The Strange Science Behind Why (Some) Aphrodisiacs Actually Work

Dr. Tzvi Doron
February 13, 2018

The Strange Science Behind Why (Some) Aphrodisiacs Actually Work

1000 500 Romanhood

Aphrodisiacs have been around forever. Medical texts from ancient India, China, and Egypt each proclaim the sexual benefits of dozens of strange practices and products. They recommend everything from fresh unfiltered honey to alligator testicles to get your mojo rising. And while the list of aphrodisiacs varies across cultures, the drive to attain peak sexual performance remains the same.

Everyone wants the secret “cheat code” to great sex. And they’re willing to do anything to find it.

Table of Contents

What Is an Aphrodisiac?

An aphrodisiac is any, “Food, drink, or drug that arouses sexual desire.” Honestly, it’s a broad definition that allows some wiggle room, but generally aphrodisiacs are thought of as sex enhancing foods (oysters) and potent tonics or potions (love potion number 9). The only problem is, how do you measure increased arousal? What are the criteria for “successful” aphrodisiacs?

Unfortunately, the majority of aphrodisiac claims are…exaggerated to say the least. However, there are some interesting medical findings for a handful of sexy enhancers. It seem that some aphrodisiacs are more than just snake oil (is that one?).

Here’s a medical deep dive into the outlandish claims, potential benefits, and flat out myths that surround the world’s most popular (and bizarre) aphrodisiacs.

The Origin of Aphrodisiacs

In case you’ve forgotten your classical Greek, the word “aphrodisiac” comes from Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of sexual love and beauty. Her name derives from “aphros”—the Greek word for foam, and relates to her oddly graphic origin story.

aphrodisiacs

According to Greek myth, Aphrodite was “born from the foam” created when Cronus (Zeus’ dad) cut off Uranus’ genitals (Zeus’ grandpa) and threw the genitals into the sea. That’s how potent Uranus was. Not quite the romantic origin story you were expecting, eh?

Next time someone claims you’re not a “real romantic,” remind them that Aphrodite was created by throwing a severed penis into the ocean.

Strangely enough, this violent beginning to Aphrodite is actually perfectly in line with some of the completely insane aphrodisiacs that have popped up over the centuries.

Bizarre Historical Aphrodisiacs

Aphrodisiacs have come in all shapes and sizes through the ages.

In the 8th century BC, Samhita of Sushruta claimed that:

“Clarified butter should be boiled with eggs or testes of alligators, mice, frogs and sparrows,” and that if men “lubricate the soles of [his] feet with this mixture, he’s be able to visit a woman with undiminished vigor as long as he would not touch the ground with his feet.”

Talk about a high stakes game of “the ground is lava.”

The Huang-Ti Nei-Ching, a traditional Chinese medical text from 2600 BC, lists an aphrodisiac potion with 22 ingredients that the emperor drank before “he mounted 1200 women and achieved immortality.” If only we knew the recipe.

More Bizarre Historical Aphrodisiacs

aphrodisiacs

  • Ancient Egyptians smeared a crocodile heart mixture on the penis
  • Greek philosopher, Pliny claimed that mandrake root increased potency because it looks like female genitals
  • The ancient Chinese ate the sexual organs of animals
  • Romans sometimes consumed the semen of young men thinking to transfer “youthful virility”
  • Seafood and shellfish *cough* oysters *cough* have been revered as aphrodisiacs for centuries, in part because of their connection to “seafoam born” Aphrodite
  • Casu marzu, aka rotting cheese riddled with maggots is an aphrodisiac in Sardinia
  • Durian—one of the smelliest fruits in the world—tops the aphrodisiac list in Southeast Asia
  • Poachers sell ground up rhino horns to men in Africa (and beyond) to increase potency despite all evidence to the contrary

But what does medical science have to say about all these claims? Are there any real benefits to these outlandish aphrodisiacs? The surprising answer is—maybe. Here’s a look at four examples of the (potential) scientific benefits of aphrodisiacs.

Oysters: Zinc Surprisingly Sexy

aphrodisiacs

When you say “aphrodisiac,” most people picture oysters. Casanova himself reportedly ate 50 raw oysters for breakfast to maintain his virility and stamina, so it must be true, right? Actually, the science is surprisingly positive when it comes to these burlesque bivalves—particularly in regards to nutrition and sexual health.

Zinc is essential for sperm development

Oysters are rich in zinc, which is essential for sexual maturation and sperm development. Raw oysters also contain two amino acids—D-Aspartic Acid and N-methyl D-Aspartic Acid (NMDA)—that have been shown to increase levels of sex hormones. In rats.

