Restore Amore: foods to boost libido

No human instinct is as compelling as sexual drive. The moment our basic survival needs–food, shelter, protection from large carnivores–are met, we seek sexual union, both for procreation and pleasure. No wonder we’re threatened when sex drive is interrupted. For thousands of years, men and women in cultures around the world have used a variety of potions, from bird spit to beaver penis, to shift a stalling libido back into high gear. And the search continues–with some promising results.

The body electric: the physiology of sexuality

Universal though sex may be, it’s still the most enduring enigma. Poems have been penned, lives have been lost, in the name of passion. What irony, then, that most sexual behavior begins as a purely utilitarian interaction of body processes. In the brain, hormones, enzymes and neurotransmitters work together to regulate sexual ability and performance. The nervous system is engaged to interpret, classify and route signals. Meanwhile, the mechanics of sexual response–erection in men, lubrication and swelling of genitals in women–depends in part on the simple fact of adequate blood flow to the appropriate organs.

It has long been thought that sexual dysfunction was caused by deep-seated neurotic conflict that could be resolved only through extensive counseling. With the publication of the definitive tome Human Sexual Inadequacy in 1970, Masters and Johnson shed new light on sexual dysfunction by recognizing the prevalence of other than psychological causes. It’s now estimated that as many as 90 percent of sexual dysfunction cases arise from physiological factors, including hormonal fluctuations, sluggish circulation, drug use and the simple fact of aging.

The good news: when stalling sexuality originates in the body, rather than the psyche, treatment options are broader and more effective. A variety of drugs and natural supplements can shake a slumbering sex drive into wakefulness, via different pathways. Some work by increasing blood flow and enhancing muscle tone of the genitals, and may be especially helpful for older men or those with prostate problems. Some regulate hormone levels–especially testosterone, the key sexuality hormone in both men and  women–and some influence nervous system activity. And while sexual function products have traditionally targeted men, that’s quickly changing.

Big bang theory: the Viagra promise

Only in the past decade has sexual dysfunction become a serious course of treatment. Until then, the medical community’s arsenal was fairly limited, focusing primarily on male erectile dysfunction, and consisting mainly of surgery, erection-producing substances injected into the penis, and Woody Allen-esque vacuum machines to manually provoke an erection.

When drug giant Pfizer introduced Viagra to the U.S. market in 1998, the results were overwhelming, with a reported success rate of up to 92 percent. Sildenafil, the active ingredient in Viagra, boosts nitric oxide production, allowing increased blood flow and oxygen delivery to the penis. Other drugs, including Zonagen and Yocon, work in much the same way. Apomorphine, manufactured under the name Spontane, takes a different approach, triggering parts of the brain to increase psychological response to sexual stimulation.

Based on the astonishing success of male sexuality drugs, and a relatively new recognition of what’s been termed Female Sexual Arousal Disorder, pharmaceutical companies are now wooing women with drugs designed to promote sexual response. Vasofem, the female counterpart to Zonagen, is undergoing clinical trials, and several topical formulations of vasodilating agents and steroid hormones are being tested to improve vaginal lubrication and muscle tone. And Viagra will likely be approved for treating female sexual dysfunction by early next year. But these sexual fix-its aren’t without drawbacks: side effects range from mild headache to hypertension–a major concern for older men–and the long-term effects aren’t known. A more natural solution: supplements and traditional herbs to pump up sexual function, without serious side effects.

Lusty Legends: Aphrodisiacs Over Time

The term “aphrodisiac” itself comes from Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of fertility, beauty and desire. Legend has it that Aphrodite was created from the form of Uranus, whose slain body fell from the heavens into the ocean, so certain sea creatures have long held allure. So strong is the reputation of fish, in fact, that priests were long forbidden to partake, lest the seafood interfere with celibacy vows.

Because oysters, clams and mussels are considered representative of female genitals, they’re thought to be doubly endowed with lust-provoking qualities. Other foods that share physical characteristics with human genitals are similarly regarded. These range from the obvious–bananas, carrots, cucumbers–to the more subtle, like peaches and apricots. The versatile fig has been compared alternately to the anus, penis, vagina and testicles, and was a featured food in ancient Greek orgies. The subtle swell and fold of an apple is thought to be uniquely feminine, and Hindus applied mashed apple, honey and pepper to the male genitals to provoke amorous liaisons.

