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The real deal about aphrodisiacs

We still haven’t found that magic sex elixir, and it might be time to stop looking.

by Martha Kempner, MA

The ancient Greeks, Romans, Chinese, and Indo-Africans all had a wide range of potions, roots, and weeds said to increase female desire and male performance. Sometimes called aphrodisiacs (after the Greek word for sexual pleasure and the goddess Aphrodite), these mythical substances were known not just for improving performance but for instantly overwhelming even the most hesitant partner. Making her (or him) want you—now.

Today, pharmacies, bodegas, and websites are full of products with strange names—from Horny Goat Weed to Libidifit—that make similar promises. While there are some things in the pharmacy or grocery store that might help get you or your partner in the mood, most of the products sold for this purpose do very little and some may even be harmful.

The truth is desire is rarely found in a bottle and good sex doesn’t come in pill form.

From love potions to magic pills

Perhaps the most famous aphrodisiac was called “Spanish Fly” and was said to work wonders on women. The real Spanish Fly was derived not from flies but from blister beetles, and it didn’t actually work on women. It increased blood flow to the penis, which could cause men to get harder. Sadly these erections came with unwelcome side effects like inflammation, itching, and burning of the penis and other areas, extreme abdominal pain, respiratory and heart problems, renal failure, bloody urine, convulsions, coma, and death. So it’s not surprising that the real Spanish Fly is rarely sold nowadays. Still, many companies are taking advantage of the infamous name to sell products they promise will live up to the ancient reputation. Buyer beware—it’s unclear what’s in these products or whether they’re safe.

More recently, the rise of nutritional supplements has turned marketing magic pills—for everything from sex to exercise—into a billion dollar industry. Substances such as ginko biloba, yohimbe, macca root, and omega-3s are all sold as ways to improve sexual performance, but the research on these supplements is spotty at best. Some of these substances have been shown to improve blood flow, and omega-3s in particular have been shown to have health benefits overall. Being in better health can make sex better. Just know that there’s no clear research showing that these supplements really work to improve sex for most people. And remember, all supplements can carry risks and side effects, so it’s best to check with your health care provider before adding supplements to your diet.

Aspirin and Coke

The myth that mixing aspirin and coke can put people in the mood goes back at least as far as the movie Grease. Lots of other common substances—both legal and illegal—have been thought of as aphrodisiacs at one point or another. Some that may sound familiar include amphetamines, cocaine, caffeine, and cannabis.

Similar substances used in Africa, Asia, and parts of Latin America have been made from the kola nut, betel nut, and guarana. Most of these work on the central nervous system, and as a result, some users do report increased sensations and more sexual pleasure when taking these drugs. We don’t know how much of this could just be the placebo effect. More importantly, we do know that some of these substances have side effects that can be dangerous.

By prescription only—Viagra

When we are talking about substances designed to increase sexual desire or pleasure, we can’t not mention Viagra. It burst on the scene in 1998 as a cure for erectile dysfunction (ED) and quickly became known as the little blue pill that could. The main ingredients in Viagra (Sildenafil), Levitra (vardenifil), and Cialis (tadafil) are part of a class of drugs known as phosphodiesterase (PDE5) inhibitors. PDE5 inhibitors block the PDE5 enzyme, helping the smooth muscles in the penis relax and increasing blood flow to the penis. They are the only substances proven to improve erections.

Note that this is a physical process, not a mental one—the pill increases blood flow to the penis, and the blood flow causes the penis to get hard. While that can make men with ED able to perform sexually, nothing in that process increases desire. Men who aren’t having any trouble getting erections really don’t need these drugs and shouldn’t take them because of the possible side effects. (Who hasn’t heard a horror story about an erection lasting more than four hours?)

New prescription available for women

There’s a new drug for women that is being called the female Viagra, or the little pink pill. In fact, it’s very different from PDE5 inhibitors. While Viagra is meant to improve performance, Addyi (flibaserin) is meant to increase libido. Originally developed as an antidepressant, flibaserin changes the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain. This is supposed to increase the desire for sex in women who are thought to be suffering from hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD). But it only works for some women, and they have to take it every day for long periods of time. In addition, the effects are modest and there are side effects such as dizziness, nausea, and fatigue which can actually affect your sex life in a bad way.

Sexy foods

Some magic elixirs that have been said to get people in the mood are more likely to come on a plate than in a bottle. Raw oysters have been billed as the ultimate aphrodisiac—even better when washed down with champagne. Bananas, honey, coffee, avocados, and watermelon all also make the sexy foods list. And, like with the supplements, there is some science to back this up. Each of these foods contains a chemical or nutrient that can increase blood flow, stimulate the central nervous system, or help with hormone production. Of course, there’s also red wine, which can relax inhibitions while increasing blood flow.

It might be time to stop looking

If the centuries-long search for aphrodisiacs shows us anything, it’s that we all seem to think we need help having great sex or getting partners to want us. But while there’s nothing wrong with opening a nice bottle of Merlot at the end of the date or suggesting watermelon for dessert, many of the other aphrodisiac options could have dangerous side effects.

Instead of relying on the latest drug to get us in the mood, we could focus on flirting, getting closer, and slowing things down to heat things up. Instead of downing a powder made from rare tree bark, try sitting down for a glass of wine or a cup of tea with your partner and asking what they really want. And, instead of buying a supplement that promises to improve your libido, invest in a new sex toy or a really good lube.

The truth is that nothing replaces putting some effort into your sex life and your relationship, both in and out of the bedroom. The good news is that the effort itself will probably be fun.

Martha Kempner, MA, is a writer, consultant, sexual health expert, and co-author of the book 50 Great Myths of Human Sexuality. She’s a sexual health writer for Rewire and teaches an undergraduate Sociology of Sexuality course at Montclair State University. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and received her master’s degree in human sexuality from New York University. She can’t remember what she likes to do in her spare time because she has two young children.

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