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Updated 30 September 2013

Aphrodisiacs - fact or myth?

Although aphrodisiacs are based more on cultural myths than fact, it's human nature to experiment in the hope of pepping up our sex lives.

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Aphrodite is the Greek goddess of love, beauty, and fertility. Logically enough, she's the name-goddess of aphrodisiacs, substances that supposedly promote sexual desire and arousal, enhance sex drive and sexual performance, and extend sexual energy.

It's human nature to experiment in the hope of pepping up our sex lives. Throughout history, people all over the world have placed their faith in certain foods, beverages, drugs, and chemicals in the hopes of being bestowed sexual potency. The fact that some look similar to genitals, or are even derived from sex organs, is no accident.

The most famous aphrodisiac of all is Spanish Fly, made from ground-up beetles of the Lytta vesicatoria species. Its active ingredient, cantharidin, irritates the bladder and urethra, causing increased blood flow to the genitals and sensations of warmth, but it can permanently scar urethral tissue and infect the genitourinary tract. It may lead to an abnormally prolonged or constant erection (priapism) or an engorged vulva and vagina, both of which are often painful. Spanish Fly can be poisonous or even fatal with prolonged use.

The following have also been believed (mostly without any proof at all) to be aphrodisiacs at one time or another:

  • Oysters and clams. Other seafood resembling sex organs are also often thought to be aphrodisiacs.
  • Ground rhinoceros horn. The term "horny" was apparently coined from this "sexual enhancer".
  • Bananas, celery, asparagus. Also other phallic foods.
  • Honey. It's reminiscent of sweet vaginal fluid.
  • Ginseng.
  • Chocolate.
  • Strawberries and champagne.
  • Chillies, curries, and other spices and spicy foods. They make the heart beat faster and produce perspiration, which commonly occur during sex.
  • Raw bull's testicles.
  • Yohimbine, an extract from the bark of the West African yohimbe tree. Although more human research is needed, results from animal studies indicate that it may have the potential to be particularly helpful for men who have difficulties maintaining an erection. It's not as likely to enhance sexual arousal or desire.

According to a review by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), however, no purported aphrodisiac has been scientifically proven to be effective. Indeed, as in the case of Spanish Fly, some can be harmful and even potentially dangerous. It's also important to remember that, because aphrodisiacs are in the class of herbal supplements, and are thus not currently regulated, it is impossible to know exactly what you're getting when you pick up a bottle of "liquid love/lust".

Sometimes drugs are used as aphrodisiacs. Alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines, and barbiturates, for example, help reduce or remove inhibitions and/or produce pleasurable feelings and sensations that could lead one to feel sexually aroused. However, instead of this intended outcome, decreased or no sexual response and functioning could occur, often when taking moderate or larger amounts, or from long-term usage. Dependency and other more serious harms can also result. In addition, people's judgment is often impaired, leaving them more vulnerable to sexual assault, as the recipient or perpetrator.

Another drug, amyl nitrate (aka "poppers"), apparently intensifies and prolongs sensations of orgasm, probably by increasing blood flow to the genitals and distorting time perception. But it can also cause dizziness, severe headaches, unconsciousness, and a drop in blood pressure that could become dangerous.

Regardless of their actual action, the power of suggestion, psychologically and emotionally, is key to aphrodisiacs. If you believe using any particular substance will enhance your sex life, then it can help bring about sexual desire and arousal, at least in the short term.

Of course, a good night's sleep, time, privacy, confidence in your contraception, self-confidence, and a turned-on partner may do the same thing.

(Picture: couple having champagne and strawberries from Shutterstock)
 

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