What Are Aphrodisiacs? A Guide To Their Benefits For Men & Women

Published on June 22, 2023

By Kristen Boye BS, Natural Health

Kristen Boye

Kristen Boye is a natural health expert, writer, copywriter, and editor. Kristen was raised on an organic farm in British Columbia which inspired her life’s work. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Natural Health, is a Certified Natural Foods Chef, co-owner of a medicinal herb farm, and is a natural foods and children’s health advocate. Kristen lives with her husband and two children on their medicinal herb farm in Western North Carolina.

Aphrodisiacs in foods, herbs, and other substances have been used across cultures since time immemorial to enhance sexual desire, performance, and various aspects of sexual function.

Today, numerous natural aphrodisiacs are marketed aggressively (especially to men) as “the magic solution” to support libido, reproductive health, and overall sexual satisfaction. However, as we all know, there is no magic solution for any health concern.

This belief raises some important questions we’ll address in this article: 

  • What are aphrodisiacs, and what are they used for?
  • How do aphrodisiacs work?
  • What types of aphrodisiacs are available?
  • Do natural aphrodisiacs, such as foods and herbs, work?
  • Are aphrodisiacs safe?

    What Are Aphrodisiacs?

    Aphrodisiacs are any food, plant, mineral, or other substance or practice that enhances or promotes healthy sexual function, desire, pleasure, and performance. 

    The word "aphrodisiac" comes from Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. 

    Nearly every traditional culture relied on some type of natural aphrodisiac: REF#2073

    • For the ancient Mayans, it was Maca Root.
    • Africans and Europeans used Mandrake Root. 
    • In some Asian cultures, Spanish Fly or ground rhinoceros horn were used to “set the mood.”

    In comparison, synthetic aphrodisiacs, such as Viagra, are a new addition to a long line of traditional aphrodisiacs.

    3 Types of Aphrodisiacs

    There are three categories of aphrodisiacs based on their mode of action:

    1. Those that provide libido support,
    2. Those that promote potency,
    3. And those that enhance sexual pleasure.

    As previously mentioned, aphrodisiacs can be any substance or practice supporting sexual function and desire, including foods, minerals, herbs and spices, animals, or pharmaceutical or recreational drugs.

    Some people also swear by certain practices, such as different types of meditation, exercises, or yoga, as aphrodisiacs.

    For this article, we’ll be discussing the history and function of natural aphrodisiacs in the form of foods, plants, and herbs.

    How Do Natural Aphrodisiacs Work?

    Although more research is needed to explain their function, certain natural aphrodisiacs have been shown to work in different ways.

    Spicy foods, for example, are believed to work by supporting circulation, which may promote healthy sensation in the genitals and other erogenous zones.*

    Panax Ginseng, used in Traditional Chinese Medicine, works as an antioxidant to support nitric oxide (NO) synthesis in the endothelium of corpora cavernosa in the penis, which one small study suggests may help support normal erectile function. REF#2074

    Spanish Fly (which is toxic) has vesicant properties, meaning it can cause swelling or irritation, which may explain some of its folklore aphrodisiac applications. REF#2075

    While other foods and herbs provide key nutrients and plant compounds that may support various aspects of hormonal function.*

    Next, we’ll explore the science behind the aphrodisiac qualities of specific foods, herbs, and spices.

    Five Science-Backed Aphrodisiac Foods

    People have always used food to communicate love and affection, and create a romantic ambiance.

    However, certain foods have a reputation as aphrodisiacs—and there is research to suggest they do work.

    Here are five examples of common aphrodisiac foods backed by science.

    1. Dark Chocolate

    Chocolate, made from the exotic cacao plant, has long been celebrated as a romantic and sensual food.

    Many people, and some experts, also consider it an aphrodisiac.

    Some research shows dark chocolate may provide an aphrodisiac benefit for women. However, once the data in the study was adjusted for age, there didn’t appear to be a significant benefit. REF#2076

    However, other research suggests nutrients and phytochemicals in chocolate, such as flavonoids, methyxantin, biogenic amines, and cannabinoid-like fatty acids, may have a positive direct and indirect influence on male and female sexual health and function via their effects on nitric oxide pathways and mood. REF#2077

    More research is needed to validate chocolate’s reputation as an aphrodisiac. 

    However, if a square of dark chocolate gets you in the mood, it may be worth indulging.

    2. Oats

    Oats may be the most exotic food in the world, but they are considered an aphrodisiac.

    Research has shown oats contain L-arginine, an amino acid that may help support normal erectile function by promoting normal blood flow and blood vessel function in the penis. 

    Oats may also support normal testosterone levels, a hormone essential for sexual function and desire in men and women. REF#2078 REF#2079

    More research is needed to explain the extent to which oats may support blood flow and blood vessel function.