What about humans? There haven’t been any studies that directly tested sexual response or satisfaction in humans from eating oysters, but some of the science of what’s in them is surprisingly promising.

Chocolate: Mostly Just Delicious

Aphrodisiacs

Chocolate has always held a special place in our hearts as an aphrodisiac and an overall mood enhancer. Valentine’s Day hinges on chocolate hearts for a reason. And while there’s no shortage of research showing the cardiovascular health benefits of cocoa (sorry, dark chocolate only), there isn’t much evidence for chocolate as an aphrodisiac.

One study of Northern Italian women compared the Female Sexual Function Index (FSFI) of daily chocolate eaters to women who didn’t eat chocolate everyday.  Sounds good so far, right? Not so much. Researchers didn’t find any significant difference between the sexual function of the 153 women.

While I definitely think eating a little dark chocolate can be good for you, there doesn’t seem to be any scientific evidence that chocolate has any aphrodisiac properties.

Chili Peppers: Heating Up the Bedroom

aphrodisiacs

Chili peppers are thought to “awaken” sexual desire and potency. And there may actually be something to that sensational rush. Capsaicin, the active ingredient in peppers that’s responsible for the feeling of heat also triggers facial flushing, rapid heart rate, and sweating—all things that we associate with sexual arousal.

Chili peppers (capsaicin) made rats ejaculate more often, but also “prematurely”

One study showed that capsaicin improved sexual behavior in male rats, (sex scientists study a lot of rats). Specifically, the study showed that capsaicin reduced refractory  period times—the period of time after ejaculation and before the next sexual encounter—which is a good thing. However, one potential side effect of the study was that capsaicin decreased their ejaculatory threshold—aka they came faster.

Again, there’s never been any research showing that chili peppers improve human “mojo,” but if you’re a rat, the outcome looks interesting.

Medically Approved Aphrodisiacs: Ginseng

aphrodisiacs

Despite the outrageous and often bogus claims of many aphrodisiacs, some herbs and supplements may seriously improve various aspects of sexual function. Red ginseng shows promising benefits for erectile dysfunction (as measured by subjective questionnaires), and Maca (a turnip-sized root from Peru) can boost sexual desire in both men and women.

While red ginseng and maca show promise, the sample sizes and methodology on studies for both of these supplements aren’t large enough or rigorous enough to draw hard conclusions yet. I wouldn’t hang my hat on either of these being the next “sex superfood.”

Aphrodisiacs: Above and Beyond Placebo

Despite the murky science and the fantastic claims there’s an interesting thing about aphrodisiacs. Sometimes they work. It’s easy to chalk it up to the placebo effect—which can work even when you know you’re taking a placebo. But, I think there may be more to it than that.

When we associate certain actions with sex—like eating chocolate—the behavior becomes something more. This association with foreplay, intimacy, or sex transforms an everyday item into something like a personalized drug. For you, the taste or smell of the chocolate (or other food or drink) becomes inextricably linked with sex. And for all intents and purposes, that’s how your body perceives it. Anything can be an aphrodisiac, if you treat it like one. That’s classical conditioning at its finest.

Aphrodisiacs work—if you want them to

Sexual performance and arousal—while triggered by complex chemical and biological processes—is so much more than the sum of its parts. Anything can be an aphrodisiac if you use to seduce a partner or create arousal. Just believing that a food has hidden sexual benefits can be enough to actually work. Which may help explain the persistence of such strange aphrodisiacs, and deliberately mystic, arduous procedures. In ancient times, when you visited a temple of virility, they put you through the wringer, but you came out convinced of your potency—and that faith worked.

Aphrodisiacs: Fact and Fiction

Forget the science. If you and your partner think a specific food or drink as an aphrodisiac, by all means use it as such (as long as it’s safe). It may just work as advertised despite what “they” say.

This information isn’t intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. It should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to your doctor.

Dr. Tzvi Doron is board certified family doctor and the Clinical Director of Roman. He’s a member of the American Osteopathic Association (AOA) and the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP).

Dr. Tzvi Doron

Dr. Tzvi Doron is board certified family doctor and the Clinical Director of Roman. He’s a member of the American Osteopathic Association (AOA) and the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP).

All stories by:Dr. Tzvi Doron
1 comment

Leave a Reply

Dr. Tzvi Doron

Dr. Tzvi Doron is board certified family doctor and the Clinical Director of Roman. He’s a member of the American Osteopathic Association (AOA) and the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP).

All stories by:Dr. Tzvi Doron