David J. Pankove

For thousands of years, certain herbs and foods known as aphrodisiacs have been speculated to contain sexually arousing properties. When these herbs or foods are ingested, it is believed that they cause sexually enhancing properties, such as increased libido, sex drive, and sexual performance for both men and women. The definition of an aphrodisiac takes two forms. The noun form is: “Arousing sexual desire,” and the adjective form is: “A food, drug, potion, or other agent that arouses sexual desire” (Dictionary.com). Essentially, the purpose of an aphrodisiac is to induce or increase the sexual desire of a person using an object, scent, or edible item.
The use of aphrodisiacs originated in ancient cultures of the Egyptians, Chinese, Greeks, Romans, and Arabs. Aphrodisiac use was also seen in the Aztec and Incan (pre-Columbian) cultures (Elferink, 2000). The aphrodisiacs used in these cultures were made from various plant and animal sources, and the extracts were also used for medicinal purposes (Sandroni, 2001). In Aztec and Incan cultures, childlessness was viewed as a sin and premarital sex was condoned, so sex was paramount in their culture. One of the major products they produced was a chocolate aphrodisiac beverage that contained cacao, and the beverage was viewed to have sexual properties. The beverage, and other aphrodisiacs, such as beetles and hallucinogenic mushrooms, were used primarily for reestablishing love between married couples (Elferink, 2000).
General Background
The way an aphrodisiac works is by affecting the central nervous system and changing the concentrations of certain sex hormones. Though this works for both genders, it primarily affects males because aphrodisiacs work through increasing testosterone, which is a male sexual hormone. As a result, they work threefold. First, they increase libido, or sexual desire. Second, they increase potency, which is the effectiveness of an erection. Third, they increase sexual pleasure. Aphrodisiacs come from various animal and plant sources, and some foods are also considered to be aphrodisiacs. Many plants that serve medicinal purposes usually serve as an aphrodisiac as well (Sandroni 2001). The credibility of what specific plant or food items actually work has been long debated.
Various Aphrodisiac Herbs
Ginkgo Biloba has repeatedly been shown to increase the flow of blood throughout the body, including in the brain. This herb has also been sought for medical reasons. It is shown to cure impotence caused by clogged arteries, which is primarily found in individuals with circulatory problems. Since the arteries run all over the body, they include the genitals, and lack of blood flow to the genitals is a cause of erection problems (Puotinen, 1997).
Nervines are herbs that are designed to calm the body. A popular form of these herbs is kava. Kava is a fermented beverage that includes nervine herbs, and it’s known to calm the nerves without bringing the mind down. It also reduces depression and anxiety, and has a calming effect. However, if a person consumes kava in a large amount, (s)he may experience symptoms similar to alcohol intoxication (Puotinen, 1997).
Asian Panax ginseng is known to bring the body into balance. In regard to sexual performance, this herb can help relieve stress, high blood pressure, depression, and exhaustion. However, it is possible that it may need to be taken for as long as three months before its effects are felt (Puotinen, 1997).
Yohimbe (Pausinystalia yohimba), is known to enhance male sexual arousal. It dilates blood vessels, lowers blood pressure, and stimulates reflex excitability in the lower regions of the spinal cord. Yohimbe, however, is also the most controversial. Yohimbe can produce anxiety attacks and painfully prolonged erections, and the possibility of adverse side effects is increased when Yohimbe is taken with drugs or alcohol (Puotinen, 1997).
Damiana (Turnera diffusa-aphrodisiaca), has a reputation of being an erotic aid. This plant's leaves are also considered an effective antidepressant, urinary antiseptic, mild laxative and tonic for the central nervous system, prostate gland, and endocrine system (Puotinen, 1997).
A Bowl of Kava

