An aphrodisiac is a food, drink or substance that stimulates sexual desire. Throughout history, aphrodisiac foods and plant-based remedies have been consumed in the hope of inspiring lust between amorous couples. Today, certain ingredients retain their reputation as bona-fide libido boosters – but is the link between libido and nutrition an urban myth?
We spoke to Dr Sarah Brewer, medical director of Healthspan, Camilla Constance, a sex and intimacy coach, Dr Clare Morrison, GP at Medexpress, and Julia Margo, sex expert and co-founder of Hot Octopuss about the connection between sex and food and what you can eat to kickstart your sex drive:
What foods are aphrodisiacs?
Sadly pizza is not a known aphrodisiac (although we think it's seriously sexy!) but a large number of foods are said to be on the hit list - with varying degrees of scientific backing. ‘Some foods gain aphrodisiac status because they contain high levels of vitamins or minerals thought to be beneficial to a healthy libido,’ Constance explains.
Others are known to trigger mood-altering neurotransmitters – chocolate stimulates serotonin production, for example. Several more have come to be known as aphrodisiac foods for their suggestive shape alone.
Read on for a comprehensive list of foods that may help to enhance your bedroom antics and kick-start your libido:
Watermelon contains the phytonutrients lycopene and citrulline, which increase the amount of nitric acid in the body and relax blood vessels, says Dr Morrison. According to one study, the effect in the body is similar to that of Viagra. However, the effect is not just limited to men – watermelon is also likely to increase sex drive in women as well.
2. Hot chillies
We know that capsaicin, the compound that gives chillies their spiciness, triggers the release of feel-good neurochemicals called endorphins. But did you know it’s also said to boost libido? While there’s little evidence to back this up, given the many proven health benefits of chillis, it’s worth adding them to your favourite dish every now and again. Just be sure to wash your hands before you touch any sensitive areas...
3. Maca root powder
Maca, a Peruvian root vegetable and popular superfood powder, has been found to increase libido by researchers. One study found that maca may help to boost sexual desire for people taking SSRI antidepressants, which are known to lower sex drive. Maca contains arginine, which has been linked to increased levels of testosterone.
It’s not just about the look of this phallic veggie – due to its high vitamin E content, asparagus can increase blood and oxygen flow to the genitals, says Dr Warren. This fibrous veggie also contains high levels of potassium, which is linked to sex hormone production.
5. Dark chocolate
Dark chocolate contains a chemical called phenylethylamine (PEA), which acts like amphetamines in the brain, triggering a release of the hormones norepinephrine and dopamine to create feelings of euphoria. Unfortunately it doesn’t last long in your body, which means chocolate probably won’t replace Viagra any time soon.
Regular old honey has been used as a natural libido booster for centuries, though there’s little evidence of its aphrodisiac properties. However it does contain boron, which helps to regulate hormone levels, and nitric oxide, which could increase blood flow during arousal.
When Casanova ate 60 oysters a day, he was onto something. Bivalve mollusks – which also includes clams, mussels and scallops – have proven desire-inducing properties. They contain a sex hormone-boosting amino acid called D-aspartic acid, and are also very high in zinc.
‘A lack of zinc can lead to low sex drive, low sperm count, impaired fertility and impotence in males,’ says Dr Brewer. ‘Many men are deficient, as zinc is so important for male sexual health. Each ejaculate contains around 5 mg zinc – one third of the daily requirement.’
High in vitamin C and lactic acid, sauerkraut is said to be responsible for increased sexual activity in males, Dr Brewer says. When volunteers ate three plates of German pickled cabbage a day, 90 per cent claimed that their jaded sexual appetites had been banished, researchers in Pittsburgh found.
Apparently truffles – not the chocolate variety, the fungus – contain natural pheromones called androstenone and androstenol, which give them their musky scent. If you decide to go down this route, don’t bother with bottled or tinned truffles, as they’re not especially flavoursome.
Fire up the grill, because steak boosts female arousal, according to studies at the University of Texas. This is because lean red meat boosts dopamine and norepinephrine levels. It's also choc-full of zinc, making it a potential aphrodisiac for men too.
Wine stimulates the hypothalamus, which is the part of the brain responsible for your sex drive, says Margo. ‘The presence of antioxidants and amines in wine, as well as endorphin release triggered by its ingestion, may play a role as well,’ she says. ‘Red wine is believed to be a stronger aphrodisiac than white.’
A popular herb in Chinese medicine, this oval-shaped root has been used to treat low libido and sexual function in men and women, Dr Warren explains. Research shows red ginseng to be at least twice as effective as a placebo at improving erectile function. Another study found that it may improve sexual arousal in women.
