What Is an Aphrodisiac?

Aphrodisiac Foods and Supplements That Can Boost Libido

Verywell / Madelyn Goodnight

What Is an Aphrodisiac?

An aphrodisiac is any substance or food that increases sexual desire, arousal, behavior, performance, or pleasure. There are a number of reasons why people may want to take an aphrodisiac to improve their sex lives. Such reasons may include low libido or to improve sexual performance, but sometimes people may want to simply try to enjoy sex more. 

An aphrodisiac is any food or substance that increases libido or sexual performance.

Although many products purport to increase sexual desire and pleasure, the effectiveness of aphrodisiacs has not yet been firmly established. Research has often failed to show the effectiveness of some substances and, in some cases, has even shown that some substances may have adverse side effects.

For example, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health reports that Yohimbe, a compound derived from the bark of the African yohimbine tree that has been used as an aphrodisiac, has been linked to heart attacks, seizures, high blood pressure, and stomach problems.

The word "aphrodisiac" comes from the name of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. Aphrodisiacs have been used and sought after for thousands of years and have often been made from everything from minerals to food to plants.

Reasons to Try Aphrodisiacs

A good sex life is often cited as an important part of a healthy and happy relationship, so it’s no wonder there is such a tremendous amount of interest in finding products that can make sex more enjoyable. There are a number of different reasons why people try aphrodisiacs:

Sexual Dysfunction

Aphrodisiacs might be something you want to try to help spice up your sex life, but in some cases, people might want to use them to help address sexual problems.

  • Research suggests that sexual dysfunction is highly prevalent in both women and men.
  • Among women, problems with desire and arousal are the most frequently reported.
  • The most common problems among men are premature ejaculation and erectile dysfunction.

Pleasure and Performance

Sexual problems aren’t the only reason why people might turn to aphrodisiacs. The promise of great sex is appealing, so it’s not surprising that people might turn to something that promises to increase desire and participation in sex. Aphrodisiacs are often purported to make sex more desirable, exciting, and pleasurable, but whether they are actually able to do these things is still under investigation.

Types of Aphrodisiacs

Some different types of aphrodisiacs include:

  • Natural supplements containing ingredients such as Ambrien, Yohimbine, horny goat weed, and ginseng
  • Food such as oysters and dark chocolate
  • Herbs including cloves and sage
  • Psychoactive substances such as alcohol and marijuana
  • Synthetic substances such as MDMA (ecstasy), phenethylamines (amphetamines and methamphetamines), and synthetic testosterone

Aphrodisiacs tend to fall into a few different categories in terms of how they are supposed to work. For example:

  • Spicy substances, such as hot chili peppers, are sometimes considered aphrodisiacs to induce feelings of arousal because they increase body temperature.
  • Reproductive organs of certain animals, such as eggs or animal testicles, are sometimes believed to increase sexual potency or performance.
  • Foods that evoke the senses, including sights, smell, and taste, are often supposed to have aphrodisiac properties. By arousing the senses, such substances are thought to help people feel more sexually aroused.
  • Rare and exotic foods or spices are often viewed as having aphrodisiac effects. 
  • Foods that resemble sexual organs are sometimes believed to be stimulating, including certain fruits and vegetables. 

Uses for Aphrodisiacs

Aphrodisiacs typically fall into one of three different categories. Such substances are often purported to increase libido, potency, or pleasure.

  • Libido: Low desire is the most prevalent sexual problem for middle-aged women, affecting nearly 70% of women during midlife. However, low libido is something that can affect men and women of all ages. Supplements are often marketed to increase libido, although the effectiveness of these substances remains questionable. 
  • Potency: Aphrodisiacs are often also purported to increase sexual potency and performance. Some substances are marketed to improve stamina, lubrication, and endurance.
  • Sexual Pleasure: Finally, some aphrodisiacs are marketed as being able to improve overall sexual pleasure. Such products are thought to make sex more enjoyable. Even people who enjoy a healthy sex life may find the lure of more enjoyable sex a good reason to try an aphrodisiac.

It is important to note that while many supplements make big promises about boosting sexual libido or stamina, dietary supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), so the safety and efficacy of these products is not always clear.

Impact of Aphrodisiacs

The big question is — do aphrodisiacs actually work? Some evidence supports the possible effects of some natural supplements such as horny goat weed, but it's important to note that many of these findings come from animal studies.

Natural Supplements 

There are a number of natural substances that are often included as ingredients in supplements that are marketed as aphrodisiacs.

  • Ambrien, a substance secreted from the digestive system of sperm whales, has been found in animal studies to increase testosterone levels, resulting in increased sexual interest and behavior.
  • Horny goat weed, a type of flowering plant often used in Chinese medicine, has been used as an aphrodisiac to increase libido and pleasure. Some animal studies suggest that the herb may have aphrodisiac properties, and it has been shown to have an effect on hormone regulation.
  • Yohimbe is a substance that comes from the bark of trees that grow in Africa and India. It is available by prescription in the U.S. to treat sexual dysfunction, but it is also available in some over-the-counter supplements. However, yohimbe can also lead to side effects including irregular heartbeat and anxiety.
  • Ginseng, the root of a plant that is often used in complementary medicine and as a dietary supplement, is also sometimes used as an aphrodisiac, although its effectiveness for this purpose is unclear. One study found some emerging evidence that ginseng may have aphrodisiac properties, but further research is needed.

Because ginseng can have interaction effects with some medications, including blood thinners, it should be used with caution.