Various Aphrodisiac Foods
Watermelon, according to recent study, suggests that this fruit has Viagra-like effects. However, it cannot be fully trusted to cure erectile dysfunction. It was found to contain citrulline, which works to relax blood vessels and is found in many ED drugs. However, the plant compound is not as organ specific as the pills (Schulman, 2008).
Oysters are high in zinc, which is essential to testosterone production and sperm maintenance. Higher testosterone levels have both sexual and non-sexual influences. The sexual influences include libido, growth of sexual organs, and maintenance of erections. The non-sexual influences include hair growth, bone density, and development of masculine features, such as the Adams apple and broad shoulders (Schulman, 2008).
Hot peppers. Extracts of hot peppers may induce bowel discomfort rather than sexual arousal, however, Chili peppers contain capsaicin, which is a chemical irritant that increases heart and respiratory rate, sweating, and blood flow, which is the body's arousal response (Schulman, 2008).
Chocolate is one of the most researched and debated aphrodisiacs. The neurotransmitters serotonin and anandamide contribute to feelings of happiness and euphoria during sex, and chocolate boosts both enzymes. In a 2006 study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, women who habitually ate chocolate reported higher sexual function than women who did not (Schulman, 2008).
Other food aphrodisiacs include: Asparagus, banana, caviar, figs, and truffles (Philippone, 2007).

Foods Believed to be Aphrodisiacs
Items Refuted as Aphrodisiacs
Certain items are claimed to be aphrodisiacs, but research suggests otherwise. Among other items, cannabis has been refuted as an aphrodisiac. Research suggests that lab rats that were given a dose of THC, the active agent in cannabis, became too intoxicated to have sex (Henderson, 2001). The research also found that when female rats were given THC, they became more sexually responsive to males. Essentially, the findings of the research were twofold. Cannabis has the potential of being an aphrodisiac from a hormone standpoint, however, the potential to become too intoxicated for sex is also very possible. The findings ultimately suggest that cannabis had “no discernable effects” on the behavior of the rats in regard to sexual behavior (Henderson, 2001).
Regulatory Stance on Aphrodisiacs
Aphrodisiac Supplement Commonly Found at Nutritional Supplement Stores and Pharmacies

In the United States, the Food and Drug administration (FDA) is the federal government body that regulates the approval and sale of various prescription and over-the-counter drugs. Many nutritional supplement manufacturers make supplements containing herbs with aphrodisiac properties, and sell them over-the-counter at certain retailers, thus needing FDA approval before these products can go on the market. The FDA currently allows various aphrodisiac supplements to be sold in the open market, and over-the-counter. There are several stipulations, though, that the FDA communicates to manufacturers selling products containing herbs considered to be an aphrodisiac (FDA, 1982).
One regulation is that the container in which the supplement stored must a disclaimer if there is an explicit claim of the supplement having the properties of an aphrodisiac; statements such as: “improves power,” “acts as an aphrodisiac,” and “increases performance” must be accompanied by the FDA-mandated disclaimer. The disclaimer essentially communicates to the consumer that the FDA has no responsibility in the result(s) from taking the supplement, and that the manufacturer’s claim is not supported or backed by the FDA, due to the lack of FDA testing (FDA, 1982).
Aphrodisiacs in Modern Culture
A musical artist, Brandy, has a song titled “Afrodisiac.” The song contains lyrics that are suggestive and of sexual nature. The music video is also sexual in nature, due to its scantily-clad dancers and various suggestive backgrounds (Norwood, 2005).
Nutritional supplements claiming to be aphrodisiacs are commonly found on the shelves of many health food stores, pharmacies, and supermarkets. The messageson the bottles are designed to communicate to the consumer that they enhance male erections, increase male and female sex drive, and increase sexual endurance. These supplements may change the way people communicate sexually, since they alter natural hormone levels in the body. They may also change people’s expectations regarding sexual intercourse, since a person may expect a higher level of performance from his/her partner. Furthermore, if one partner in a relationship is not aware of the other partner taking an aphrodisiac supplement, the partner taking the supplement may have expectations that he/she will experience an increase in sexual performance, and if those expectations are not met, then that may result in general sexual dissatisfaction.
Finally, the way people communicate through flirting can be affected by conceptions of certain food items as aphrodisiacs. Sexual partners may deviate from their normal diets and consume certain foods for romantic purposes, or prior to sexual intercourse. People may also potentially believe that eating certain foods considered aphrodisiacs will make them more sexually attractive when communicating with another person in a sexual context. Overall, as a culture, we have embraced certain herbs and foods that have been considered aphrodisiacs for thousands of years, with the hopes of enhancing our sex lives and interpersonal communication relating to sex.

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