Some of the most legendary aphrodisiacs are considerably less appealing. Bird’s nest soup from the island of Borneo is prized for the lust-inspiring qualities of the swallow spittle that holds it together. Elizabethan legend has it that when chased through the woods, a beaver will bite off his genitals, fling them at the pursuer and race away. Because the animal’s genitals are said to grow back, they are thought to have magical sexual properties. Durian fruit from Malaysia is a lumpy, football-sized fruit that costs upwards of $25 a pound and smells very much like rotten fish. Nonetheless, the flesh inside is sweet and velvety, and is a highly regarded aphrodisiac.

Enamored: favorite traditional herbs

Natural sexual function products are as old as the act itself. Sexual stimulants became wildly popular in the mid-1700s, when the use of avena sativa (oatstraw, a still-popular, though largely anecdotal, aphrodisiac) gave rise to the phrase “sowing one’s wild oats.” Now, new research is pinpointing the active constituents in some favored passion potions:

  • Yohimbe, a traditionally used herb from the bark of the African Corynanthe yohimbe tree, contains the active alkaloid yohimbine, which acts as a vasodilator to heighten blood flow to the penis and increases the body’s production of norepinephrine, an adrenal hormone that’s essential for erections. Yohimbe also has an effect on libido, energy and overall well-being. Dozens of studies have confirmed yohimbe’s use in treating male sexual dysfunction, and some hint at its ability to promote sexual function in women as well.
  • DHEA takes a different approach, working on a hormonal level to improve sexual function. After about age 30, DHEA levels in the body begin to decline, leading to–among other things–diminished sexual desire. As a prohormone, DHEA breaks down into other hormones including estrogens in women and androstenedione, the immediate precursor to testosterone, in both men and women. A number of studies have suggested that DHEA can improve sexual function, and a recent study specifically confirmed its ability to treat erectile dysfunction.
  • Muira puama, also known as potency wood, is revered by rain forest natives as a treatment for infertility and menstrual disorders in women and impotence in men, and at least one study has confirmed its ability to increase libido.
  • Tribulus terrestris is a common weed that’s used as a drug in Bulgaria for treating impotence and infertility in males and females. Tribulus terrestris stimulates the synthesis and release of testosterone, and one study suggests that it works by relaxing smooth muscle tissue.
  • Damiana leaf, from Mexico and South America, was traditionally used for impotence in men and infertility in women. The plant contains alkaloids that are thought to stimulate sex organs and increase circulation, and phytosterols that promote prostate health.
  • Saw palmetto inhibits the conversion of testosterone into dihydrotestosterone, a substance which can cause prostate swelling and affect male sexual function.
  • Pygeum bark, also known as pygeum africanum, helps support healthy prostate activity and boost male sexual function in much the same way as saw palmetto.
  • Ginseng has been used for thousands of years to enhance sexual function, and may work for both men and women by increasing blood flow to the genitals and stimulating nitric oxide production.
  • Rainforest aphrodisiacs have less clinical data, but lots of legend and lore. Some examples: maca is a powdered tuber used to boost energy and balance hormones, catuaba bark is said to enhance sexual desire by reducing stress and altering mood, and suma–also known as Brazilian ginseng–is prized for its ability to increase sexual stamina. Data or not, these and other natural sexual supplements are so highly regarded they may be worth a try. After all, what do you have to lose–except, maybe, a good night’s sleep?

You’ve Got Mail? The Postage Stamp Test

It’s estimated that as many as 20 million men in the United States suffer from persistent erectile disorder–meaning that a presumed 40 million people are affected. But tests to determine actual erection capability are time-consuming and costly. Want a cheap alternative? Try the postage-stamp test. Here’s how it works: you and your lover take three or four stamps still joined together, and stick them around his flaccid penis just before sleep. (Use three-cent stamps for extra savings.) In  the morning, if the stamps have torn apart, he’s had at least one erection during the night–so it a physical possibility. If the stamps are intact, check with a urologist.