We Asked Experts if Aphrodisiacs Actually Work

written by JOSIE SANTI
Source: Shutterstock
Source: Shutterstock

“How can I improve my sex drive?” is the question heard around the world and frequented on Google searches. One of the most common answers is, of course, the mystical “aphrodisiac.” It’s like we’re all having sex life FOMO, thinking there’s some pill we can take or food we can eat to achieve that “mind-blowing sex” we all hear so much about. As a nutrition nerd myself, I have a lot of questions about whether or not food can truly boost libido—basically, I want to know if we should be buying oysters and dark chocolate in bulk. Since there’s so much controversy over the topic, I grilled sex and nutrition experts to find out what aphrodisiacs really are and if they work. Spoiler alert: The answer might surprise you. And on that cliff hanger, read on for my deep dive into aphrodisiacs and a few key takeaways that can help you improve your sex drive. 


What really are “aphrodisiacs?”

So you’ve heard the word before, but who came up with the idea that food can help you have more (and better) sex? Turns out, aphrodisiacs have a long history and are certainly nothing new. Herbs and spices (like basil, mint, and cinnamon) were used in ancient and medieval times as “love potions,” and legend has it that Aztec ruler Montezuma II drank more than 50 cups of chocolate before “entertaining a woman” (sign me up for the chocolate—no entertaining necessary!). Plus, the word itself comes from Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty. Many cultures around the world have a long history of using foods and concoctions to enhance sexual desire.

Beyond the ancient legends, aphrodisiacs have been talked about in recent history as a supplement or food that can help boost desire, drive, or pleasure. “Aphrodisiacs refer to substances such as food, drinks, drugs, or medications we put into our bodies with the goal of facilitating sexual arousal and desire,” explained Dr. Justin Lehmiller, a research fellow at The Kinsey Institute. Aphrodisiacs have been used to describe foods that are pleasurable and therefore stimulate other pleasure in the body (like chocolate), ingredients that ignite the senses (like spices and herbs), or foods that are said to contain nutrients that actually spark or increase arousal (like oysters). So is there any truth to the ideology that’s been around for thousands of years?



Do aphrodisiacs work?

The short answer: maybe, maybe not. Of the experts I talked to, most agreed that there is not enough evidence to back up the fact that figs can turn you on or strawberries can help you have a better orgasm (sorry room service, but we’ll still take the champagne!). “There is little scientific research to support that aphrodisiacs benefit an individual’s sex life,” said Dr. Azza Halim, a board-certified anesthesiologist and physician. “There’s a lot of debate about whether aphrodisiacs actually work as intended,” Lehmiller agreed. “The evidence is scarce and more research is needed. The data we have suggests that some aphrodisiacs don’t work at all, others do, and others only work due to placebo effect.” In other words, stay tuned. More research needs to be done on if foods can have a libido-boosting effect, and the research so far is not enough to confirm or deny. 

But what I found really interesting was that many experts focused not only on if aphrodisiacs work but also why we’re looking to aphrodisiacs in the first place. After all, libido is a vital sign—a low sex drive could be the body’s way of communicating that it needs something. Therefore, the question is not just how can we improve our sex drive, but why is our sex drive lacking in the first place? Dr. Halim recommends always speaking to a medical professional if you’re experiencing low sex drive, since it can be caused by a multitude of factors like medications, poor body image, hormonal changes, and stress.

“Several aspects of a woman’s life may have an impact on her sexual desire,” agreed Dr. Tara Thompson PharmD, a pharmacistmedical advisor, and sexual health educator. “Menstrual cycles, hormonal contraception, breastfeeding, perimenopausal, and postmenopausal states can send the libido packing. Lifestyle changes, psychological difficulties, relationship problems, and switching or discontinuing medications may also keep sexual feelings at bay.” Sure, the idea of aphrodisiacs sounds sexy and alluring, but think about it: We shouldn’t need to improve our sex drive if it’s healthy in the first place. “Aphrodisiacs are not a quick fix or instant solution to low sex drive,” confirmed Lovneet Batra, a celebrity nutritionist and author. Bottom line: We don’t know much about whether or not foods can truly boost desire, arousal, and pleasure, but we do know that low levels or lack of desire, arousal, and pleasure should be treated at the root rather than opting for a “boost.”

So with the lack of research around aphrodisiacs and the focus of treating the root cause of a low libido, it may not be the best idea to buy asparagus or cinnamon in the name of having an orgasm. However, experts agree that there are lessons we can take from aphrodisiacs that can help you make the most of and tap into the sex drive you already have (after you talk to your doctor if you’re experiencing low libido, of course). Below are some of the things I learned from talking to experts about aphrodisiacs that might actually help your sex life. 



