"Love potions", and aphrodisiacs have been around for centuries now, and in today's science based world, there is a lot of skepticism.
This is understandable, especially since many of the folk uses of these potions come along with a lot of lore and mythology.
To begin this analysis, let's first identify WHAT it means to be an aphrodisiac:
Chahan et al., (2014) defines an aphrodisiac as a substance that stimulates sexual desire .
This definition matches the traditional uses of these substances as well, although allows a more technical description of how they might work. It does fails to acknowledge, however, the many of the other important factors that aphrodisiac herbs or substances provide in order to achieve this.
This is why the term "aphrodisiac" is a bit of a blanket term with regards to how a substance can offer improvements to ones sexual impulses.
Aphrodisiacs can exert their actions in a variety of ways, such as:
- Influencing the limbic (primal) portions of the brain
- Improve general health (particularly neurological and cardiopulmonary regions)
- Reduce stress throughout the body
- Address nutritional or hormonal deficiencies
- Combat general fatigue.
Many of these very generalized mechanisms may seem unrelated, but the overlap in these mechanisms are consistent throughout herbal aphrodisiacs.
For example, there are many substances such as herbs that provide great nutrition towards deficiencies of certain proteins or minerals that are necessary for sexual function. Once the deficiency is addressed and corrected, sexual function and subsequently, sexual desire is greatly improved. The same is with hormonal imbalance, which can also be closely related to nutritional deficiencies.
With improving general or overall health, such as with adaptogens, sexual desires can also improve greatly. If the body is not at or near its optimum, and is constantly using its resources towards repair and defensive actions, it is unlikely that the body will want to use any of this precious energy towards process of reproduction until health is achieved once again. This will no doubt negatively impact sexual desires.
These are just a few of the ways that the actions of aphrodisiacs can be connected to physiological processes within the body. The skepticism involved with these substances usually revolve around the mysticism involved with these substances, and the exaggeration of modern reporting.
Why is there so much mysticism attached to aphrodisiacs?
Perhaps it is the name "aphrodisiac" that brings with it a sense of magic since the name itself comes from mythology.
The term “Aphrodisiac” stems from the Greek goddess Aphrodite, the goddess of sensuality, pleasure, and love, who was well known for her passion and abundance of lovers.
Newer terms with less mysticism attached to them such as “sexual potency enhancer”, or simply “libido enhancer” mean the same thing medicinally and can be used interchangeably.
Whats the deal with the over-exaggeration of aphrodisiac substances?
There is an incredible amount of bogus information circulating the web these days, especially in the topic of aphrodisiacs. Ads promising complete sexual arousal after just one dose of a mysterious herbal supplement, promises of herbal viagras, and scents and perfumes that cause the opposite sex to become instantly and incredibly aroused.
These products simply do not exist. Aphrodisiacs in the natural world work more subtly, but often have long lasting effects. They help the body achieve it's sexual functions through regulating various parts of the body, and many of them also work by association.
For example, roses are often featured as a symbol of love and sexuality, and to many people this simple association is enough to cause a physiological change in the body which can increase sexual appetite. The scent of a rose, or its color is often enough to trigger subtle impulses for sexual activity in the brain. This is the beauty of the limbic system my friends.
This is true with other things as well, such as the famous experiemnt of Pavlovs dogs.. For those who dont known about it, he would basically ring a bell before each time he delivered a meal to some dogs. AAfter a while, these dogs associated the bell with food and would cause physiological actions within the body in anticipation of this food. He found that simply by ringing this bell after the association was made, the dogs would begin to salivate, releasing healthy doses of the enzyme amylase in order to digest the food they expected to recieve.
Again, this is mainly due to the limbic system and works very well in humans. It can work via sight and sound, but is intimatly cnnected with scent through the olefactory bulb in the brain.
