Besides eating, no human instinct is as compelling as sex. The moment that we have food to eat, water to drink, and a roof over our heads, we start looking for a love connection. And when our ability to perform is interrupted, it's physically, mentally, and emotionally stressful. If your libido is less than lusty, you're not alone: Americans affected by either lack of desire or inability to perform sexually number in the millions.
Fanning the Flames
It was once believed that all sexual disturbances were solely the result of deep-seated neurotic conflicts that could be resolved only through psychotherapy. Now we know that many sexual issues can arise from purely physiological factors, including hormonal fluctuations, nutritional deficits, medications and drug use, surgeries or illnesses, and even simple age-related changes.
Some of the basic mechanics of sexual response—erection in men, lubrication and swelling of genitals in women—depend in part on the simple fact of healthy circulation and adequate blood flow to the appropriate organs.
"Lack of arousal is about the body,” says Jenni Skyler, PhD, sex therapist, board-certified sexologist, and founder of The Intimacy Institute in Boulder, Colo. “Then there's the huge area of mental response, which we usually refer to as desire. And lack of desire is about the brain. Desire is governed by many things: self-confidence, relationship with the body, negative sex messages, and a host of other factors."
Over the centuries, frustrated humans have been willing to try almost anything to restore flagging amorous feelings. Powdered gecko, for instance, has been prized for its aphrodisiac qualities. In Peru, drinking frog juice (which is actually made from puréed frogs) is said to boost strength and increase sexual desire. The Kama Sutra—an ancient Hindu text on sexual behavior—calls for, among other things, ram testicle, peacock bone, and monkey dung.
Happily for us, more readily accessible (not to mention appealing) foods and supplements can also help shift a stalling libido back into high gear. Some work by increasing blood flow. Some regulate hormone levels. Some influence nervous system activity. And some simply make you feel more confident—which is a key factor in inspiring desire.
Hungry for Love
Foods that bear some resemblance to male or female sexual organs—including cucumbers, figs, oysters, bananas, and mussels—have traditionally been used in many cultures as aphrodisiacs. Other foods, such as chocolate, champagne, and truffles, have become emotionally and psychologically linked to romance. And some foods have even been thought to possess unique magical properties that inspire passion.
Of course, a much more likely reason for a food's effects on sexual desire is its lineup of nutrients. If oysters can incite ardor, it's probably because they're high in zinc, which is necessary for synthesizing precursors to testosterone and other sex hormones. Zinc also blocks the enzyme that converts testosterone to estrogen, which can enhance sexual pleasure in women. If oysters aren’t your thing, you can also find zinc in pumpkin seeds, scallops, sesame seeds, and organ meats.
Other foods that can make you feel frisky:
Fish is high in protein, which is necessary for increasing testosterone in both women and men, says Marrena Lindberg, author of The Orgasmic Diet. In some studies, women with a higher sex drive have registered higher testosterone levels. Along with protein, fish and other seafoods are also high in omega-3 fats and the minerals necessary for sexual function and arousal.
A half-ounce of chocolate each day boosts dopamine, says Lindberg. Make it extra-dark—70 percent cocoa or more. Darker chocolate contains more antioxidants that benefit overall health as well as sexual function.
Spinach is rich in magnesium, which can reduce the body's levels of sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG), a compound that suppresses testosterone. Pumpkin seeds, almonds, potatoes, peanuts, avocado, kidney beans, sesame seeds, chard, and halibut are also good sources of magnesium.
Traditionally considered symbols of fertility—for obvious reasons—eggs are high in lecithin, which promotes the secretion of sex hormones and is used in Europe to treat sexual disorders.
Walnuts are an excellent source of arginine, which stimulates the production of nitric oxide and causes blood vessels to expand—leading to erection in men and swelling and lubrication in women. You'll also find arginine in peanuts, sunflower seeds, lentils, shrimp, pecans, flax seed, almonds, sardines, snapper, chicken, and tuna.
Sweet potatoes contain beta-carotene, which the body converts into vitamin A. Vitamin A helps regulate the synthesis of progesterone, a hormone that enhances sexual receptivity in the brain. Other foods rich in beta-carotene include kale, spinach, chard, carrots, cilantro, thyme, and turnip greens.
Pills, potions, and powders intended to enhance sexual function are nearly as old as the act itself. The use of Spanish fly—a genital irritant and potential poison made from powdered blister beetle—dates back to ancient Rome. Oat straw (Avena sativa) became a wildly popular aphrodisiac during the mid-1700s, which gave rise to the phrase "sowing one's wild oats."
Today, safer, and more effective supplements for sexual health can help address hormonal issues, boost circulation, and produce other desire-provoking effects.
The amino acid L-arginine is broken down into nitric oxide, which relaxes blood vessels in the penis and permits greater blood flow. Pycnogenol, an antioxidant derived from pine bark, has similar effects. In one study of men with erectile dysfunction, a combination of pycnogenol and L-arginine restored sexual ability in 92 percent of participants after three months. DHEA may work on a hormonal level to improve sexual function. Around age 30, natural DHEA levels in the body begin to decline, potentially lowering desire. Studies have suggested that supplemental DHEA can help improve sexual function in such cases. In one study, postmenopausal women who took 10 mg per day showed significant improvement in sexual function and frequency of intercourse.
Traditionally used to enhance mental acuity, Ginkgo biloba may also be effective in treating erectile dysfunction in men. Some researchers believe that the herb can promote erections due to its effects on dopamine, a chemical that has been linked to the brain's reward and pleasure centers.
Maca, a plant that's indigenous to Peru, is also thought to enhance sexual desire, possibly by elevating mood and increasing testosterone. In one study, men who took maca reported increased desire, but registered no change in testosterone levels or depression scores. A second study from the same research group showed that maca improved sperm production and motility at doses of 1,500 or 3,000 mg daily. It's worth noting, however, that the studies were fairly small and some methodological problems cast doubts on their validity.
Omega-3 fats boost levels of dopamine in the brain, which can increase sexual pleasure in women. Omega-3 fats also enhance nervous system function, leaving you more likely to be relaxed and amorous.
Chocolate Strawberry Tart
Makes 12 slices
This decadent dessert features cocoa powder, rich in phenylethylamine (PEA), a compound that your body naturally releases when you're in love. The fresh strawberries, high in vitamin C, help to synthesize hormones involved in putting one "in the mood."
½ cup unsalted, organic butter
1 cup whole wheat flour
½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 whole egg
½ cup unrefined dark brown cane sugar (muscovado)
1 beaten egg white
½ cup unrefined dark brown cane sugar (muscovado)
¼ cup heavy whipping cream
1 lb. fresh strawberries, sliced in half
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 oz. dark chocolate (70% or darker), coarsely chopped
PER SERVING: 251 CAL; 5 G PROT; 13 G FAT (7.5 G SAT FAT); 30 G CARB; 73 MG CHOL; 29 MG SOD; 3 G FIBER; 17 G SUGARS
—Recipe by Andi Phillips. Phillips is the author of The Functional Foodie: 50 Powerhouse Ingredients Go Gourmet (Basic Health Publications, 2010).
Super Supplement picks for Libido
These five standout selections can help boost all aspects of sexual health.
North American Herb & Spice Polar Power Fish Oil, an ultra pure source of omega-3s from wild sockeye salmon oil
Irwin Naturals Steel-Libido, a powerful male libido boost with L-arginine, maca, and other herbs
Nature's Way Maca, a standardized version of the herb in capsule form
Life-Flo DHEA for Men, with the measured-dose pump
Oceanus Naturals Add Lib Libido Enhancement for Women, with a stellar blend of herbs, including maca