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Aphrodisiacs: Do they work?

February 13, 2018 | UC Irvine Health
aphrodisiacs 264

Aphrodisiacs are the stuff of legend and lore.

  • Eighteenth-century lothario Casanova reputedly swallowed 50 oysters each morning to stay frisky.
  • Aztec ruler Montezuma is said to have drunk dozens of goblets of hot chocolate daily to enhance his sex drive.
  • Newlyweds in ancient times were supposed to drink honey wine during the first moon of marriage to heighten desire and fertility.

The effectiveness of these love potions is mostly myth.

But plants such as ginkgo, ginseng, maca and tribulus may well hold promise for arousing desire and improving sexual performance.

“There is anecdotal and historical evidence that some of these plant-based substances may work, although clinical studies have yet to conclusively demonstrate the effectiveness and safety of any,” says Dr. Michael Krychman, a UC Irvine assistant clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology and head of the Southern California Center for Sexual Health and Survivorship Medicine in Newport Beach.

Encouraging research

Still research on the aphrodisiac properties of these plant-based compounds is encouraging, says Krychman, co-author of a 2015 study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine.

Krychman, who is director of Ann’s Clinic at the UCI Health Ovarian Cancer Center, offers his take on them:

  • Ginkgo: Derived from the fan-shaped leaves of trees found throughout Asia, ginkgo has been shown to increase blood flow to peripheral organs, including the genitals. Improved sexual function in both men and women was demonstrated in one study. However, another study did not support those results.
  • Ginseng: Several clinical studies suggest that ginseng is effective for erectile dysfunction and may improve sexual arousal in menopausal women. However, it should be avoided by pregnant women and people with hormone-sensitive cancers. Nothing is without risk or potential interaction with conventional medications.
  • Maca: Studies of this Andean root vegetable showed enhanced libido and improved erectile function in rodents. Three studies of maca in men and women showed improved sexual function, but the studies were small and a fourth failed to confirm similar results.
  • Tribulus: A compound in this plant — long used in China and in India’s ancient Ayurveda medicine traditions — converts to a natural steroid hormone. Tribulus has been shown to increase sperm production in rodents. Several human studies found that maca improved semen quality and erectile dysfunction among men and increased sexual satisfaction in women. Its long-term effects are unknown, but tribulus interacts negatively with some medicines prescribed for heart disease and diabetes.

Sexual health linked to overall health

Interestingly, Krychman says, a Mediterranean diet may well improve sexual function as well as overall health. A Mediterranean diet limits red meat, refined grains and processed foods, while high in:

Italian researchers have studied this diet rather extensively and new data shows some promise. It is, after all, a heart-healthy diet.

But chocolate, which also may offer some heart health benefits in moderation and has a sensuous feel on the tongue, has been mostly been debunked as a sexual stimulant.

Should you try these potential plant-based aphrodisiacs, a term derived from Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love? After all, people do want better sex.

No FDA-approved love potions

For now, Krychman says, “The FDA concludes that based on the current level of published scientific evidence currently available, any over-the-counter drugs containing ingredients for use as an aphrodisiac cannot be generally recognized as safe and effective.”

Stay tuned because new data is always emerging.

In the meantime, he advises, it’s best to check with your healthcare professional before taking anything to help with sexual performance issues.

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