Association does not necessarily mean the substance is not an aphrodisiac however, and in many cases the association has arisien because they in fact DO have aphrdisiac qualities as in the case of roses, and chocolate which are both have planty of evidence to back up their effectiveness. Fake rose scents however, as with any other synthetic scent have no physical actions and in fact may damage parts of the brain responsible for sexual desire. The association however will still work on an untrained nose, and can cause this cephalic type response as seen in Pavlovs dogs, only with sexual desire instead.
Placebo is another mechanism companies use in order to sell their products, especially the ones lacking adequate evidence. They would market their products with choice copy, and sell these substances as "herbal viagra" or with other clever sex-related names in order to cause the consumer to truly believe the product was going to cause these effects.
It is likely that many of these claims did hold true, since the individuals purchasing the product were under the expectation that it would cause an increase in sexual desires which led to a ohsiological change within the body. Placebos are real, and can actually be an effective treatment in many cases. They are considered throughout the scientific community to account for about 30% of cases, and this is taken into account in the analysis of any good quality study. It is not okay however, when health claims are being made on products with little or no effectiveness medicinally. This also means, that in roughly 70% of the people, they do absolutly nothing at all.
The problem continues once these substances are investigated further, and found to have little or no real effects outside of the slight chance of placebo. Other areas of the media then report on these false aphrodisiacs, and the whole world begins to believe the whole subject is bogus.
Since aphrodisiacs are not considered a medical treatment, they can go highly unregulated, which means a huge amount of these bogus products have been released into the market making it really easy to find one, analyse it, and find very little or no active ingredients in it at all.
How might an aphrodisiac work?
There are many mechanisms of action for any one aphrodisiac substance to work off. Most aphrodisiacs do other actions first however, and only indirectly affect sexual desire as a sort of "side-effect". That said, there does exist substances that can be seen directly affecting the sexual centers of the brain, or stimulating the sex hormones directly.
Substances that specifically trigger sexual impulses have been found to act on either the central nervous system (brain), or the peripheral nervous system (outside the brain).
Herbs or drugs that go to work on the central nervous system, can be seen registering in the sexual centres of the brain through various medical scans and tests. These sexual centers are probably stimulated through either the limbic system, (as with many aromatic aphrodisiacs), or through neurotransmitter regulation.
Lets look closer at neurotransmitters and their effect on sexual function.
There are 5 main neurotransmitters that work together to produce sexual arousal, these include norepinephrine, dopamine, serotonin, acetylcholine, and histamine. The most widely believed hypotheses around this is that serotonin plays an inhibitory role, while dopamine plays an excitatory role, especially in males . This is why herbs (and other substances) promoting healthy neurotransmitter function, especially those offering dopaminergic support, can have such a powerful effect on sexual function.
A great example of a powerful aphrodisiac working through regulation of dopamine is the Amazonian tree Catuaba (Trichilium catigua).
Peripheral Nervous System, Hormones, and Circulation
Other actions strongly affecting sexual function occur with some herbs through increasing the blood supply to the genitalia, increasing Nitric oxide (an atypical regulatory molecule), and androgen-based effects (hormones) .
Although we cannot test for magical or energetic effects on sexual desire, we can effectively test the physiological effects that plants and other natural medicines have on the body. Most theories regarding neuro-chemical influence over sexual behaviour is derived from what we have learned studying animals . We can then support many of these hypotheses through clinical studies and trials.
How we test the effectiveness of aphrodisiac substances
(And other medicinal actions of course)
Below is a picture illustrating the process of testing substances for medicinal use. Various traditional aphrodisiacs have made it all the way through this pyramid to the top (clinical practice) and has stayed consistent with its findings.
Beginning at the bottom, herbal concentrations are tested on animals, and cell cultures to identify mechanisms of action. From here, case reports of traditional medicine practitioners add to the pool of evidence towards their use. These are usually individual cases and harder to externally validate.
Next come case control studies which comes closer to applying the scientific method but is still only small or individual cases.
