Monday, March 31, 2008

Aphrodisiacs: Myth or Magic?

Skin of toad, crushed beetle carcasses, animal genitalia -- they all have one thing in common. No, they are not the ingredients for a witch's brew. Believe it or not, each has been considered at one time or another to be an aphrodisiac.

Since the beginning of time, people have searched high and low for substances they could use to stimulate and heighten sexual desire in themselves and others. Five thousand years of this searching has given way to some very interesting and sometimes disturbing aphrodisical claims. Modern people may find it odd that animal genitalia was once used in ancient times to increase libido, but the fact is that our quest for magical aphrodisiacs continues today. Can anyone say Viagra?

Whether or not there is any truth behind the claims that aphrodisiacs actually work depends on which ones are in question and who you ask. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), for instance, contends that all "over-the-counter" aphrodisiacs are based on folklore and legend and that none have been proven to work. Others claim that certain substances have improved their sex lives and their libidos. So, do aphrodisiacs truly cause biological changes in people or is the body's reaction to them purely a psychological matter? In other words, do they really work or is the mind the only true aphrodisiac? A look at just a few of the thousands of substances believed to be sexual stimulants throughout time may help with the answer.

Old Aphrodisiacs Die Hard

Spanish Fly: Just Say No

The legend of this supposed aphrodisiac continues today and has existed since the time of the Roman Empire when an empress named Livia reportedly slipped it to other members of the imperial family to make them commit sexual acts she could use to blackmail them. It's hard to believe that the dried and crushed body of the emerald-green blister beetle could be so popular for so long. What's even harder to believe is that people would risk their lives for the possibility of heightened sexual desire.

Spanish Fly is highly toxic, especially when ingested, and poisonous doses can lead to severe illness and even death. Its active ingredient is cantharidin, which irritates the urinary tract when it is excreted by the kidneys. This can produce too much blood flow to the genitals and, in men, cause Priapism, an abnormal continuous penile erection. This may sound like a good thing, but it is actually really painful. The incorrect belief that the erection results from sexual desire is probably what started the myth of Spanish Fly as an aphrodisiac in the first place. The notorious Marquis de Sade learned the danger of Spanish Fly the hard way in 1772 when he gave the drug to prostitutes in hopes of instigating an orgy. Instead, all of the women fell extremely ill and he was tried for poisoning. The supposed sexual effects of Spanish Fly are still part of urban legend today. If anyone tries to give you Spanish Fly claiming it will increase your desire, it would probably be in your best interest to just say no.

Chan Su: A.K.A. Death by Toad

WARNING: Consuming toad skin can be fatal. And that is exactly what Chan Su is -- a topical drug made from the skin of a Chinese toad that originated in the Orient as an anesthetic. Apparently, it became known as an aphrodisiac because it contains cardiac steroids that have an effect on the body that can be falsely construed as increased sexual potency. The fact is that these steroids can be lethal, causing cardiac dysrythmias and heart failure. Unfortunately, Chan Su made a comeback a few years ago and has been sold in the U.S. under the names of Stone and Rock Hard. What the consumer doesn't realize is that they are ingesting a drug that is only supposed to be applied topically. Four deaths in the early 1990s were blamed on the ingestion of products containing Chan Su that claimed to be aphrodisiacs.

Appetizing Aphrodisiacs

Various foods have gained notoriety for being sexual stimulants since the beginning of time. There is very little scientific evidence that any of them really work for this purpose, but the great thing about them is that, unlike substances like Spanish Fly and Chan Su, it doesn't hurt to try and find out if they do. Most of them are not only said to increase libido, but they are also quite healthy to eat. In fact, some say that the true reason people believe these foods are aphrodisiacs is because healthy eating promotes better physical condition and, in turn, better sexual performance.

Oysters: The Epitome of Aphrodisiacs...and Tasty, Too!

Oysters, particularly raw ones, are famous for being a potent aphrodisiac. Their status as a sexual stimulant originated when Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love for whom aphrodisiacs are named, gave birth to Eros on an oyster shell. Their reputation continued during the reign of the Roman Empire, into 17th century Netherlands where they were regarded as the epitome of an aphrodisiac, and are still believed to be a sexual aide today. The well-known lover, Casanova, is said to have eaten 50 raw oysters in the bath every morning with his current lover to jumpstart his day (which gives a new meaning to the term "rise and shine"). So, do oysters live up to their reputation? There is some evidence that they may actually work. They do contain zinc, which is believed to increase sperm and testosterone production and vaginal lubrication.

Onions: An Unlikely Aphrodisiac

People have been claiming that onions have a potent aphrodisical effect since prehistoric time. Documentation of the belief that onions act as a sexual stimulant dates back to Hindu lovemaking manuals, where they are mentioned quite frequently. During the reign of Pharaoh in Egypt, priests were not allowed to eat onions because it was thought this would hinder their vow of celibacy. Those wacky Romans got in on this one, too, believing that onions helped alleviate male impotency. More recently, French newlyweds feasted on onion soup during their honeymoon to regain their desire and energy after an exhausting wedding night. Truth be known, there is no proof that onions act as anything but a yummy accompaniment to a meal and possibly an antibiotic. It seems that people have figured that out themselves as onions tend to be regarded these days as something you stay away from when you're trying to score, unless you have a strong mouthwash handy.

Spices: Sexual Stimulant or Just Good Eating?

