Aphrodisiacs can spark sexual imagination, but probably not libido

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    No particular food is linked to desire…scientifically, anyway.

    So what do we know about the power of food to rev up sex drive? Not much.

    “Really science has not figured what determines sexual motivation and sexual attraction; if we knew the answer to that we’d probably would be richer than Pfizer after they invented Viagra,” said Delores Lamb, director of the Center for Reproductive Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.

    She hasn’t seen any compelling evidence that any particular food can intensify desire.

    Lamb is a men’s health researcher and knows a lot about the intricacies of male plumbing, but she says desire is largely psychological. Even medicines that treat erectile dysfunction can’t create enthusiasm.

    “So the trigger still has to be up in the brain,” Lamb said.

    The nutraceutical industry plays up the idea and “preys on people” looking for a testosterone boost, but no food we eat directly affects those hormones, Lamb said.

    Still the idea persists that ginger stirs up lust, or that hot peppers make you “hot.”

    “Probably for some folks they do, and it’s certainly fun to try,” Lamb said.

    Some legendary aphrodisiacs do have a chemical here or a nutrient there that might support sexual health, but not enough of it to make an immediate difference in the bedroom.

    Red, juicy watermelon, for example, contains the amino acid citrulline, and that plant nutrient is healthy for erectile tissue in both men and women. But most of the amino acid is found in the rind of the fruit.

    Consider chili peppers. Capsaicin, which is what provides the heat in a jalapeno, also raises your metabolism and releases feel-good endorphins.

    “You get kind of a chill down the back of your neck and kind of a tingly good sensation,” Lamb said. “Gets blood flowing better.”

    “Maybe while you are eating those hot peppers, your brain remembers those feelings, and goes, ‘Oh, I had a similar experience, except I was horizontal and not vertical and I was with my lover,’ and so, you start making those associations,” said Susana Mayer, a clinical sexologist in Philadelphia. Her specialty is helping clients connect with their libidos.

    There’s not a lot of research on aphrodisiacs, but Mayer conducted a casual survey at the discussion group she hosts called the Erotic Literary Salon.

    “I asked them, had anybody ever experienced the effects of an aphrodisiac, of a food that was considered an aphrodisiac…not one hand went up,” Mayer said.

    People at the discussion group said they do get turned when they watch an intimate partner eat, and that suggests a whole different category of aphrodisiacs that remind us of our anatomy.

    For example, avocados grow in pairs—literally two globes of ripe, low-hanging fruit.

    Mayer’s a big fan of chocolate. This Valentine’s Day she and her lover both bought truffles for each other. The tryptophan in chocolate helps create the brain chemical serotonin, which is activated during sexual arousal. Chocolate also contains a stimulant. But Mayer guesses that the way she and her lover shared the chocolate was what mattered most.

    “We decided to feed each other,” she said.

    Sexual health expert Delores Lamb says sharing food is often a prelude to intimate moments, because sharing food leads to intimate conversation and that helps create an emotional bond.

    That is sexual satisfaction in the fullest sense, she said.

    Food scientist Cathy Kapica says sexual innuendo may be the most important active ingredient in any aphrodisiac, that or culture.

    “In ancient Persia for example, young couples would sit under pistachio nut trees, and if they could hear the nuts cracking open that would mean they would have a very happy life together, so in that part of the world the pistachio nut is considered the love nut,” said Kapica.

    In the slim research that exists on aphrodisiacs, fertility and sexual function become a proxy for desire. In one study, researchers fed saffron to men then evaluated “tip rigidity” and “tumescence,” a measure of how swollen something gets. That study and most others, end with the conclusion: “More research is needed.”

    Kapica is a nutritional consultant, and through her company the Awegrin Institute, she analyzes ingredients for large food companies. The big thing that “love foods” have in common is that many of them were once considered rare or expensive, she said. Think about champagne, dark chocolate, saffron and oysters.

    “When do you eat oyster? Usually, when you go out. It’s a special occasion, you’re with that special someone, maybe you order oysters to impress them,” Kapica said.

    Oysters are also a good source of zinc—and zinc is important to sperm production. It makes sense then that oyster reputation for boosting sexual prowess, but Kapica says that doesn’t make it science.

    “They don’t have any superpower that’s going to make you a super lover,” she said.

    Still, it’s fun to try, and sexologist Susana Mayer was willing to sample a few oysters at the Oyster House in Philadelphia.

    Even on a weekday evening the raw bar was packed with 30-somethings drinking after work. A horseshoe shaped bar with seafood piled high on ice sits in the middle of the restaurant.

    Third-generation owner Sam Mink recommended Massachusetts oysters from Buzzards Bay and Sweet Amalia oysters, which are grown in Delaware Bay.

    Aphrodisiacs are named after the goddess of love, Aphrodite, who was born from a giant scallop. Oysters are most notorious for making people randy, but clams, scallops and other seafood that resemble a sex organ also have that reputation.

    Perhaps that’s why couples sometimes canoolde at the seafood bar.

    “We also have quite a few gentlemen—it’s always older gentlemen—that ask us: ‘Please make sure one of these works,'” Mink said.

    When Mayer looked around the restaurant, she said she suspected that there’s some kind of arousal feedback loop that happens when you see an oyster slip between someone’s lips.

    “Some of them are curved, some of them are more oval, and I think you could, in fact say they look like a vulva. I think you probably could say anything does, depending on what state of mind you were in,” Mayer said.

    The look of oysters didn’t do anything for Mayer, but the so-called “slimy texture” turned out to be pleasant.

    “It feels quite refreshing, they’re cold, and these in particular have a nice, almost sweet taste to them,” she said. Just like the scientist, the sexologist says the power of aphrodisiacs is mostly about belief and anticipation.

    “Cuz your brain says: ‘Oh, it’s going to turn me on,'” Mayer said.

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