    However, given the many other benefits of oats, they may be a healthy addition to your nutritional regime.

    Need some oat-based inspiration? Check out this recipe for No-Bake Chewy Maca Granola Bars Recipe with Maca Powder recipe.

    3. Apples

    Apples may seem like a common fruit, but they are a prominent symbol of sexuality and fertility in mythology. REF#2080

    The ancient Greeks believed the apple was created by Dionysus, a god of fertility, who gave it to Aphrodite, the goddess of love. 

    An old Greek custom is for the bride and groom to eat an apple before retiring to their bridal chamber because it was believed to enhance fertility.

    And in China, apple blossoms are considered a symbol of women’s beauty.

    These are just a few examples of how apples have been used in myths and folklore to represent sexuality, fertility, passion, temptation, lust, and love.

    There is also modern research suggesting apples may possess an aphrodisiac effect.

    One study of 731 women ages 18-43 found the women who consumed daily apples, versus those who did not, experienced better overall sexuality. REF#2081

    Researchers hypothesize the nutritive plant compounds in apples, such as phytoestrogens, polyphenols, and antioxidants, may play a role.

    This suggests a potential aphrodisiac benefit of eating apples daily, however, more research is needed.

    Interested in tasty ways to incorporate more apples into your diet? Try this Apple Pie Smoothie Recipe With MacaBoost Vanilla Chai.

    4. Pomegranates

    Like apples, pomegranates have long been a symbol of sexuality, fertility, and rebirth.

    They’re also considered a superfood rich in antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, polyphenols, and other health-giving nutrients which support heart, neurological, inflammatory, cholesterol, gut, and cognitive function. REF#2082

    There is some research suggesting pomegranates may possess aphrodisiac properties.

    Animal studies have found pomegranate juice may support sexual function by promoting normal testosterone levels. One study found male rats given pomegranate juice extract once daily for seven days have a significant and sustained increase in sexual function. REF#2083

    A small human study also found pomegranate juice supported normal erectile function in men, but more research is needed to make a recommendation. REF#2084

    Pomegranate juice, whole fresh pomegranate, and pre-packaged pomegranate arils (juicy edible seeds inside the pomegranate) can be found year-round in many grocery stores and specialty markets.

    Pomegranate molasses, a thick syrupy reduction of pomegranate juice used extensively in Lebanese and Middle Eastern cuisine, can be found online or in Middle Eastern specialty stores.

    For an alcohol-free pomegranate-based mocktail, try the Blood Orange Spritzer Mocktail with Pomegranate Juice featured in 4 Herbal Mocktails To Spice Up Any Party.

    5. Asparagus

    Asparagus has had a reputation as an aphrodisiac across cultures.

    Some attribute its reputation to its shape and/or the fact it grows in springtime, a season associated with fertility, rebirth, and playfulness.

    However, asparagus’s aphrodisiac qualities aren’t just an old wive’s tale.

    Various forms of asparagus have been used extensively in Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda to promote healthy sex drive, fertility, semen quality, and erectile function. REF#2085

    Animal research has also shown Asparagus may promote the improvement of sexual behavior, but more research is needed to make a recommendation. REF#2086

    5 Traditional Herbal Aphrodisiacs For Women & Men

    As previously mentioned, various cultures have used specific herbs and spices as aphrodisiacs for millennia.

    Here, we explore five herbs traditionally used as aphrodisiacs that have some science to support its use.*

    1. Maca Root

    Maca root, also known as Peruvian Ginseng and scientifically known as Lepidium meyenii, is a vegetable native to the high elevations of the Andes mountain range. 

    Considered a superfood, the ancient Incans relied on Maca as a primary source of nourishment. 

    They used it to support hormonal health, stress response, fertility, respiratory health, endurance, brain health, immunity, and to support sex drive—which can be compromised at high altitudes. REF#2087

    Maca is an adaptogen, meaning it belongs to a class of herbs that support the body’s resilience to physical, mental, and emotional stress.

    However, maca’s traditional use as an aphrodisiac has made it particularly popular among modern health-seekers.*

    There is anecdotal and limited scientific evidence to support Maca’s reputation as an aphrodisiac in women REF#2088 and men REF#2089,REF#2090 . 

    The science on how Maca works as an aphrodisiac is not settled. However, some researchers believe its bioactive substances, such as prostaglandins, sterols, and aromatic isothiocyanates, are responsible for its aphrodisiac properties. REF#2091 More research is necessary to determine whether Maca Root’s aphrodisiac benefits is fact or fiction.

