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In the pursuit of sexual success and fertility, the moon, and everything under it, has been touted as an aphrodisiac by some person or culture. Love potion peddlers stop at nothing to sell their sexual exciters. An aphrodisiac is a food, drink, drug, scent, or device that, promoters claim, can arouse or increase sexual desire, libido, or improve sexual performance.

Named after Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of sexual love and beauty, the list of supposed sexual stimulants includes anchovies and adrenaline, liquorice and lard, scallops and Spanish fly, and hundreds of other items.

The reputed sexual effects of so-called aphrodisiacs are not based in scientific fact, but in ad hoc endeavours to increase sexual potency. To date, there are no scientifically known over-the-counter drugs that actually increase sexual desire or responsiveness.

Countering Cultural Views

Sometimes the reason for an item’s legendary reputation is obvious. It’s easy to imagine how the sex organs of animals such as goats and rabbits, known for their pro-creativeness, have achieved their esteemed status as love aids in some cultures.

Chillies, curries, and other spicy foods have been viewed as aphrodisiacs because their physiological effects – a raised heart rate and sweating – are similar to the physical reactions experienced during sex. Some foods were glorified as aphrodisiacs based on their rarity and mystery (i.e., chocolate and tomatoes). While chocolate was once considered the ultimate aphrodisiac, the reputation wore off as it became commonly available and is now known to provide the same chemicals to the brain that are released during and after sexual intercourse.

Many ancient peoples reasoned that an object resembling genitalia might possess sexual powers. Ginseng, rhinoceros horn, and oysters are three classical examples.

The word ginseng means “man root,” and the plant’s reputation as an aphrodisiac probably arises from its marked similarity to the human body. Ginseng has been looked on as an invigorating and rejuvenating agent for centuries in China, Tibet, Korea, Indochina, and India. The root may have a mild stimulant action, like coffee. There have been some experiments reporting a sexual response in animals treated with ginseng, but there is no evidence that ginseng has an effect on human sexuality.

The similarity of the shape of the rhinoceros horn to the penis is credited for its worldwide reputation as a libido enhancer. The horn contains significant amounts of calcium and phosphorus. The addition of the food to a deficient diet could improve general physical vigour and possibly lead to an increased sexual interest. But in the North American diet there is no lack of calcium or phosphorus, and the small quantities consumed from rhinoceros horn would have no effect. Furthermore, it is a black market good because the rhinoceros is an endangered species, for the exact reason that greedy poachers have murdered the rhinoceros for its horn.

Because Aphrodite was born from the sea, many types of seafood have reputations as aphrodisiacs. Oysters are particularly esteemed as sex aids, possibly gaining their reputation at a time when their contribution of zinc to the nutritionally deficient diets of the day could improve overall health and so lead to an increased sex drive.

A Shortage of Studies

There is no proof that ginseng, rhinoceros horn, or oysters have an effect on human sexual reaction. Some big obstacles exist to answering this question. The placebo effect is one scientific stumbling block. The mind is the most potent aphrodisiac there is, and it is very difficult to evaluate something someone is taking because if you tell him or her it’s an aphrodisiac, the hope of a certain response might actually lead to an additional sexual reaction that has no relation to the actual chemical being evaluated.

Because the psychological complications are absent in animals, some studies have been done on the effect of certain drugs on animals’ sexual activity. One substance that was tested extensively is yohimbine. Obtained from the bark of an African tree, yohimbine has been used for centuries in Africa and West India for its supposed aphrodisiac properties. It supposedly works by stimulating the nerve centres in the spine that control erection. However, animal studies cannot be relied on to show the effectiveness of the drug in humans.

In people, the only available evidence is anecdotal and subjective. To scientifically measure sexual stimulation, a valid human study would have to be performed in the laboratory, comparing a placebo (an inert pill with no active ingredients) to the test aphrodisiac. Preferably, neither the researchers nor the patients would know who was getting the test substance. Because of cultural taboos, few such studies have been undertaken.

A second obstacle to obtaining proof of aphrodisiac effects is that some drugs and alcohol may not actually have specific sexual effects, but may change a person’s mood and therefore seem to be an aphrodisiac. For example, alcohol has been called a “social lubricant.” People drink for many reasons, including: relaxation, reduced anxiety, boosting self-confidence, and overcoming depression. Because sexual problems can be caused or worsened by psychological stress, moderate drinking might seem like a sexual enhancer. In fact, it merely lessens inhibitions. Alcohol is actually a depressant, and drinking too much actually decreases desire.

Sorry Folks

Despite the lack of scientific evidence of safety and effectiveness, the fraudulent love potion industry thrives to this day. Marketers of purchasable love use a blatant “it-will-work” approach and have no ability to provide facts to back that claim.

Aphrodisiac experimentation isn’t just a rip-off – it can be deadly. Spanish fly, or cantharides, is probably the most legendary aphrodisiac – and the most dangerous. Made from dried beetle remains, the reported sexual excitement from Spanish fly comes from the irritation to the uro-genital tract and a resultant rush of blood to the sex organs. But Spanish fly is a poison that burns the mouth and throat and can lead to genitourinary infections, scarring of the urethra, and even death.

To avoid being taken for their money or their lives, individuals with sexual problems should seek a physician’s advice. A lack of sexual energy or ability in men or women could be caused by something as simple as stress or a medication one is taking, or as serious as an underlying condition like diabetes or high blood pressure.

A doctor can diagnose a sexual problem and recommend treatment. If necessary, a doctor can prescribe a drug to treat sexual dysfunction. Testosterone replacement therapy is one prescription option for men whose natural testosterone level is not within the normal range, but its serious potential side effects call for a physician’s supervision. For those with an impotence problem that isn’t caused by low testosterone levels, there are many options available that must be discussed with a qualified physician.

People will continue to have false hopes of finding easy ways of resolving their problems and in today’s society of “quick-fixes” the hunt for the elusive love drug persists. The only aphrodisiac that experts agree upon is that what’s good for your overall health is probably good for your sexual health too. A good diet, a regular exercise program, and a healthy mental state are a more dependable path to better sex than are goats’ eyes, deer sperm, or prairie oysters.

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