Aphrodisiacs: Mood Food or Scam Jam?

(6/9/14)  For thousands of years, all sorts of claims have run rampant about the power of certain foods (and other natural substances) to improve health, vitality and even sex drive.  Entire industries have risen from these legends and thrived throughout the centuries.  While there are certainly some scientific cause-effect relationships between specific types of nutrition and general well-being, most broad aphrodisiac claims have historically been the result of perpetuated myths with little or no actual basis in reality.  That said and before looking at some of these, we should also point out that there’s an intangible factor that does play a role in whether or not any particular substance is effective:  The placebo effect.  In other words, if someone is convinced that something will increase their arousal, it probably will, even if there’s no other reason for it to.  People are funny animals in that way.

Therefore, we feel obligated at this point to offer this spoiler alert:  If you happen to believe that french fries dipped in Nutella will grease your skids when slipping between the sheets, more power to you, we say.  Twice!  However, you may want to just skip the rest of this.  It’s certainly not our intent to ruin your happy meal.

Okay, with that out of the way, let’s look at a few of the more popular notions and see what’s really what:

Oysters.  We found several studies which do show that oysters contain elements which help increase testosterone levels, so there’s a case to be made that there’s some science behind this particular myth.  The thing is, almost every study agrees that you’d have to eat a lot of them over a sustained period (i.e., a week or longer) to achieve any significant effect.  In other words, it’s not just a matter of slurping a few on the half-shell to get a bigger bang for your spark.

Chocolate.  Interestingly enough, some of the more recent studies have calculated that the chemical effects of consuming chocolate are very similar to the chemistry of the way “love” is perceived in the human brain.  That might lead you to believe that there’s actually a correlation in play when it comes to impacting arousal, but no such luck–at least not yet.  Though a few studies have been done, the small number of them have not produced any definitive evidence and, in fact, appear to suggest that age plays a significant role in how the body processes the effects of chocolate.  That’s no cause to sell your chocolate company stock, but it’s certainly not a reason to get bullish either.

Ginseng.  Over hundreds of years, a lot of people have sworn profusely that ginseng ramps up the ol’ libido, but several studies over the past 50 years have clearly determined that it’s the placebo effect at work and nothing more.  There’s certainly a lot to be said for the power of positive thought, but this particular myth is more likely the result of groupthink run amok.  It does make some nice tea, though.

Rhino horns.  Can you hear all the “horn-y” jokes already?  Anyway, poor rhinos have been coughing up their studly ornaments for centuries in support of higher sex drive believers, but in the modern age, every analytic study has determined that there are no chemical properties that effect human sexual activity.  Maybe it’s the shape that does the trick mentally, but your friendly lab says that’s about it.  The moral of this story?  Quit cutting off pointy things!

Watermelon.  This is one you might not see on many popular aphrodisiac lists, but for those who’ve bought into it over the years, there may actually be something to it.  As it turns out, watermelons have a high concentration of citrulline, which is an amino compound with an effect similar to the active ingredients in Viagra.  There’s a small catch, though: The beneficial substance is only in the rind.  So, it’s either the little blue pill or the big green tooth-buster, but either apparently does have a similar effect.  Who knew?

So, while mounting evidence tends to stomp out some long-lasting and popular myths, there is also trend data showing some positive psychological impacts associated to using aphrodisiacs.  The desired physical effects may not really be there, but there is growing evidence showing just how powerful the mind can be–particularly as a sex organ.  It may just be a matter of “thinking with the right head” but, hey, whatever works, right?

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