Turn on some sultry stereo tunes, step into something a bit more “comfortable”, and devour a dish that livens up your libido. We associate certain foods with arousal, but can food directly kickstart our sexual desire? Learn what an aphrodisiac food is and if it really sets the mood or if it's all in our minds.
What is an aphrodisiac?
Aphrodisiacs have been around for ages, acting as “love potions” to increase our sex drive and boost fertility. Various products and practices have been created by many cultures in order to feed this humanistic need.
An aphrodisiac is a food, drink, drug, or substance that arouses and ignites the desire to get it on. Put more scientifically, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defines aphrodisiac drugs as, “any product that bears labeling claims that it will arouse or increase sexual desire, or that it will improve sexual performance.” (1)
Aphrodisiac by association
Most aphrodisiacs are unfortunately exaggerated. The foods, drinks, or supplements that claim to create a path towards climax are based on our associations with them. There are foods that we love or enjoy by association of experiences, smells, and tastes that remind us of oh-so fun times.
These associations activate our brain's reward center, which indicates pleasure. Our positive associations with certain foods can create a link with excitement. Food also makes us think “dirty” because of its shape or texture: bananas, cucumbers, peaches, and oysters for example. Some foods may even remind us of sensual movie scenes.
Aphrodisiac foods to get you going
There are many foods that can make us think about sex but there is little known evidence that aphrodisiac foods can directly boost sex drive. Meaning they can promote us getting in the mood, but may not directly drive physiological arousal such as erection or clitoral blood flow. However, an overall healthy diet and lifestyle can definitely improve your sexual wellbeing.
Chocolate is a bedtime best friend. Thought to be an aphrodisiac for centuries, chocolate is rich in components that can help us feel good. Chocolate is made from the cocoa bean which is rich in the mineral magnesium. Magnesium has a natural muscle relaxing effect, helping to ease stress and making it a nice nutrient for pre-menstrual pain (2).
Cocoa also contains phenylethylamine which is an amino acid (protein building block). Commonly referred to as the “love molecule”, it helps boost feel good chemicals and is associated with an antidepressant response (3).
Spicy foods are considered to “spice” things up as sexual stimulants. Eating something hot can cause tingling on the tongue and get blood flowing. Chilis contain a component called capsaicin which promotes circulation. Consuming capsaicin can lead to increased heart rate, similar to the sympathetic response during sex (more on this to come).
Capsaicin is also used to help relieve pain. It stimulates the release of compounds thought to be involved in communicating discomfort between the nerves and spinal cord to other parts of the body (4).
Oysters are one of the most well known aphrodisiacs. They not only resemble the female form and are a luxury food, they are also high in zinc. Zinc is an important mineral used for immune function and DNA repair. It supports normal growth and development, including sexual. It also helps produce testosterone which directly influences sexual function and drive (5).
Picturing honey dripping off a spoon can make anyone want to sensually lick it clean. Honey is rich in the mineral boron which beneficially impacts how well our bodies use the sex hormones: estrogen and testosterone (6).
Boron also increases magnesium absorption which is responsible for regulating sexual health factors such as protein synthesis and blood pressure. It also contains nitric oxide which helps boost blood flow.
Beets are one of the top sources of nitric oxide which helps lower blood pressure. One cause of erectile dysfunction (ED) is high blood pressure. So although it's not conclusive, some research suggests that having beetroot juice may indirectly improve ED symptoms (7).
Women may also have a low sex drive as a result of high blood pressure. This is because it may decrease the blood flow to the genitals. So improved blood pressure may help increase sensation.
Alcohol seems to be the perfect match for a date or sexy time (in small quantities). Some people report that alcohol can help them get in the mood. Drinking in moderation may help increase testosterone, a male sex hormone that can increase sexual desire. However, too much may have the opposite effect.
Hitting the booze too hard can lead to a decreased genital response, or less sensation down there (8). Alcohol is also dehydrating, which could result in less natural lubrication. The key is to practice moderation, defined as one drink per day for women and up for two drinks per day for men (9).
Many herbs and supplements have been created to the problem of low libido. The problem with supplements is that they are not regulated. In a scientific review of over 700 dietary supplements, including those marketed for sexual enhancement, 20% contained more than one unapproved ingredient (10). The ingredients in these supplements have the potential to cause serious adverse health effects, especially when combined with other medications.
Research suggests that the following products have risks that outweigh their benefit: yohimbine, Spanish fly, mad honey, and Bufo toad. Yohimbe for instance has side effects such as anxiety and overstimulation (11).
Other products are being studied for their benefit but limited data exists before making safe recommendations when it comes to safety, type, and dose. These include maca, Tribulus, Ginkgo, and ginseng (11).
Curious about libido-boosting medications? Learn more in You’re my aphrodisiac: Does “female viagra” work?
The placebo effect is the idea that your brain influences the way your body reacts, making it respond to a treatment whether it actually works or not. Examples include sugar pills or saline injections that have no noticeable effect on the body (12). Many aphrodisiac foods or supplements can have a placebo effect.
A conditioned response is a behavior that happens from pairing an original neutral stimulus with another (13). So say for instance champagne and oysters were enjoyed on a big turn-on night. There may be an association between the food and drink and the feeling it created. So popping a bottle and slurping down an oyster could cause a sexy response.
Peak pleasure: power of the mind
Stress and anxiety can sometimes kill the sex drive, acting as an anti-aphrodisiac. Biological factors can also interfere with our ability to orgasm. Our body has two modes of functioning, including the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system and it's important to activate the right one at the right time in order to feel sexual bliss.
The sympathetic nervous system is the alert mode, activated when we’re stressed or feeling threatened. During this “fight-or-flight” response, blood flows to the brain and muscles needed to help you run to safety.
To start to reach orgasm, the parasympathetic nervous system needs to be activated. This is also called the rest and digest system because it's activated when we’re relaxed. If we’re not fully in the moment, having doubts about the experience, the other person, or low self esteem, we won’t be able to activate this system and therefore have trouble orgasming.
Find out more in Emjoy's All About Orgasms wellbeing collection.
Aphrodisiac foods are technically a myth and don’t work like a magic love potion, but our minds can associate them arousal. Some foods put us in the mood because of the way they look or feel, our memories and experiences, or even what our special kissing buddies tell us about them.
If you'd like to increase your sexual desire with step-by-step audio guides that act as aphrodisiacs, download the Emjoy App, and get your juices flowing.