Cohort studies and clinical trials are usually considered the best for investigating the use of the medicinal substance to then be applied to the general public.
Meta analysis then combines many of these trials together to make the population statistics much broader and are generally the final stage a substance is put through before the evidence is finally agreed upon to be consistent and reproducable.
"Aphrodisiacs do work, and there is a great deal of evidence as to how each individual substance exerts their effects within the body" This evidence is tainted with bogus products offering false promises throughout the market.
A few herbs with scientifically validated effects as aphrodisiacs:
(And a brief description to their main mechanism of actions)
1. Epimedium brevicornum
- Improves synthesis of nitric oxide .
2. Lepidium meyenii (Maca)
- Improves spermatogenesis, and androgen production [3, 7]
- For more info on Lepidium meyenii click here.
3. Panax ginseng (Ginseng)
- Improves synthesis of nitric oxide .
- Increases energy, lowers stress, and fights fatigue .
4. Passiflora spp. (Passionflower)
- Lowers stress hormones such as corticosterone 
- Shown to increase sperm count, litter size, and overall sexual function in mice 
- For more information on Passiflora spp. click here.
5. Pfaffia paniculata (Suma)
- Improves androgen production [3, 6]
- This herb is considered an adaptogen as well.
- For more information on Pfaffia paniculata click here.
6. Ptychopetalum olacoides (Muira puama)
- Improves relaxation of the corpus cavernosum 
- Acts through improvement of neurotransmitters.
- For more information on Ptychopetalum olacoides click here.
7. Trichilia catigua (Catuaba)
- Dopaminergic actions 
- For more information on Trichilia catigua click here.
For a world map of sexual potency herbs, and descriptions on 30 of these herbs, check THIS out!
- C.B Filho, C.R. Jesse, F. Donato, R. Giacomeli, L. Del Fabbro, M. Da Silva Antunes, M. G. De Gomes, A. T. R. Goes, S. P. Boeira, M. Prigol and L. C. Souza. (2015). Chronic unpredictable mild stress decreases BDNF and NGF levels and Na+, K+. -ATPase activity in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex of mice: Antidepressant effect of chrysin. Neuroscience 289. i367-380. Retrieved from the web.
- E. Antunes, W. M. Gordo, J. F. de Oliveira, C. E. Teixeira, S. hyslop, and G. De Nucci. (2001). The relaxation of isolated rabbit Corpus Cavernosum by the Herbal Medicine Catuama® and its Constituents. Phytotherapy research. 15. 416-421. Doi: 10.1002/ptr.861 retrieved from the web.
- N. S. Chauhan, Vikas Sharma, V. K. Dixit, and Mayank Thakur. (2014). A Review on Plants Used for Improvement of Sexual Performance and Virility. BioMed Research International. Vol 2014.
- J.H Chiu, K.K Chen, T.M Chien, W.F Chiou, C.C Chen, J-Y Wang, W-Y Lui and C.W Wu. (2006). Epimedium brevicornum Maxim extract relaxes rabbit corpus cavernosum through multi targets on nitric oxide/cyclic guanosine monophosphate signaling pathway. International Journal of Impotence Research. 18, 335–342. doi:10.1038/sj.ijir.3901437
- M.M. Campos, Elizabeth S. Fernandes, Juliano Ferriera, Adair R. S. Santos, Joao B. Calixto. (2005). Antidepressant-like effects of Trichillia catigua (Catuaba) extract: evidence for dopaminergic-mediated mechanisms. Phytopharmacology. 182. 45-53. Retrieved from the web.
- M. Oshima, and Y. Gu. (2003). Pfaffia paniculata-induced changes in plasma estradiol-17β, progesterone and testosterone levels in mice. Journal of Reproduction and Development. 49. 2. 175-180.
- Taylor, L. (2005). The healing power of rainforest herbs: A guide to understanding and using herbal medicinals. Garden City Park, NY: Square One Publishers.