    Maca has also been shown to support the Hypothalamus Pituitary Adrenal (HPA)/Hypothalamus Pituitary Gonadal (HPG) axes, which could positively impact overall hormonal health, including sex hormones. REF#2092

    Maca also supports normal production of the Luteinizing hormone, which plays a role in male and female libido.* REF#2092

    Although more research is needed before recommending Maca as an aphrodisiac, preliminary research, and traditional use suggest it may have a supportive effect on sex hormones.

    Check out our blog for tasty Maca-based recipes, like: Maca Chocolate Crackle Recipes with MacaBoost Cacao Ginger.

    2. Horny Goat Weed

    You can often tell a lot about a plant from its name. In the case of Horny Goat Weed, the name says a lot!

    Native to China, legend has it a Chinese goat herder noticed an unusually high amount of sexual activity from a flock who was grazing on Horny Goat Weed.

    Other common names for this plant are Bishop’s Cap and Fairy Wings, based on the shape of the flower. Its scientific name is Epimedium.

    Epimedium has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine to support normal circulation to the extremities, and tonify kidney yang energy, a driving force for libido.*

    It’s also been studied for its potential benefits to erectile function.

    Specifically, researchers believe icariin, the active ingredient of horny goat weed, supports various aspects of normal sexual function including erectile function. REF#2093

    It is thought to work via its supportive effects on nitric oxide production, which is essential for achieving and maintaining an erection.

    More research is needed to confirm Horny Goat Weed’s reputation as an aphrodisiac.

    3. Damiana

    Damiana, also known as Turnera diffusa has been considered as an aphrodisiac in folklore for centuries. REF#2094

    Like Horny Goat Weed, it’s also a popular ingredient in many libido support supplements. However, there is limited scientific evidence supporting its traditional use.

    Animal research has shown Damiana may support healthy sexual function in male rats. REF#2094

    Researchers believe specific flavonoids in Damiana may be responsible for its aphrodisiac qualities. But more research is needed.

    Check out Herbal Reference Guide for more about Damiana's history and traditional use.

    4. Saffron

    Considered an exotic and romantic spice, Saffron, also known as Crocus sativus L. or “the golden spice,” comes from the pistil of crocuses and is one of the world’s most expensive spices.

    Saffron has also been traditionally recommended as an aphrodisiac throughout the Middle East and Europe. 

    Although studies supporting its use as an aphrodisiac are limited, some research has shown its active plant compounds, crocin and safranal, may support healthy sexual function. REF#2094

    A review of several studies examining Saffron’s potential effect on sexual function in men and women concluded it appeared to be effective but that more research was needed. REF#2095

    Although Saffron is expensive, its distinctive flavor and beautiful golden color are worth the occasional splurge! Plus, you only need a small pinch to flavor an entire dish.

    You can find several recipes featuring Saffron in soups, entrees, sauces, grain dishes, desserts, and the signature Ayurvedic beverage Golden Milk (see the traditional recipe here).

    5. Shatavari

    Shatavari’s meaning, “she who possesses a hundred husbands or acceptable to many”, leaves little doubt of its traditional use as an aphrodisiac. REF#2096

    Shatavari, also known as Asparagus racemosus (A. racemosus), Satavari, Satawar, or “The Queen of Herbs” in Ayurveda, is believed to promote love and devotion, and is considered the main Ayurvedic rejuvenating tonic for the female, as Ashwagandha is for the male.

    Shatavari has been used for thousands of years to support female sex drive, but has it been proven to work?

    Not exactly, and more research is needed.

    However, there is evidence Shatavari contains phytoestrogenic compounds, plant compounds that act like estrogen in the body. REF#2096, REF#2097

    Shatavari is also considered an adaptogen, a type of plant that helps the body optimize stress response.

    This may play a role in Shatavari’s traditional use as an aphrodisiac for women.

    Shatavari has also been studied in male rats and was shown to promote healthy sexual function. REF#2098

    Although traditional use and anecdotal evidence are strong, more research is needed to recommend Shatavari as an aphrodisiac.

    Should You Try Food Or Herbal Aphrodisiacs To Spice Up Your Sex Life?

    These food and herbal aphrodisiacs are generally safe to try to support normal sexual function.

    If you’re experiencing regular issues with sexual function, are on any type of medication, or have any pre-existing conditions, check with your doctor first as certain herbs may not be appropriate.

    When considering any aphrodisiac supplement, it is also essential to look for high-quality products from reputable companies.

    With herbal supplements especially, be sure they do not contain synthetic or drug-based enhancers and are third-party tested for identify quality, potency, and contaminants. 

    And don’t forget the role lifestyle plays in sexual function and desire!

    Research has shown an active lifestyle that encompasses nutrient-dense foods, regular exercise, self-care, stress management, maintaining a healthy weight, and optimal sleep habits are the foundation of healthy sexual desire and function in women and men. REF#2099, REF#2100

    For more information on herbs for health, check out our blog and Herbal Reference Guide.


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