The word aphrodisiac is derived from the name of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. An aphrodisiac is defined as any food or drug that arouses sexual instinct, induces sexual desire, or increases sexual pleasure and performance. Traditionally made from plants, animals, or minerals, aphrodisiacs have been coveted for eons.
Many currently popular aphrodisiacs—such as strawberries, chocolate, and raw oysters—have not been proven to be effective. However, certain herbs have been shown to exhibit sexual effects.
Let’s take a look at 10 aphrodisiacs supported by at least some research. Importantly, most of this research is based on animal models—probably because it’s easier to study sex in animals.
This flowering plant, also known as puncture vine or goat’s head, is part of the family Zygophyllaceae, which is native to warm temperate and tropical regions. It has long been used in ancient Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine. Rabbits treated with Tribulus terrestris extract exhibited erection. Furthermore, research involving castrated rats suggests that this extract has androgen-releasing properties, which are related to sexual behavior and intracavernous (penile) pressure.
Safed musli (Chlorophytum borivilianum) is hypothesized to harbor immunomodulatory and adaptogenic properties. As a folk medicine, it has been used for impotency, sterility, and enhanced male potency. In rats, this extract has been shown to reduce mount latency, ejaculation latency, and post-ejaculatory latency, as well as increase mounting frequency. Other studies in rats have shown that the administration of the extract results in increased libido, sexual vigor, sexual arousal, and sperm count.
Mondia whitei hails from the Periplocaceae family and has been used as traditional medicine for the management of erectile dysfunction. In one study, an aqueous administration to human spermatozoa in vitro demonstrated heightened total motility, as well as enhanced progressive motility in a time-dependent manner. These findings could support the use of M. whitei in men with asthenozoospermia.
This extract originally comes from an evergreen tree native to West Africa, and is also found in some parts of Asia. Yohimbe has been used for more than 75 years as a treatment for erectile dysfunction. In the 1980s, the FDA approved yohimbe as the first plant-derived drug for the treatment of impotence and some called it “herbal Viagra.” Yohimbe is hypothesized to help alleviate erectile dysfunction via the stimulation of penile blood flow, resulting in tumescence. It may also boost the production of norepinephrine, which is needed for erections. Previous research has shown that yohimbe can restore sexual activity even in patients with diabetes and heart disease. In one study, a 20-mg dose of yohimbe was given to 29 men with orgasmic dysfunction, with 16 eventually reaching orgasm and ejaculation during either intercourse or masturbation.
Ginseng has been celebrated as one of the finest aphrodisiacs in the world. It has long been used in traditional Chinese medicines. Ginseng is thought to revitalize the whole body—not just the testicles. In one study in rabbits, administration of ginseng enhanced the release of nitric oxide in the corpus cavernosum, a process that plays a key role in erection.
Tropical almond (Terminalia catappa) is a large tropical tree with edible nuts that have been touted for their aphrodisiac properties. The tree is found in Africa, Asia, and Australia, and has also been introduced to Florida. In rats, tropical almond extract has been shown to improve sexual vigor.
Saffron (Crocus sativus) is a stemless herb that is cultivated in Iran, Greece, and India. Commonly used to season foods, saffron is also used an aphrodisiac in traditional medicines. In rats, it has been shown to increase sexual frequency and decrease latency.
In Unani, or Perso-Arabic traditional medicine now practiced in India, nutmeg has been used for centuries to treat sexual disorders. In mice, it has been found to increase mating activity.
Date palm (Phoenix dactylifera) originated in North Africa and is widely grown in the Arab and Persian worlds. Its pollen has been used in traditional medicines to treat male infertility. Researchers indicated that suspensions of date palm pollen administered to rats boosted sperm count, motility, and morphology, as well as increasing the weight of the testis and epididymis.
Maca (Lepidium meyenii) grows at an altitude of 4,000 m to 4,500 m in the central Andes. It has long been used in the Andean region for its purported aphrodisiac and fertility-enhancing properties. Results from a 12-week randomized controlled trial in which active treatment with different doses of maca were compared with placebo demonstrated increased sexual desire beginning at 8 weeks in men.
Take note that the studies cited in this article have largely been cherry picked. For instance, the same researchers who found that maca increased sexual desire in men discovered in a separate 12-week randomized-controlled trial that the herbal extract did not raise reproductive hormone levels over time. Ultimately, all this information is merely food for thought, and loads more research needs to be done.