13. Pistachio nuts
Don’t underestimate those little green nuts – they’re a rich source of the amino acid arginine, known for boosting blood flow. Eating 100 grams of pistachios every day for three weeks improved erectile function in men with a history of erectile dysfunction, researchers from Atatürk Teaching and Research Hospital found.
Aside from their suggestive shape, bananas are a source of bromelain, a digestive enzyme that triggers testosterone production. Plus, the phallic fruit contains around 10 per cent of your daily potassium intake and approximately 35 per cent of your vitamin B6 requirements; both crucial for energy levels.
An apple a day... makes women want to get jiggy, according to research published in the journal General Gynecology. Ladies who chomped an apple every day reported significantly better sex lives. The effects are thought to be due to a phytoestrogen called phloridzin, which promotes arousal, lubrication, and sexual function.
You mightn’t think celery could get you all hot and bothered, but the stalks are packed with the same pheremones as truffles – androstenone and androstenol. When you munch the crunchy snack, it’s said to subtly boost your arousal and makes you more appealing to prospective lovers.
This expensive spice has been shown to have aphrodisiac properties in men and women taking antidepressants – medication that is known to dampen down libido as a sexual side effect. In one study, men who took 30mg of saffron per day for four weeks experienced improvements in erectile function. In a follow-up study on women, participants taking the same dose experienced a boost in arousal and lubrication.
Some people find the seductive appearance of a sliced fig is enough to get them hot under the collar, but there are benefits to be had from eating them, too. As well as containing sex drive-boosting amino acids, figs are a potent source of magnesium, which is essential for facilitating sex hormone production. Plus, they may also enhance the secretion of pheromones.
When the Aztecs first discovered the avocado, they named it āhuacatl, meaning ‘testicle’ (given the shape, and the fact it grows in pairs). They believed it was such a potent aphrodisiac, virgins were forbidden from leaving their houses while the harvest took place. They were onto something – avocados are packed with libido-boosting vitamins B9 and B6.
They might not look particularly sexy, but parsnips contain high concentrations of the pheremone androstenol, earning themselves a place on the aphrodisiac foods list. Not convinced? They’re also rich in boron and B-vitamins, specifically folate – one medium parsnip contains 22 per cent of your daily intake.
21. Onion juice
Fresh onion juice increases testosterone concentrations in the blood, according to a rodent study by Jordan University of Science and Technology. The optimal dose was 1ml per day – approximately 0.64ml per kilogram of human bodyweight, if you’re curious. Just don’t tell your date you’re drinking it (or expect a few strange looks if you do).
You’re most likely to find this nutrient-rich blue-green algae whizzed into a hipster smoothie. Spirulina has many proven benefits, from boosting your metabolism to improving gut health, but one of its lesser-known functions involves erectile dysfunction – according to a rodent study, anyway. Obese rats were given the human equivalent of 200 to 1,000 milligrams of spirulina daily.
This oily fish is packed with omega-3 fatty acids – the building blocks of sex hormones estrogen, testosterone, and progresterone. Omega-3’s also support your cardiovascular health, lower triglyceride levels (a type of fat in your blood), and boost the production of dopamine, which can all contribute to a boost in between-the-sheets action.
Also known as Indian ginseng, ashwagandha is part of the nightshade family, making it a distant cousin of tomatoes, aubergines and bell peppers. ‘This popular Ayurvedic herb is known for two things: one, being smelly – its name translates to ‘smells like horse’ – and two, sending sex drives through the roof,’ says Margo. ‘Added bonus: it’s an adaptogen, meaning it reduces stress levels. Capsules and glycerin-based tinctures are ways to dodge the strong smell and flavour.’
25. Tiger nuts
Tiger nuts have a history of being used to boost libido in Ayurvedic medicine, too. While not actually a nut – they’re an ‘edible tuber’ like sweet potatoes – tiger nuts have been shown to more than double the concentration of testosterone in rodents. A dose of 2g dried tiger nut powder per kg bodyweight per day cranked up testosterone by 225 per cent in 30 days.
Their potent nitric oxide content increases blood flow by causing blood vessels to dilate throughout the body – including down below. Plus, they’re packed with boron, which stimulates the production of oestrogen and testosterone. By our reckoning, beets deserve a spot on any aphrodisiac menu.
Hello, ladies! Soy products like tofu and edamame contain isoflavone compounds, which can bind to oestrogen receptors in the body. They’re classed as phytoestrogens, and stimulate a mild oestrogenic effect in the body – boosting arousal. The effects may be especially beneficial for women going through menopause.
This cruciferous veggie is known for being a nutritional powerhouse – and that extends to the vitamins and minerals involved in a healthy sex drive, too. One 90g serve of raw broccoli contains 135 per cent of your daily vitamin C intake – a powerful antioxidant that helps synthesise sex hormones including androgen, oestrogen and progesterone. Most cooking methods tank its reserves, so to retain maximum benefits, be sure to steam it.
