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Harvard Commentaries
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Harvard Commentaries
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School


Medical Myths, Sexual Health Medical Myths, Sexual Health
 

In Search of the Elusive Aphrodisiac: Sex, Food and Myth


February 27, 2013

By Robert H. Shmerling M.D.

Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center


Last reviewed and revised February 27, 2013

As Valentine's Day approaches each year, your thoughts may turn to romance. Or, perhaps, this holiday makes you think about food. After all, the idea that certain foods can increase sexual interest, improve sexual performance, or enhance fertility has been around for centuries. If this is true, which foods have this power and how do they work their magic? And if it's not true, why is this myth so durable?

Looking Into the Claims

According to believers, a variety of foods can improve one's love life. Among the most commonly cited are chocolate, oysters, chili peppers and curry, though not necessarily at the same time. I found mention of lentils, strawberries, vanilla, mustard and snails (among many others) as foods that can act as aphrodisiacs (a word that comes from Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty). What I could not find was any credible proof that food — any food — has benefit when it comes to matters of sexual function.

Looking at the medical literature, there is virtually nothing published that resembles a scientific study linking specific foods with improved sexual function. That is, unless you count "Reproductive effects of feeding gossypol and vitamin E to bulls." (And, if you must know, vitamin E helped the bulls, but gossypol, a natural toxin in cotton plants, decreased their sexual inclination. No word yet on what each might do for humans, though neither is recommended for this purpose.)

Medical textbooks either make no mention of the topic or dismiss it as popular myth. What is written on the subject in standard texts is about side effects, including death, from supplements taken to improve sexual desire or performance. Examples include Spanish fly (extracted from South African "blister beetles," with potentially deadly side effects including mouth ulcers, genital ulcers, kidney and heart failure) and Bufo venom (extracted from marine toads and capable of causing vomiting, seizures and an abnormal heart rhythm). I did find a review of two studies that compared placebo with a product called, of all things, "Libido," made from "components derived from fertilized, partly incubated chickens' eggs." Findings were positive — those taking the Libido had improved libido, but the studies were far from definitive: They were short-term, studied only a small number of people, and did not exactly use a commonly available or popular food.

I looked elsewhere for evidence of food's effects on sexual function. Naturally, I used the Internet, an endeavor that warrants a word of caution. If you research this topic online while at work, websites may appear on your screen that could get you fired. Using a popular search engine, the terms "libido" and "food" offered up 80,000 sites. It did not take long for me to realize I could not (and should not) view them all. Most appeared to be selling something, particularly supplements (rather than foods), so I gave up on that line of inquiry before someone looked over my shoulder.

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Why the Myth Endures

As with many medical myths, its endurance probably has many explanations:

    • The power of suggestion — If you believe that a particular food will help your love life, that belief may improve confidence and attitude, changes that may indeed improve your love life (even if the food had no direct effect).
    • The inability to disprove it — As is true for many claims related to complex behaviors or emotions, what is difficult to prove is also difficult to disprove. Imagine designing a research study to determine whether oysters, for example, increase sexual performance. Ideally, such a study would be "blinded," meaning that the researchers and the study subjects would not know whether or not subjects were eating oysters or an identical placebo — yet, designing a convincing "oyster placebo" that looks, smells and tastes like an oyster is not easy, to say the least. If a benefit is observed, the argument could be made that subjects knew they were receiving oysters and therefore it was their expectation of benefit, rather than any direct effect of oysters that accounted for the improvement. If no benefit was observed, believers would argue that the type of oyster was wrong, the number of subjects too small, or other variables (such as other foods or simply the close observation of a research study) prevented the true benefits of the food from being revealed.
    • The intuitive appeal — There is a simple and appealing logic in assuming that an essential human behavior such as eating could have an important impact on another basic behavior such as sexual activity. There is also the metaphor of food as a "seed" able to promote human behaviors involved with reproduction. Cilantro seed and pine nuts may maintain their reputation as aphrodisiacs for this reason.
    • Misinterpreting bodily sensation — Some foods, especially certain spices and peppers, can provoke sweating, rapid heart rate and flushing. These could be confused with sexual excitement in some circumstances. Other ingested "foods" such as Bufo venom (mentioned above, from certain marine toads), may cause genital swelling in women and painful erections in men that result from the toxic effects of the venom. Again, this could be misinterpreted as having the power to "activate" the sexual organs.
    • The appearance of food — Some people believe that the way food looks conjures sexual desire, thoughts and action. For example, one of the reasons bananas and carrots may have been thought to possess the power of an aphrodisiac is their phallic shape.
    • The food's role in its former life — The sexual organs of animals (including the highly reproductive rabbit) have been touted as aphrodisiacs by some cultures.

