The quest for sexual satisfaction is as old as civilization itself. Can 21st-century medicine unravel the secret? Despite good-quality clinical studies, the holy grail of aphrodisiacs remains to be found.
For many couples, a happy sex life is key for long-term happiness. But sexual dysfunction and loss of interest in sex are common issues, affecting sexual happiness and relationship satisfaction.
In 2015, a panel of experts reviewed scientific studies investigating sexual dysfunction in men and women.
Writing in The Journal of Sexual Medicine, they conclude that “[…] that the most frequent sexual dysfunctions for women are desire and arousal dysfunctions. In addition, there is a large proportion of women who experience multiple sexual dysfunctions.”
Are aphrodisiacs the answer to getting our sex lives back on track?
According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), “[A]ny product that bears labeling claims that it will arouse or increase sexual desire, or that it will improve sexual performance, is an aphrodisiac drug product.”
Bold claims have been made about many potential aphrodisiacs, which range from commonly used spices and exotic plant extracts to animal organs and ground insects.
Many of these are steeped in history and long-held cultural beliefs, but little scientific evidence actually exists to show that they have the desired effects.
Some products, such as yohimbine — which is extracted from the bark of the West African Yohimbe tree — have been linked with severe health risks, such as heart attacks and seizures, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.
Luckily, we are slowly emerging from the dark ages of aphrodisiac research, with the number of good-quality studies — aiming to get to the bottom of which compounds are safe and how they work — steadily increasing.
In a review of the scientific evidence underpinning natural aphrodisiacs, Dr. Elizabeth West, from the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of California at Irvine, and Dr. Michael Krychman, from the Southern California Center for Sexual Health and Survivorship Medicine in Newport Beach, explain that “while the data are still limited, ginkgo, ginseng, maca, and Tribulus have promising data behind them.”
Ginkgo has been shown to increase blood flow to the peripheral organs, including the genitals. While one study showed an improvement in sexual function in both men and women, these findings were not supported in another study, according to Drs. West and Krychman.
Ginkgo is well-tolerated by most people, but it can cause risk of excessive bleeding, they caution.
Several double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical studies support the notion that ginseng is effective for erectile dysfunction, and — to a lesser studied degree — can improve sexual arousal in menopausal women.
As with ginkgo, there may be side effects, which include minor gastrointestinal symptoms. Those with hormone-sensitive cancers should avoid using ginseng.
According to Drs. West and Krychman, “Research in rodents has shown that maca [an Andean root vegetable] effectively enhanced libido and improved erectile function after supplementation.”
Although three clinical studies showed improvement in sexual function in women and men, another trial did not.
Tribulus terrestris, which is a plant traditionally used in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine, contains a compound that is converted to dehydroepiandrosterone, a natural steroid hormone.
“A rodent study showed increased sperm production after Tribulus supplementation,” say Drs. West and Krychman. Sexual satisfaction in the women taking Tribulus terrestrial was improved in several studies — including a 2017 trial — while semen quality and erectile dysfunction in men also saw a boost.
Despite the increase in good-quality clinical studies, the FDA caution that “[t]here is a lack of adequate data to establish general recognition of the safety and effectiveness of any […] ingredients […] for OTC [over-the-counter] use as an aphrodisiac.”
They issue a further warning:
“Based on evidence currently available, any OTC drug product containing ingredients for use as an aphrodisiac cannot be generally recognized as safe and effective.”
So, before you rush off to stock up on any purported aphrodisiac, it might be worth bearing this warning in mind. Talking to your healthcare provider, rather than taking matters into your own hands, could be a safer option altogether.