The Unsuccessful Search for a Functional Aphrodisiac

From sacrificial sex-robot mice to Pippa Middleton, the quest for a magical love potion has taken some weird turns.
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(Photo: Beatriz Gascon/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Beatriz Gascon/Shutterstock)

Over the weekend, in her delightfully British and aristocratic fortnightly “social and sports” column for The Telegraph, Pippa Middleton described a visit to Wheelers Oyster Bar in Whitstable for the annual Oyster Festival. Because she is a celebrity (the younger sister of Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge), all her columns for The Telegraph are titled the same way: her name, then a colon, and then a quoted question or statement, which you can then imagine her saying aloud to herself, or perhaps to her editor, breezily, on her way out the door of his or her office. Each of them is brilliant, but some of my favorites include: "Pippa Middleton: 'How I Finally Joined the Cycling Brigade,'" "Pippa Middleton: 'Boxing Is a Pure but Pleasing Agony,'" and "Pippa Middleton: 'It's Bliss to Be Up Early for a Flower Market.'" Her latest, "Pippa Middleton: 'Are Oysters Really an Aphrodisiac?'" is a great one, too. It is a timely inquiry!

The piece follows Pippa to the aforementioned Oyster Bar, where she asks the titular question of head chef Mark Stubbs. At first he just smiles knowingly. Pippa then learns a little about oyster harvesting, and the differences between various types of oysters, and how to shuck and serve them. In the end, the chef confesses that while oysters may not technically be aphrodisiacs, they’re high in amino acids and are said to release serotonin in the brain. So, same thing practically. Pippa decides to serve them on Valentine’s Day.

There is a sizable portion of the scientific community that appears to be very interested in finding and proving the efficacy of new and improved natural aphrodisiacs. Maybe a little too interested?

Each year it is like this in the lead up to February 14: a spate of articles and slideshows appear, offering up foods, smells, and visuals that might, MIGHT have aphrodisiac properties. "Can Eating Ice Cream Boost Your Sex Life?" "The Top Aphrodisiacs Proven to Spark Romance." "Sometimes Asparagus Is More Than Asparagus." (That last one is from TheNew York Times, and the unwritten rest of the title is “If You Know What I Mean.” In it, it is revealed that the smell of Good & Plenty candy is apparently especially effective in increasing men’s arousal, so, do with that information what you will.) This is the annual supply to what must be our perceived pre-Valentine’s Day demand: Is there still time to make some kind of love potion? And if so, how?

APHRODISIACS, IN NARROW, CLINICAL terms, are substances that enhance libido, and by that definition there are a number of scientifically supported examples: alkyl nitrates (poppers), bremelanotide, crocin (a chemical compound found in some flowers), and various stimulants. Many of these, for obvious reasons, present significant disadvantages that counter whatever aphrodisiac qualities they might possess.

More appealing, for many, is the idea of the natural aphrodisiac. Typically these are foods or herbs, often with vaguely sexual appearances (from the more obvious bananas to the kind-of-a-stretch “sensuous pear shaped” avocados, it seems like people are able to give almost any food item an imagined sex organ equivalent) or just a long history of sexual connotations (like chocolate). Then there are the alleged aphrodisiacs that seem a little too on the nose: tiger penis and deer penis, in particular, and Epimedium grandiflorum, popularly known as “Horny Goat Weed.” To be clear, the latter is really only ever expected to work on goats, so in that way it’s fair advertising. And like many consumables with presumed aphrodisiac properties, any power derived from the former is owed only (as far as anyone can tell for sure) to the placebo effect. Which is sometimes good enough.

Still, there is a sizable portion of the scientific community that appears to be very interested in finding and proving the efficacy of new and improved natural aphrodisiacs. Maybe a little too interested? No, I’m sure the researchers in question are not as weird as their various study titles make them sound. (But, look: “Sexual Conflict and Anti-Aphrodisiac Titre in a Polyandrous Butterfly: Male Ejaculate Tailoring and Absence of Female Control.” “Long-Lasting, True Aphrodisiac Effect of (-)-deprenyl in Sexually Sluggish Old Male Rats.” “Purification and Analysis of a Proteinaceous Aphrodisiac Pheromone From Hamster Vaginal Discharge.” Sometimes I just want to know how you GET to that “let’s check the hamster vaginal discharge” stage of science, you know?) OK, I am not that sure.

One such report, “Aphrodisiac Properties of Tribulus Terrestris Extract in Normal and Castrated Rats” (PDF), examines the effect of the tropical, weedy flowering plant on rat libido. Tribulus terrestris has long been used in both traditional Chinese and traditional Indian medicine, and is believed to act as an aphrodisiac (in rats and rabbits, at least!) by stimulating androgen receptors in the brain. In the study, 40 rats went through a “baseline sexual behaviour study” to “render them sexually experienced (!), administered with the extract, set up in chambers (“under dim red illumination,” it’s specified, which is not really helping my view of the types of people carrying out these studies) and more or less encouraged to ... copulate. While the scientists watch. And count the number of “number of mounts” and “number of intromissions.” I don’t know how it’s really possible to count that or see this much detail with such little animals, unless maybe your faces are pressed up very close to the glass. Who knows how long the researchers did this for! The study does not say.

The extract was indeed found to contribute to improved sexual behavior in rats, though perhaps no more than (and in some cases less than) the comparative use of testosterone. At the very end of the study’s methods section, the study adds a final note: “At the end of the study the animal was sacrificed and the wet weight of prostate measured from all the groups.” Sacrificed after weird, unsolicited human-led experiment sex! What a way to go.

The jury is out on whether Tribulus terrestris has (or can have) an effect on humans. Recent studies found it either entirely useless, or, at best, no more useful than other known testosterone-increasing hormones. This does not mean people aren’t going to keep consuming it anyway, much in the same way Pippa Middleton is still going to serve oysters on Valentine’s Day, even though their aphrodisiac properties are negligible to imaginary. In fact, I just searched “Tribulus terrestris” on Google, and the first thing that popped up was this supplement called, what do you know, “Horny Goat Weed.” Tribulus terrestris is one of the principle ingredients. This product may very well do absolutely nothing for you. That seems most likely. It will cost you $16.51 to find out for sure, which I guess is better than you can say for those rats.

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