It may be at least partly true, in certain situations where nutrition is poor, that certain foods may supply key nutrients that improve overall health, leading to improved libido and sexual functioning. However, for people whose diet is good, the nutritional components of a particular food are unlikely to act as aphrodisiacs.

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What Determines Libido and Sexual Functioning?

Two aspects of human sexuality are clear, though perhaps underappreciated:

  1. Sexual desire and performance are exceedingly complex, involving an intricate interplay of emotional, neurological, vascular events in a specific sequence.
  2. There is much we do not understand.

We do know that, in general, the most important predictors of a good sex life are good mental and physical health and a good relationship between two willing people who find each other attractive. The converse is often true as well; poor mental or physical health or a poor relationship can impair sexual interest and/or function.

Examples of conditions that may reduce sexual interest or performance include diabetes (which can impair the nerve function and blood supply to the sexual organs), kidney failure, thyroid disease, depression, anxiety, chronic pain or hormonal abnormalities.

Menopause may be associated with decreased libido and vaginal dryness that may be reversed with hormonal therapy (by pill or vaginal cream); the risks of oral hormonal therapy limit its use as a treatment for decreased libido. Prostate disease, or its treatment, may reduce interest in sex or damage nerves critical to sexual function in men.

Testosterone seems to play an important role in libido not only among men but in women as well. Diseases or their treatments that reduce testosterone in women (for example, adrenal or brain tumors treated with radiation or surgery) may reduce sexual interest that can be improved with testosterone therapy.

Medications are a particularly common cause of reduced libido and sexual function. A long list of medicines (especially ones for depression, heart disease and high blood pressure) can reduce one's sexual capacity or interest in sex. Smoking also has been associated with impotence, perhaps because it accelerates atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), which reduces blood supply to the sex organs and nearby nerves.

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Shakespeare Knew Best

Alcohol deserves special mention when thinking about food and sex. For one thing, it is often an integral part of what many consider romantic. If you asked your friends or family to imagine the perfect date, it might include some combination of candlelight, good food and wine (or another alcoholic beverage).

But, Shakespeare had it right when, in Macbeth, he wrote that drinking "provokes the desire but it takes away the performance." He probably was thinking about heavy alcohol use, because modest intake typically will not reduce sexual function. For better or worse, just the opposite may be true, as it may reduce inhibitions and promote social interaction while leaving intact the ability to function sexually.

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The Bottom Line

Other factors — many of which are hard to detect or measure — may matter a great deal when it comes to matters of sexual interest or function. Duration and quality of sleep, pheromones (chemical substances with an odor that can be detected by others), everyday stress and self-image, just to name a few "intangibles," may affect when and if sexual activity occurs.

There is much we don't know. Perhaps there is at least some truth in the adage that "the way to a man's heart is through his stomach," but it's an open question regarding whether any single food is most effective. It's hard to overestimate the importance of having a compatible and supportive partner. In fact, when it comes to food, a balanced diet and moderation of alcohol intake are almost certainly more important than choosing a single food over another. In the end, Virginia Woolf may have said it best in her 1929 book A Room of One's Own: "One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well." But no one can tell you how to dine well to improve your sex life — if an effective dietary aphrodisiac exists, it is still waiting to be discovered.

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Robert H. Shmerling, M.D. is associate physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and associate professor at Harvard Medical School. He has been a practicing rheumatologist for over 20 years at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He is an active teacher in the Internal Medicine Residency Program, serving as the Robinson Firm Chief. He is also a teacher in the Rheumatology Fellowship Program.

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