5 ways to make “aphrodisiacs” work for you:


1. Personalize and define your own aphrodisiacs

We can redefine the word to be less about “oysters contain zinc which boosts blood flow to genitalia” or “chocolate turns on pleasure signals in the brain” as we’ve typically talked about aphrodisiacs and turn it into what makes you turned on instead. Sex doesn’t always have to be so scientific—it can be (and should be) as simple as what feels good to you. “Aphrodisiacs can be less generalized and more customized to the individual, based on their past experiences and psychology,” suggested Dr. Jared Heathman MD, a Houston-based psychiatrist. “A meal prepared like the food at someone’s wedding reception can stimulate subconscious thoughts and emotions that put someone in a pleasurable mood.”

Think about what tastes and scents are pleasurable to you or spark a pleasurable memory. Maybe a glass of red wine tastes (and smells!) decadent, or a tropical fruit like papaya and mango remind you of that steamy vacay you took with your significant other when you were first dating. Basically, use your senses more regularly and indulge in the things that bring you pleasure, and your sex life will follow suit. 


2. Eat an overall healthy diet for a healthy libido

So here’s the good news if aphrodisiacs are still alluring to you: It can’t hurt to incorporate foods considered “aphrodisiacs” like pomegranates, dark chocolate, watermelon, and artichokes into your diet. Whether or not they boost sex drive, they’re still good for you. But technically, any whole foods like fruits and veggies can be good for the libido since a healthy libido is a sign of a healthy body. “Any food that increases your health in general can help with sex drive,” explained Dr. Carol Queen PhD, Staff Sexologist at Good Vibrations. “Your diet plays a large role in your sex drive,” agreed Heather Hanks MS, a nutritionist based in Michigan. “Eating a diet high in anti-inflammatory foods (such as fruits and vegetables) can help regulate hormones and reduce inflammatory symptoms and conditions that may reduce sex drive.” In the end, any foods that are good for you are good for your libido too. 


3. Focus on the nutrients

Another interesting thing I learned is that oysters or chocolate are not magical foods put on this earth to make you horny (sorry ’bout it!). Instead, certain foods are considered aphrodisiacs only because of the vitamins and nutrients they contain. “Honey is known as an aphrodisiac because of its high content of vitamin B, which is essential for the secretion of testosterone. Oysters are a clichéd aphrodisiac because they contain zinc, which is necessary for the production of testosterone in men and prolactin in women,” explained Candela Valle, resident nutritionist for MYHIXEL

“Bananas have a high level of B-vitamins and potassium, and pomegranate is rich in Omega-5s and antioxidants that are good for hormonal balance,” Batra added. Why does this matter for your libido? Because knowing that it’s the nutrients rather than just magical superfoods tell us that an overall healthy diet with a variety of fruits and veggies will give you the needed amount of antioxidants and nutrients to keep your sex drive healthy. The “aphrodisiac effect” actually comes from healthy levels of vitamins and minerals, not from specific foods. If you’re lacking or deficient in any of these, talk to your doctor about supplementing or changing up your diet rather than loading up on one food. 



4. Be aware of the power of the mind

Let me rant about the concept of the “placebo effect” for a sec. “Placebo” has gotten a bad rep these days. We use the word when referring to being tricked into shelling out $$$ on trendy wellness supplements, to define the “sugar pill weeks” in a birth control pack, and to explain why we feel better after only one Advil (everybody knows taking one Advil is like having just one bite of cake: It does nothing). We also use it when questioning if aphrodisiacs truly work or if they’re “just placebo.” But I don’t see placebo as meaning failure; it’s actually proof of how powerful the mind is. In other words, if you eat spicy food and have passionate sex afterwards, does it really matter if it’s physical or psychological? To be frank, what matters is that you had passionate sex. 

“The power of belief is strong, so if you take something you think is an aphrodisiac and you believe it will affect you a certain way, it just might.” Dr. Lehmiller agreed. Essentially, if you something (whether it’s a food, outfit, or playlist) makes you feel more sensual, who cares why? I say screw the science and lean into whatever makes you feel good. 


5. Be intentional about habits and rituals (they can have an “aphrodisiac” effect too!)

It’s time we stop defining “aphrodisiacs” as just food and supplements and instead start looking at how habits and rituals can increase our sex drive too. “Certain healthy habits can not only affect your mood, but can also be advantageous to regulate sexual activity,” Valle said. In short, anything that makes you feel happy and good is also doing something for your sex life. For example, regular exercise, actively managing stress, getting regular check-ups with your doctor, and prioritizing self-care are all habits we know can improve libido, simply because they work to treat or prevent common causes of low libido like stress, feeling disconnected from relationships, or chronic symptoms in the body.

I’ve learned a lot from the many different opinions from various experts, and I think the bottom line is this: A healthy sex life is actually not a mysterious legend we constantly have to be searching for. It’s truly as simple as taking care of our bodies and leaning into what feels good for each of us. Whether or not dark chocolate and red wine are part of that is completely up to you.