The mere thought of aphrodisiacs is romantic, conjuring up images of love potions, sorcerers and uncontrollable passion. Shrouded in a mist of myth and magic, the names of certain herbs are repeated over and over throughout history and across cultures.
Science has finally begun to catch up to folklore, providing an explanation for the sexually stimulating effects of some herbs, but for others the ancient knowledge of what works still outstrips our more logical thinking.
The way to a man's heart may be through his stomach, but the way into his bed might be found before the meal, via his nose. The studies of neurologist Alan Hirsch, of the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago, demonstrate the relationship between certain scents and changes in blood flow to the genital areas of men and women. The most dramatic results in men were achieved by a combination of lavender and pumpkin pie, which increased the blood flow to the penis by as much as 40 per cent. A combo of black licorice and doughnut scents increased penile blood flow by 32 per cent. (None of the scents tested had as significant an impact on women.)
The smell of pumpkin pie includes the spices ginger, cinnamon and clove - all warming, spicy scents. Ginger (Zingiber officinalis) and cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum) essential oils are both considered to be aphrodisiacs.
Scent is a simple way to set the mood for romance, whether it's applied as a perfume or diffused in a room. Our sense of smell is primal. The nerve endings in the nose are barely separated from the limbic system of the brain, the "old brain" that serves as the centre for our basic instincts - including sexual desire. What better place to start a romance than at a juncture between the present moment and the beginning of time?
The essential oils of coriander (Coriandrum sativum) and cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum) are derived from plant seeds and have long-standing reputations as aphrodisiacs.
Both essential oils have spicy aromas and blend well with a wide range of other oils. Coriander has a light, sweet edge, while cardamom has a warm floral undertone.
Ylang-ylang (Cananga odorata) and jasmine (Jasminum grandiflorum) essential oils are predominantly sweet floral scents with warm, sensual, euphoric properties. Promoting a sense of calm and relaxation, these oils have the potential to transport lovers far from the routines of daily life. Their intense fragrances suggest a tropical paradise and soothe away inhibiting anxieties.
Clary sage (Salvia sclarea), patchouli (Pogostemon cablin) and neroli (Citrus aurantium) essential oils are warm, rich, sweet and slightly exotic. Musky clary sage, noted for its euphoric properties, is also harmonizing.
Rose maroc (Rosa centifolia) and rose otto (Rosa damascena) have similar properties. Harmonizing, comforting and romantic, they are reputed to be particularly appealing to women. Though rose otto has a more profound and rich floral fragrance, it is rose maroc that is associated with passion.
Ginger is a warming, soothing circulatory stimulant. Cinnamon is warming and generally stimulating. Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba), an herb popularly known for its promotion of brain function through better circulation, may, when taken regularly, increase blood flow to the penis.
Yohimbe (Pausinystalia johimbe) is one of the best-known herbal aphrodisiacs. It generally improves circulation, but also acts specifically on the sex organs, bringing blood closer to the surface and constricting the veins to keep it there.
Yohimbine, the active ingredient in yohimbe, is an alkaloid that has received FDA approval as a treatment for male impotence. A synthetic version is also available.
The list of people who should not use yohimbe is long, including anyone with heart or kidney trouble, psychological disorders, low blood pressure, diabetes or ulcers, as well as pregnant women and the elderly.
To avoid becoming severely nauseous in the course of arousal, the herb should be consumed with 1,000 mg of vitamin C. It should not be taken with the amino acid tyramine (found in cheese, liver, red wine and various medications) or with other over-the-counter remedies, prescription drugs or alcohol. Dosage recommendations should not be exceeded.
Damiana (Turnera diffusa syn. T. diffusa var. aphrodisiaca) increases circulation, but it also contains alkaloids that have a testosterogenic quality and act as a nerve stimulant for the sex organs.
Additionally, damiana acts generally as a mild stimulant and an antidepressant, which may lower inhibitions and produce a sense of gentle euphoria.
Wild green oats are known to boost the effectiveness of other herbal aphrodisiacs. As Deborah Mitchell notes in Nature's Aphrodisiacs (Dell, 1999), "Once oats are in the body, they release testosterone that has become bound to other components. Bound testosterone is much less effective at stimulating sex-drive centres in the brain."
Oats have also proven to be effective in their own right. Esmond Choueke in Aphrodisiacs: A Guide To What Really Works (Citadel, 1998) offers studies that support the libido-enhancing properties of wild green oats (Avena sativa). A study by the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, in California, showed that "50 per cent of women taking Avena sativa had an increase in the number of orgasms and in the amount of vaginal lubrication produced.'
Licorice's (Glycyrrhiza glabra) dark mystique may also be linked to its effect on testosterone levels. Mitchell cites the phytoestrogen sterols present in licorice that inhibit the conversion of testosterone to dihydrostestosterone, thus elevating testosterone levels.
Before embarking on your journey of love, acquaint yourself thoroughly with the herbs you are using. As herbal aphrodisiacs often affect the hormonal balance of the body, many should not be used during pregnancy. It is always recommended that you familiarize yourself with the potential side effects and cautions associated with a remedy you intend to use.