Food Aphrodisiacs

Foods are often touted for their aphrodisiac properties as well. Such foods have been used throughout human history to increase sexual pleasure, performance, and libido. Foods used as aphrodisiacs can include more commonly found foods or rare foods that are much more difficult to come by. 

The question is, can what you eat really improve your sex life?

While no research has demonstrated that certain foods can impact sexual desire or performance, this doesn’t mean that food can’t play a role in stimulating your sex life. Obviously, following a nutritious diet can play a role in helping you feel healthy and energetic overall — which can have an impact on sexual desire and behaviors. When you feel good, you may be more likely to also feel more interested in sex. 

Certain foods may also have properties that can be beneficial to your sex life. Foods that contain omega 3 fatty acids, for example, can help improve blood flow throughout the body, including the genitals.

  • Dark chocolate has long been recommended as a possible aphrodisiac and research has even shown that it may help improve blood flow. However, one study that looked at a variety of natural sexual enhancers found no evidence that dark chocolate had any impact as an aphrodisiac.
  • Alcohol, has been shown in research to have an impact on increasing arousal levels. One study found that regular moderate consumption of red wine was linked to better sexual health in women. Women who drank one to two glasses of red wine each day experienced more sexual desire and better sexual functioning overall.

However, it is important to note that while low to moderate alcohol intake may lower inhibitions and increase desire, excessive alcohol use can also hinder sexual performance.

Other substances that are reputed to act as aphrodisiacs include:

  • Pomegranate
  • Figs
  • Pine nuts, almonds, walnuts
  • Maca
  • Pumpkin
  • Asparagus
  • Watermelon
  • Celery
  • Bananas
  • Garlic
  • Salmon
  • Coffee
  • Saffron
  • Avocados
  • Honey
  • Strawberries

While scientific evidence to show that these foods actually influence sexual desire is lacking, many are purported to work because of things such as potassium, zinc, and phytochemicals that can improve well-being.

Can an Apple a Day Improve Your Sex Life?

Apples are one food that has some evidence supporting its influence on sexual health. One 2014 study found that women who consumed an apple a day had better sexual functioning compared to women who did not regularly eat apples.

How to Use Aphrodisiacs

If you do want to try using an aphrodisiac to spice up your sex life, it is important to be realistic about the effects you might achieve. Remember that aphrodisiacs are not a magic remedy. While research suggests that some substances may have beneficial effects, factors such as overall health, diet, fitness, and stress levels often have a much greater impact on sexual health.

The Psychological Effects of Aphrodisiacs

Don’t overlook the sheer power of the placebo effect. A placebo is an inactive or inert substance that nevertheless causes a therapeutic effect. It is the belief that something will have an effect that is more beneficial than the substance itself. In other words, if you believe something is going to have an effect, you might be more likely to experience a positive result.

Some people swear that certain foods, such as oysters or dark chocolate, improve their sex life. And that might be true, but it may simply be the result of believing that these foods have sex-boosting effects that make all the difference.

Others Ways to Improve Your Sex Life

If you want to improve your sex life, there are some things that you can do that can help:

  • Eat a healthy diet. Research has shown that following a diet that emphasizes lean meat, vegetables, fruit, and whole grains can improve hormone levels, blood flow, and nerve functioning.
  • Get regular exercise. Studies have shown that physical activity has a beneficial impact on sexual health. Even small bursts of activity can help with overall sexual functioning.
  • Control your stress levels. Stress can have a serious impact on libido, so it is important to find ways to manage stress levels effectively. Good self-care and techniques such as meditation, mindfulness, deep breathing, and visualization can be helpful for lowering stress.

Don’t forget that finding ways to boost your sex life can be fun! While you should always talk to your doctor if you are thinking about trying a substance or supplement to address a sexual problem, incorporating certain foods into your diet can be a safe (and delicious) way to have fun with aphrodisiacs.

Potential Pitfalls of Aphrodisiacs

If you are interested in trying an aphrodisiac, there are some potential pitfalls you should watch for and precautions you should take.

  • Talk to your doctor first. Don’t rely on aphrodisiacs to fix problems that might have a medical basis. Sexual problems can often be a sign of an underlying medical or mental health condition, so it is important to talk to your doctor about your symptoms, including ones related to sex. People are sometimes hesitant to bring up such issues to their doctor out of embarrassment, but its something important that you should mention.
  • Be cautious of potential side effects and interactions. Also, don’t assume that just because something is “natural” that it is safe, harmless, or without side effects. Even natural substances can have adverse effects or may interact with other medications or supplements that you are taking.
  • Remember that sexual desire and behavior aren’t one-dimensional. Physical factors do play an important role, but there are also important interpersonal and psychological factors at work. How you feel about yourself, your partner, and your relationship can all have an influence on how often you desire and engage in sexual activity.

If you are experiencing problems with sexual functioning, including low libido or physical issues that make sex difficult or impossible, talk to your doctor. Such problems are often treatable, or they may be a sign of an underlying medical condition that needs to be treated.

History of Aphrodisiacs

The introduction of the drug sildenafil (Viagra) help generate greater interest in the use of aphrodisiacs, but their use actually dates back thousands of years. Throughout human history, people have turned to foods and other natural substances to help increase desire and even fertility. Foods such as oysters, chocolate, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, and thyme have all been believed at various points in human history to play a part in increasing arousal and performance. 

The reason why aphrodisiacs have remained popular for thousands of years is that they promise to help people feel good and experience greater pleasure. While more research is needed to explore how foods and substances can impact sexual functioning, it is likely that aphrodisiacs will continue to appeal to people interested in improving their sex lives.

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By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."