Don’t underestimate this flavourful herb as ‘just a garnish’ – parsley is an ancient remedy for a lagging libido. It contains high quantities of apigenin, a testosterone-enhancing substance, researchers at Texas Tech University determined through test-tube studies. Apigenin is thought to have this effect by increasing StAR gene expression – StAR is a protein found in the testes and ovaries, and waning levels are linked to a decline in sex hormones as you age.
Another historic libido-booster with substance, pomegranates are extremely rich in powerful antioxidants, including punicalagins, which fight sex drive-sapping oxidative damage. Plus, daily consumption of pomegranate juice significantly increased testosterone levels in women and men, researchers at Queen Mary University Edinburgh found during a two-week study.
Do aphrodisiacs work?
Many so-called aphrodisiacs have a placebo effect – you believe they will work and therefore they do, explains Dr Brewer. ‘However, some herbs have been compared against a placebo to rule out this effect, and have been found to have a genuine action,’ she says.
St John’s Wort, Muira Puama, Korean Ginseng, Ginkgo, and L-arginine have all been linked to improvements in sexual health, including sex drive. Some have a physiological effect by improving your energy levels, acting directly on brain chemicals, or stimulating natural hormone production in the body.
Others may ‘raise low mood to overcome the loss of sex drive linked with depression, increase blood flow to the reproductive organs – which may produce feelings of engorgement, tingling or throbbing – or stimulate erotic dreams or thoughts,’ she says.
Supplements and sex drive
Certain vitamins and minerals play a key role in reproduction and libido. A lack of zinc lowers testosterone levels, for example. ‘If you have a low libido, the first step is to look at your diet and to consider taking a multivitamin and mineral supplement,’ says Dr Brewer.
The following supplements are believed to have libido-enhancing properties:
❤️ Vitamin A
Vitamin A is essential for the production of sex hormones. A higher intake of plant-based vitamin A (carotenoids) is also linked with improved male fertility.
Food sources: Eggs, milk, cheese, yoghurt, butter, oily fish, meat, margarine, dark leafy greens and yellow-orange fruits.
❤️ B vitamins
B vitamins play a crucial role in energy production and stamina. B3 enhances dilation of blood vessels during erection – an effect used to boost erectile drugs in men with diabetes.
B vitamin food sources: Yeast extracts, brown rice, wholegrain bread and cereals, seafood, poultry and meat, pulses, nuts, eggs, dairy products and green leaves.
Boron is involved in male and female sex hormone production. Increased intakes have been shown to boost testosterone levels within one week.
Boron food sources: Almost all fruit, vegetables and nuts, especially almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, peanut butter, raisins, apricots, avocado and red kidney beans.
Chromium is an essential trace mineral found in low doses in many foods. Deficiency has been linked with lowered sex drive.
Chromium food sources: Wholegrain cereals, egg yolk, red meat, cheese, fruit and fruit juice, honey, vegetables and condiments such as black pepper and thyme.
Your body needs iodine to make thyroid hormones. Deficiency causes fatigue, lowered sex drive and reduced fertility.
Iodine food sources: Seafood, seaweed and iodised salt.
Iron help to make the proteins that transport oxygen from the lungs all around the body. Deficiency causes lack of energy, a common reason for low libido.
Iron food sources: Red meat, seafood, wheatgerm, wholemeal bread, egg yolk, green vegetables, prunes and other dried fruit.
This mineral is needed to maintain sexual arousal and testosterone levels, especially in older men.
Phosphorous food sources: Dairy products, yeast, soya beans, nuts, whole grains, eggs, poultry, meat and fish.
Selenium is an essential mineral that plays a critical role in several systems in the body. Deficiency is linked with lowered sex drive and reduced fertility.
Selenium food sources: Brazil nuts, broccoli, mushrooms, cabbage, radishes, onions, garlic, celery, whole grains, yeast and seafood.
Essential for male sexual maturity. Low zinc levels can cause low sex drive, impaired fertility and erectile dysfunction.
Zinc food sources: Red meat, seafood, yeast, whole grains, pulses, eggs, and cheese.
The bottom line
Aphrodisiacs, like so much in human sexuality, are very individual, says Constance. ‘What accelerates desire in one person could be very different to what accelerates desire in another.’
Rather than looking for a quick fix foods and supplements, Constance suggests taking a piece of paper, folding it in half, and listing your personal aphrodisiacs on one side, with any turn-offs on the other.
‘You can then use this list to inform your own choices and requests and share your list with your partner,’ she says. ‘It’s a very powerful way of understanding that we are all different and actually a lot less puzzling than we think we are.’
Last updated: 08-02-2021
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