Family Matters

Ginseng + Saffron = Good Sex? Aphrodisiacs Found in Common Spices

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Improving sexual function and desire is a pretty lucrative, albeit pricey, industry. But what if spicing up your love life were a lot cheaper and as simple as opening up your kitchen cabinet or heading to a health-foods store?

New research recently published online in the journal Food Research International finds that ginseng and saffron are key to spicing up your sex life. Both boost sexual performance, according to a scientific review of natural aphrodisiacs done by researchers at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. (More on Many Men and Women Say They Aren’t Getting Enough Sex)

But all purported aphrodisiacs are not created equal: wine and chocolate have cultivated an amorous reputation, but it’s likely just a lot of hype; studies have not borne out a connection.

And, by the way, steer clear of the potentially toxic Spanish fly and Bufo toad: they’re thought to work wonders, but they actually produced the opposite result.

Many of the foods researchers tested are available in supermarkets or specialty food stores. With potential sexual satisfaction just a grocery aisle away, says Massimo Marcone, a professor in Guelph’s Department of Food Science, “people may be inclined to try common spices such as ginseng, saffron and nutmeg, and there is no harm in doing so.”

Aphrodisiacs are appealing because they can theoretically enhance performance and libido without unwanted side effects from synthetic preparations. Blockbuster erectile dysfunction drugs Viagra and Cialis don’t address libido and may cause headache, muscle pain and blurred vision; their use along with other medications can be contraindicated. (More on Time.comStudy: Baldness Drug May Lead to Long-Term Sexual Dysfunction)

“Many of the natural aphrodisiacs looked at in our study both showed evidence of physiological and psychological effects, through treatment of erectile dysfunction and increased libido,” says Marcone. “However, further research is required to determine effective doses, potential toxicities, and appropriate method of delivery before these natural foods can be marketed as aphrodisiacs.”

To assess whether commonly used aphrodisiacs actually enhance sexual function and desire, researchers pored over hundreds of studies, disregarding those that didn’t incorporate appropriate controls. They focused on 12 foods that had been the subject of extensive scientific research.

Researchers learned that panax ginseng, saffron and yohimbine, a product of West African yohimbe trees, enhanced sexual performance. They found that study participants indicated more interest in sex after indulging in muira puama, a Brazilian flowering plant, maca root, a mustard plant from the Andes, alcohol and chocolate. (More on Time.comCan Your Mate’s Voice Be a Clue to Potential Cheating?)

Reliance on the latter two can’t be routinely recommended: alcohol increases desire but hinders performance. And chocolate’s use appeared a case of mind over matter. It may be linked to romance, but science could not associate it with sexual arousal or satisfaction. Perhaps, speculates Marcone, the phenylethylamine in chocolate may cause a spike in some chocolate-lovers’ serotonin and endorphin levels.

Intrigued? What’s still unclear is dosage and whether fresh or concentrated extracts are most effective; the studies reviewed used potent, edible extracts.

“It would be interesting to see if the same effects are observed with casual consumption of the fresh food in your diet,” says Marcone. “There is nothing to suggest that some effect may not also occur at concentrations closer to what is commonly used in foods.”