accomplished in a few different ways:
Increasing blood flow. Substances that increase potency do so by increasing vasodilation, meaning they increase blood flow to part of the body they target, such as the penis.
Promoting lubrication and sensitivity. Substances that enhance sexual pleasure do so by lubricating the genital area and increasing sensitivity in that area.
Influencing hormones. Substances that give your sex drive a boost do so by altering or increasing sex hormones, such as testosterone and estrogen. They also impact neurotransmitters that affect sexual desire, such as dopamine and serotonin.
Related:How to Use Lube for Better Sex
Do Aphrodisiacs Work?
There is very little data to back up the effectiveness of most aphrodisiacs. Some research shows evidence to support the use of certain foods, like apples and pistachios, for improving sexual health. Limited evidence suggests herbs like maca and ginseng may have a safe effect.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate herbs or herbal supplements, meaning they can't confirm the ingredients listed in an individual product are accurate, safe, or as effective as advertised.
There are a few medications approved by the FDA to enhance sexual experiences, such as Sildenafil (Viagra). However, many drugs advertised for sexual health are not FDA-approved, meaning they may include undisclosed ingredients or high doses of ingredients that could be harmful to your health.
It’s important to keep in mind that taking herbal supplements or other medications may interact with medications you are currently taking. Speak to your healthcare provider before trying a new supplement or medication.
Related:What To Know About 'Immune-Boosting' Supplements
Examples of Aphrodisiacs
There are many foods, herbs, medications, and recreational drugs that are considered aphrodisiacs. Some research supports the use of the most common ones.
Many foods are considered aphrodisiacs. Unfortunately, there is little research to back up these claims. Some of the foods considered to have aphrodisiac qualities include:
Among this list, apples have the most evidence for containing aphrodisiac qualities. One study found eating one apple per day enhanced overall sexual health in a sample of over 700 women between the ages of 18-43.
Pistachios also have some promising data behind them as an aphrodisiac. Research has found that pistachio consumption could improve erectile function in males with erectile dysfunction.
There are many herbs and spices that allegedly increase sexual desire, sexual pleasure, and sexual performance. Some of the most popular ones include:
Lepidium meyenii (Maca)
Myristica fragrans (Nutmeg)
Phoenix dactylifera (Date palm)
Crocus sativus (Saffron)
Eurycoma longifolia (Tongkat ali or pasak bumi)
Chlorophytum borivilianum (Safed musli)
Unfortunately, for most of these herbs, there is either no research on their effectiveness as an aphrodisiac, or the research is only based on animal studies, not studies in humans.
A review of evidence for the most popular marketed aphrodisiacs in the U.S. found the four herbs that had the most promising data behind them were Tribulus, maca, ginkgo, and ginseng.
In the same review, the researchers suggested people should avoid certain aphrodisiac herbs that had negative side effects. These included Spanish fly, mad honey, bufo, and yohimbine. Yohimbine may also increase the risk of heart attacks and seizures.
The FDA has approved a few medications that have aphrodisiac qualities. Some of these medications increase sexual potency and help treat erectile dysfunction, including:
Vardenafil (Levitra, Staxyn)
Additionally, the FDA has approved two medications for the use of improving sexual libido (sex drive) in premenopausal women. These are:
A Quick Review
An aphrodisiac is a substance that can increase sexual performance, desire, and pleasure. The use of aphrodisiacs has been around for a very long time across many cultures.
Examples of aphrodisiacs include foods like chocolate and oyster, herbs like Maca and ginseng, and medications like Viagra. However, most aphrodisiacs are not FDA-approved and do not have enough evidence to support their effectiveness.
If you are interested in taking an aphrodisiac to improve sexual function, it’s best to consult with a healthcare provider. They can confirm if the aphrodisiac is safe for you to consume or if it might interact with any medications you are taking. A healthcare provider can also help address any concerns you may have regarding your sexual health.
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