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Science Explains: Aphrodisiacs

While there are several theories about the origin of Valentine’s Day, there just as many, if not more, about the origin of aphrodisiacs. Aphrodisiacs can be defined as agents, such as food, drinks, scents or drugs, which increase libido or sexual desire. There is a long history of the use of herbal aphrodisiacs and with the industry currently thriving, there is much debate as to whether they work.

Libido is determined by hormone levels in the body, the hormone testosterone being the key hormone responsible. When we see, hear, feel, think, touch or smell and encounter something sexually stimulating, a chain reaction begins in our bodies. There is a neuronal response in which signals are sent from the limbic lobe of the brain to the pelvic region. The neuronal signals result in the dilation of blood vessels resulting in erection in both males and females. The vessels then cause the erectile tissues to stay erect by constricting. Alongside erection the sexually stimulating experience results in rapid heart rate and pleasurable hormones are released in the brain, norepinephrine and dopamine indicating that the experience is positive and pleasurable. A hormonal imbalance associated with testosterone is common in women experiencing the menopause and in depressed individuals, therefore leading to lack of sex drive.

Libido is determined by hormone levels in the body, the hormone testosterone being the key hormone responsible

So, how do aphrodisiacs increase libido? Experts suggest that aphrodisiacs work on the mind to create sexual desire and act on the body increasing the flow of blood to sex organs. They also increase the chemicals in the body, testosterone and dopamine, associated with sexual desire.

Foods which have been associated with being natural aphrodisiacs include watermelon. Scientists have found watermelon to contain large amounts of the amino acid citrulline. This substance increases blood flow by generating the gas nitric oxide. Nitric oxide results in the relaxation of blood vessels which has beneficial effects on the cardiovascular by reducing high blood pressure. Watermelon acts in a similar way to Viagra as a result. However, these findings do not affirm that eating watermelon can boost libido. It is a misconception that viagra itself is an aphrodisiac, as it does not boost libido, it instead only increases the ability to form an erection.

This substance increases blood flow by generating the gas nitric oxide

Additionally, chocolate, which is associated with love and romance has been claimed to be an aphrodisiac. A 2006 study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine found women who ate chocolate on a daily basis to have higher sexual function than those who don’t. However, this could be since younger women tend to eat more chocolate and naturally have higher levels of sexual desire. However, the neurotransmitters serotonin, anandamide and phenylethylamine which are found in chocolate contribute to feelings of happiness and euphoria during sex and create happy or loving and passionate feelings in the brain. It produces a euphoric feeling, like when you’rein love.

Oysters have long been considered an aphrodisiac dating back as far as the Romans in second century AD. Oysters are known to be high in zinc, which has been associated with improving sexual potency in men potentially because they resemble the female genitalia. Additionally, mussels, clams and oysters have been found to contain D-aspartic acid and NMDA (N-methyl-D-aspartate) compounds may be effective in releasing the sex hormones testosterone and oestrogen.

Oysters have long been considered an aphrodisiac dating back as far as the Romans in second century AD

Surprisingly, thinking that something is an aphrodisiac can make it work as one including alcohol and marijuana. The consumption of two glasses of red wine a day by women has been found to lead to higher levels of sexual desire than women who do not. Men may also experience higher desire and in fact moderate alcohol consumption has been found to facilitate erections.

Some people argue that aphrodisiacs do increase libido whereas others claim the increase in libido is purely psychological. The placebo effect makes us in think that something is going to put us in the mood for love and arousal and hence we are. Some studies have shown that agents that appear to work well once may not have effect the next time, even on the same people. It can therefore be concluded that aphrodisiacs have the greatest effect in our heads than in other parts of our anatomies.

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