Long before lust-boosting pills came along, men and women used herbs, scents and foods as aphrodisiacs. But which natural products really work?

By Marcia Kaye

Natural aphrodisiacs

Is your sex life as good as you’d like it to be? If not, you're not alone. More than one in three women have low sexual desire, according to a survey of about 31,000 U.S. women published in the November 2008 issue of Obstetrics & Gynecology. So it’s not surprising that a growing number of herbal supplements specifically formulated for women are springing up in drug- and health food stores, with intriguing names such as Sex Essentials and Libido. Among the advertised promises: “bring back desire,” “improve lubrication” and “aid orgasm.” Is it all hype? Or do natural remedies really help?

How do we know natural aphrodisiacs work?

Definitive studies on long-term efficacy and safety simply don’t exist yet, mainly because pharmaceutical companies are reluctant to fund research on natural products, which can’t be patented. “However,” says Sherry Torkos, a holistic pharmacist in Ridgeway, Ont., and author of The Canadian Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine, “what we do have is thousands of years of use of these substances in other cultures.” When women come to her complaining of low libido, Torkos first makes sure they have been checked for medical problems, such as low thyroid or chronic stress, before suggesting they try a supplement. But judging by the positive feedback, she says, “I think some of these supplements can help sexual desire and arousal.”

How they might work isn’t well understood, but “dozens of substances can have an effect on the brain chemistry that influences sexuality,” says Dr. Ray Sahelian, a physician in Los Angeles who also has a degree in nutrition science. The author of Natural Sex Boosters, Sahelian has tried a number of natural substances himself and contends, “There is such a thing as a natural aphrodisiac.”

Research on natural aphrodisiacs

Indeed, a small number of international medical studies suggest that some substances and scents may indeed hold promise:

• According to a 2008 study from India’s Banaras Hindu University, liquid extract from clove flowers (used in indigenous medicine to treat male sexual disorders) raised serum testosterone levels in mice.
• A special concentration of black tea made from the camellia sinensis tea plant has shown marked aphrodisiac activity in rats, a 2008 Sri Lankan study found.
• A 2007 study from the Second University of Naples in Italy found women with metabolic syndrome (a condition in which hypertension, insulin resistance, abdominal obesity and abnormal cholesterol levels are all present) had better sexual function after two years on a Mediterranean diet (mainly fruit, vegetables, nuts, whole grains and olive oil).
• Research by the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago found that men had an increase in blood flow to the penis when exposed to the combined scents of pumpkin pie and lavender. Pumpkin pie often contains nutmeg, and in a 2005 study, nutmeg extract was found to increase desire and performance in male rats.

What about shellfish and chocolate? Surely these foods give us a boost of sexual desire? Well, yes and no. A 2005 Italian study found no difference in sexual function between women who eat chocolate daily and those who don’t. As for shellfish, a 2004 study from Italy did find that three species of Mediterranean mussels contain an amino acid that stimulates the production of hormones, including testosterone, in rats.

Does natural mean safe?

When it comes to supplements claiming to have aphrodisiac properties, “it’s buyer beware,” says Stephen Maltais, a doctor of naturopathic medicine in Port Dover, Ont. Maltais has treated sexual dysfunction in both women and men, but he cautions, “Especially if you’re buying online, you don’t know if the product is standardized for quality and quantity. However, products in Canadian stores are regulated by the NHPD [Natural Health Product Directorate], an arm of Health Canada.”

Be warned: In 2008, Health Canada issued consumer advisories about several products, including Powertabs, Viapro, Blue Steel, Rose 4 Her, Lover Liquid and Sweet Energizer Vitality Candy. All contained undeclared drugs or substances similar to those in prescription medications for erectile dysfunction. An Ayurvedic aphrodisiac, Puspadhanva Rasa, contained dangerous levels of heavy metals.

The bottom line: Do some research before you buy, and talk with your doctor before trying any of these. Sahelian adds that anyone with a medical condition, especially a heart condition, should be particularly cautious, as some herbs can raise heart rate.

7 natural aphrodisiacs

Here are some of the most common ingredients used in products available online, in health food stores and drugstores and through some naturopathic doctors. Keep in mind that as non-drug supplements, these ingredients cannot legally make medical claims. Health Canada has not approved any of them as aphrodisiacs.

Damiana
A plant native to Mexico and the southern United States and used for centuries for its aphrodisiac qualities. Used to treat impotence in men, and difficulty in achieving orgasm in women.

Gingko biloba
A tree native to China. May improve blood flow. May help to counteract the desire-dampening effect of some antidepressants, especially in women.

Horny goat weed
A plant native to Asia and well established in Chinese medicine. Appears to increase blood flow to genitals. Could possibly be as effective as Viagra but with fewer side effects, according to a 2008 study.

Maca
A root grown in the Andes. Used for centuries in the belief that it would enhance sexual interest for men and women.

Mucuna pruriens
A legume, also called velvet bean. Used in Ayurvedic medicine. Contains L-dopa, which converts to dopamine, a brain chemical that is involved in sexuality.

Muira Puama
A Brazilian shrub and mild stimulant. A combination of muira puama and ginkgo biloba improved libido, intercourse and orgasm, according to a 2000 study of 202 women.

Tribulus terrestris
A herb grown throughout the world. Appears to increase testosterone in some cases. Given to help with fertility, sexual function and menopausal symptoms.

This article was originally titled "Turn Up the Heat Naturally," in the March/April 2009 of Best Health. Subscribe to Best Health today and never miss an issue!

Best Health Magazine, March/April 2009

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