From Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and sexuality, comes the word aphrodisiac; you know, the stuff you eat that gets you “in the mood”. Aphrodisiacs actually come in many forms: potions, lotions and food.
These forms can be outlandish, such as sea urchins and starfish, or lavish, like champagne and oysters. But can we really eat our way to a better sex life? And if we can, what are the best – and healthiest – options?
Hong Kong dietitian Denise Fair says, “there’s a lot of hype around this, and unfortunately there is no one food that will automatically put you ‘in the mood’”. There are, however, a range of “sensual foods that tend to excite your senses, open up your blood vessels and make you feel comfortable and relaxed”.
Chocolate gets right to the heart of sexual pleasure by increasing the brain’s level of serotonin, the feel-good chemical that enhances arousal and sensation.
Most aphrodisiac foods, she says, contain nutrients or natural chemicals that support a healthy reproductive system or promote hormone production. “Others help the circulatory system by relaxing the blood vessels and muscles, or they lend visual, tactile or sensory impact to the brain – which is really the largest sex organ in the body,” Fair says.
Take plain chocolate which contains phenethylamine. Registered nutritionist Michelle Lau, founder of Hong Kong nutrition consultancy company Nutrilicious, says phenethylamine is “an organic compound which releases dopamine in the pleasure centres of the brain and encourages feelings of desire and excitement”.
“Chocolate also gets right to the heart of sexual pleasure by increasing the brain’s level of serotonin, the feel-good brain chemical that enhances arousal and sensation in both men and women,” Lau says.
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Fair says there are also numerous herbs and spices that support a good sex life. Maca root has been used for its aphrodisiac properties in Peru since ancient times, she says. “It’s known as Peru’s natural Viagra. It has been said to enhance fertility in both men and woman, and is believed to increase strength, stamina, energy and libido.
Cinnamon, she adds, “is considered one of the most effective natural aphrodisiacs. Like spicy foods, [cinnamon] heats up the body”.
“[Ginseng] is said to relax blood vessels and help men with erectile dysfunction – literally helping men rise to the occasion – while increasing sexual arousal in woman,” Fair says.
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Ginkgo biloba, extracted from the dried green leaves of the Ginkgo plant, “is a Chinese medicine that helps relax blood vessels and increase blood flow. Studies have shown it can increase desire, excitement and ability to orgasm in both females and males after consuming 60-120mg daily,” Fair says.
All of these can be taken as supplements in tablet form, or in tea.
This may not be as sexy as oysters and champagne, but there are plenty of ordinary, everyday foods that can help you get into the mood.
Diana Hoppe, an American gynaecologist and author of Healthy Sex Drive, Healthy You: What Your Libido Reveals About Your Life, says watermelon is a rich source of citrulline, an amino acid that relaxes and dilates blood vessels much like Viagra.,. Most of the citrulline in watermelon, though, is concentrated in the rind. But don’t despair, a quick surf of the internet will yield a host of rind recipes.
Hoppe also says chillies can fire up your sex life. Chillies contain a compound called capsaicin which stimulates the nerve endings on the tongue and prompts the production of epinephrine – or adrenaline – and endorphins, “our natural opiates”, she says, which will definitely get you going.
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Like cinnamon, chillies spice things up while being kind to our hearts and lowering blood pressure. And if that heat gets too much, you can cool (your palate) down with an avocado. This hit food among millennials is also, as Lau says, “a great source of nutrients that support both mental and reproductive health”.
“[Avocados contain] carotenoids, potassium, Vitamin B6 and Vitamin E, which may potentially heighten the state of arousal and the intensity of orgasm,” she says. “Plus they’re high in minerals and contain a powerful antioxidant [known as] glutathione. They are low in saturated fat, making them good for your heart and arteries while helping to achieve and maintain a healthy weight and glowing complexion.”
And, when we look good, we feel good.
But what of traditional oysters? What supports their aphrodisiacal reputation? That would be their high zinc content, which you can easily get elsewhere. As Fair notes, “pumpkin seeds and pine nuts are just as high in zinc, which is important for healthy sperm production and prevents testosterone deficiency in men”.
So, if we don’t need the oysters, what about the champagne? Sure, says Fair. “Alcohol can act as an aphrodisiac by helping us to relax and get into the mood.”
Be warned, though. “Heavy drinking can reduce arousal and sexual function,” Fair says. “Like so much, moderation is key.”