How Things Work: Aphrodisiacs

What is it about some things that make you stop in your tracks and go “Damn!”? Such is the nature of an aphrodisiac. Throughout history, a potent aphrodisiac to change the ordinary into the erotic has been almost as elusive as the Philosopher’s Stone. The search has spawned multitudes of remedies for a lagging libido that range from odd to funny to dangerous.

An aphrodisiac is a food, scent, drug, or device that increases desire. The word “aphrodisiac” is derived from the name of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and sexuality. According to Greek mythology, Aphrodite sprang from the churning sea, which explains why so many seafoods are said to have aphrodisiac properties.

Perhaps the most notorious mood enhancer is the legendary Spanish fly. Commonly known as the “blister beetle,” the active ingredients in Spanish flies are cantharidins. Cantharidins irritate the urogenital tract and cause swelling. The effect is mistaken for arousal; hence the beetle’s popularity as an aphrodisiac. However, cantharidins are toxic, as the Marquis de Sade, the infamous lecher, found when he laced bonbons with Spanish flies and fed them to his unsuspecting conquests for the evening, who became violently sick. Spanish flies can also result in comas from which there is no recovery.
A more pleasurable way to incite passion would be chocolate. Montezuma, an Aztec emperor, drank spiced chocolate from golden goblets in order to properly attend to his harem. Chocolate contains two chemicals which engender feelings of well-being and euphoria. The effect of chocolate on the brain is similar to marijuana but uses a different neurotransmitter.

In fact, neither marijuana nor alcohol is an aphrodisiac. They do lessen inhibition, but, as Shakespeare noted, they “provoke the desire, but take away the performance.” Not a good idea for action-seekers.

Other foods that inspire lust include almonds, pine nuts, caviar, truffles, strawberries — the list goes on. In fact, almost every food has been hailed as an aphrodisiac at one time or another. However, this has less to do with the foods’ mood-enhancing abilities than their nutritional value. Undernourishment also decreases the erotic appetite. Dietary gratification improves other types of gratification. Foods rich in vitamins and minerals enhance overall physical performance and well-being.Aphrodisiacs come in many shapes, and shape is one of the reasons some objects are touted as aphrodisiacs. Eastern cultures have long considered ginseng an aphrodisiac due to its resemblance to the human body. Crushed into powder and eaten, rhinoceros horn has long been touted as a libido enhancer. Unfortunately, this supposed property has increased rhinoceros poaching and has contributed to the animal’s status as an endangered species.

Other shapely aphrodisiacs include bananas, cucumbers, asparagus, mussels, and oysters. Oysters are widely known to incite desire because they are rich in zinc, which is necessary for testosterone production. Testosterone is one of the more important hormones behind the human sex drive for both men and women.

Although considered a turn-off in the modern world, in the animal kingdom body odor is hot. Scent is the most effective way to communicate readiness to mate. Males will follow their lusty noses for miles to woo the girl of their choice. The chemical responsible for those jungle romps is a pheromone.
Pheromones are naturally occurring chemicals that transmit a message to other members of the same species. Pheromones are not always sexual and can signal alarm or food. Humans produce pheromones too, from the apocrine, or sweat, glands, which kick into high gear during puberty. Pheromones could explain why we become attracted to others around this time. They could also be behind the “chemistry” we feel when we meet someone particularly lust-inducing. However, their role in human attraction is unclear.

Controversy over whether or not aphrodisiacs are effective is ongoing in the medical world. Arousal and attraction are so subjective that it is difficult to accurately judge the effect of an aphrodisiac. This should remind us that, no matter what we eat, see, or spritz, the mind is the most potent aphrodisiac of all.