February 13, 2020
If your Valentine's Day plans include something a little more interactive than settling in with a meta-analysis and a highlighter, Niket Sonpal, MD, suggests you might want to make a grocery run for a few key items.
Topping the list? Oysters, chocolate, avocados, pistachios, bananas, chai tea, and red wine.
Others say don't waste your time searching the grocery aisles for aphrodisiacs. Or at least not if your V-Day best practices need to be strictly evidence-based.
The debate has been historically touchy, but there is wide agreement that the foods won't work on their own.
Sonpal, a gastroenterologist and an adjunct assistant professor at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in New York City, does suggest nine foods, though -- from asparagus to chili martinis -- that might help jump start the process.
Blood Flow at the Heart of the Matter
"There are specific chemicals in these foods, ranging from zinc to nitric-oxide releasers to caffeine. All of these have something in them that will change blood flow. Blood flow starts to move to places where love happens," Sonpal told Medscape Medical News.
Other foods, he says, are considered arousing because of their appearance. Think bananas. Think oysters.
Sonpal points out that bananas also contain bromelain, which has been shown to be positively associated with testosterone and erectile dysfunction (ED). The vitamin B in bananas can elevate energy levels, he said.
Oysters contain a hefty amount of amino acids, which, along with their look and texture, earned them a spot on his list.
"These amino acids down the line in the chemical process build a lot of our hormones and things like serotonin," Sonpal said.
Pistachios are on the list, he explained, because they contain protein and flavonoids that can help stimulate blood flow. He pointed to a small study that also suggests a positive effect on ED.
Avocados, which Sonpal said have a seductive reputation dating to the ancient Aztecs of being known as "the testicle fruit," are full of vitamins B6, B9, and folic acid, "which provide your body with energy and even help to increase testosterone production."
Chocolate has long appeared on such lists, and this one is no exception.
Sonpal noted that chocolate contains tryptophan, a building block for serotonin, methylxanthines, and phenylethylamine, a stimulant related to amphetamine, which is released in the brain when people fall in love.
"There are also the tastes, the aromas," he said. "We are programmed to think of chocolate with Valentine's and Valentine's with sex."
Sonpal emphasized that these foods won't have an effect by themselves.
"These are all adjunctive to things normally used to drive sex life," he said. "If people have ED, these foods aren't going to fix it. They should be used in conjunction with other things.
"At the end of the day," Sonpal said, "you'll be treating your patients with evidenced-based treatments, but what's to say a little chai tea or a couple of pistachios aren't going to help?"
Chocolate is probably the item on Sonpal's list that has the most scientific connection to boosting libido, says Kate Thomas, PhD, director of clinical services at the Sex and Gender Clinic of Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Maryland.
"It's been universally touted in many different cultures as an aphrodisiac," she said. And she agreed chocolate's components can be physically tied to feelings of being in love.
"The potential could be there for chocolate to be utilized," Thomas told Medscape Medical News.
However, "We have yet to figure out what sorts of foods or chemicals are going to provide aphrodesia across the board," she said.
Human sexuality is very complex, Thomas noted, and has many components, including status of the relationship, mood, and how a person feels physically that day.
For example, "Giving men Viagra will increase their erection but doesn't necessarily make them feel more sexual," she noted.
Laura Berman, LCSW, PhD, assistant clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology and psychiatry at Feinberg School of Medicine, in Chicago, Illinois, agreed that although there is some evidence to support the idea that some ingredients in these foods are associated with sexual function, there is no solid cause-and-effect evidence.
Additionally, it is unlikely even with ingredients known to increase arousal that a person would eat an amount large enough to have an effect, she told Medscape Medical News.
"While there is a small foundation [Sonpal] is extrapolating from, there are no real studies that demonstrate that eating these foods will arouse you and/or increase your desire except, perhaps, suggestively and psychologically from their appearance as an aphrodisiac," Berman said.
She isn't saying not to try the foods for a special night.
"If you want to create a sexy meal and you want to be suggestive, and maybe want to take advantage of the placebo effect, it can't hurt, but I wouldn't count on it to guarantee some action," Berman said.
A Word From the FDA
So what does the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) think about aphrodisiac claims?
The answer is decidedly unsexy: "Any product that bears labeling claims that it will arouse or increase sexual desire, or that it will improve sexual performance, is an aphrodisiac drug product. Anise, cantharides, don qual, estrogens, fennel, ginseng, golden seal, gotu kola, Korean ginseng, licorice, mandrake, methyltestosterone, minerals, nux vomica, Pega Palo, sarsaparilla, strychnine, testosterone, vitamins, yohimbine, yohimbine hydrochloride, and yohimbinum have been present as ingredients in such drug products."
But, the statement continues: "There is a lack of adequate data to establish general recognition of the safety and effectiveness of any of these ingredients, or any other ingredient, for OTC use as an aphrodisiac."
Sonpal, Thomas, and Berman have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.