There are dozens of spices that are thought to have an aphrodisical effect, but scientists and sex experts question whether any sexual response brought on by consuming them has more to do with people simply having a love affair with good food than with the spices actually working as a sexual stimulant.

Here are some of the most widely known spices that are said to increase libido:

* Cardamom -- In India, it is believed that a cure for impotence and premature ejaculation can be whipped up by boiling cardamom seeds in milk.

* Cloves -- The claim that ingesting cloves can increase sexual desire has been around since the Chinese came up with it in the 3rd century B.C. There is no proof that the actual consumption of cloves has any aphrodisical effect, but there is some evidence that their scent could be stimulating to some. This may be true. Anyone who has ever smoked clove cigarettes in a crowded nightclub know the attention their smell can attract. And they taste pretty good, too.

* Garlic -- This is another example of a food that, like onions, it seems people should avoid when trying to get lucky rather than using it as an aphrodisiac. But, alas, it had a long history of use as a sexual stimulant, used by Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Chinese, Japanese and others around the world for this purpose. Despite its popularity, there is no evidence that it works as an aphrodisiac. Hippocrates claimed it could be used as a medication for several illnesses, but the only parts of the body it appears to stimulate are the taste buds.

* Saffron -- Apparently, consuming saffron can cause people to be more sensitive to touch, thus making sex a more stimulating experience. This claim has not been substantiated, but two components of saffron, crocin and crocetin, have been proven to have an effect on the sexual behavior of certain algae, if that tells you anything.

* Vanilla -- Long ago, vanilla was used in cooking to arouse one's appetite for sex, but any stimulation induced by this spice is most likely due to its pleasing scent rather than its taste. A few years ago, vanilla became popular as a ladies' perfume, suggesting that there is some truth behind the claim that its scent can attract others.

Doing it Au Natural: Herbal Aphrodisiacs

Herbs have become increasingly fashionable for use as natural remedies in the past few years. Some people use them to lose weight, others to gain energy and still others use them to increase their libidos.

Two of the most well-known herbs that are said to have an aphrodisical effect are Yohimbe and the ultra popular Ginseng.

Yohimbe comes from the bark of West Africa's Yohimbe tree. Locals in this region have believed for ages that the herb works as a sexual stimulant, but its use does not stop with West Africans. In fact, veterinarians have been known to use Yohimbe to treat impotence in stallions and it has become widely available for human use in recent years. The claim is that this herbal remedy helps men overcome impotency by stimulating the nerve centers in the spine that control erection. Although it has not been proven that the herb works on humans, studies have been done on animals and the FDA is encouraged by the results. Humans who have used the herb have given mixed reviews, but most claim to have experienced the same side effects. Anyone interested in using Yohimbe should first decide if harder erections are worth elevated blood pressure, irritability, nausea and vomiting.

Ginseng has become so popular recently that it's hard to find someone who hasn't used it for one purpose or another. Its reputation as a sexual stimulant has not been substantiated, but it most likely stems from its resemblance to male genitalia. Otherwise, the only claim that has any evidence to back it up is that ginseng may increase energy, which may in turn make sex easier to perform.

Modern Love

The search for substances that act as aphrodisiacs still continues today, which isn't surprising since people have always and most likely will always go to extreme measures to improve their sex lives.

Most aphrodisical claims during the twentieth century turned out to be silly, adolescent myths.

Who can forget the rumor that started back in the 1970s that green M&M? candies made people horny? The M&M/MARS company had no idea where or why this rumor started, but they cashed in on it in 1996 with an advertising campaign that asked, "Is it true what they say about the green ones?" The answer, of course, is no. The green ones have the same effect as all of the other colors. They just plain taste yummy.

Another aphrodisical myth that became popular with teenagers several decades ago is that mixing Coca-Cola and aspirin make people, particularly girls, more willing to have sex. The origin of this rumor is unclear, but it may have come from a mention in the Journal of the American Medical Association back in the 1930s. It warned that teenagers were consuming the combination to get high and that it was as addictive as narcotics. This was a false statement, but it somehow evolved into a rumor that the mixture also worked as an aphrodisiac. There has been no evidence that the concoction does stimulate libido, but it does seem to help get rid of hangovers. The caffeine in Coca-Cola apparently increases the effect of the aspirin.

The only scientifically-proven aphrodisiac born in recent years is the drug Sildenafil, otherwise known as Viagra. Of course, it isn't marketed as an aphrodisiac but rather as a medication for male impotence. After all, it was weird enough to see ex-presidential candidate Bob Dole admitting his impotency in Viagra ads. It probably would have been downright bizarre to hear him talk about an aphrodisiac that helps him get hot for Mrs. Dole. The FDA approved Viagra's release in the U.S. on March 28, 1998, and, faster than you can say "erection," millions of prescriptions for it were filled.

Sildenafil was originally tested as a drug for people with heart problems, but it didn't work out too well. Instead, it was found to have a profound effect on male sexual performance by regulating the enzyme system that helps control erection and so Viagra was born. Apparently, it has had an average success rate of 70%, but the drug does not work alone. A man taking Viagra must simultaneously be exposed to erotic stimulation for the drug to take effect.

Viagra is currently being studied to see if it can be used as an aphrodisiac by women. Since the drug increases blood flow and increased blood flow to the clitoris makes it more sensitive (in much the same way that it makes the penis more sensitive), it may help women come to orgasm easier.

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