​​What Is An Aphrodisiac? Do They Improve Sex?

Reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP

Written by Our Editorial Team

Updated 24/10/2021

For centuries, both men and women have searched for foods, drinks and other substances that can boost their libido and increase sexual desire.

Aphrodisiacs are substances that promote sexual desire, strengthen the libido or make sex feel more exciting and pleasurable. A range of products are promoted as aphrodisiacs, from natural foods, herbs and supplements to psychoactive substances and manmade medications. 

While the effectiveness of aphrodisiacs varies from one substance to another, a few are backed up by real research showing that they may improve sexual desire and function.

Below, we’ve discussed what aphrodisiacs are, as well as the most common reasons for trying them. We’ve also listed common aphrodisiacs, including foods, herbal supplements and even a variety of medications.

Finally, we’ve dug into the science behind whether or not aphrodisiacs actually work and shared options you may want to consider if you’re looking to improve your sex life.

What Are Aphrodisiacs?

Aphrodisiacs are foods, substances and medications that can increase sexual arousal, promote a stronger sex drive or make sex more pleasurable.

People have used aphrodisiacs for centuries to attract sexual partners and improve their sexual performance. The word “aphrodisiac” is derived from “Aphrodite,” the ancient Greek goddess of love, pleasure, passion and beauty.

Historically, most aphrodisiacs have been rare, natural substances, such as yohimbine, ground rhino horn (in historical Chinese culture) and the blister beetle Lytta vesicatoria, or “Spanish fly” — a type of poisonous insect that was once thought of as a natural sex supplement.

Today, most foods and substances considered aphrodisiacs are much less exotic — think of dark chocolate, honey, raw oysters or a personal care product like cologne, rather than a rare animal or poisonous beetle.

Why Do People Try Aphrodisiacs?

People use aphrodisiacs for a wide variety of reasons, from making themselves more attractive to sexual partners to strengthening their own sex drive.

Common reasons for using aphrodisiacs include:

  • Standing out to other people. It’s common for men and women to use aphrodisiacs to stand out to potential sexual partners, either by attracting their attention or boosting their level of sexual attraction and interest.

  • Spicing up an existing relationship. Some people believe that aphrodisiacs can add new life to an existing relationship by increasing attractiveness and promoting a strong sex drive.

  • Increasing sex drive. Although research on the hormonal effects of most aphrodisiacs is limited, some people believe that they can help to boost hormone levels and increase a person’s level of interest in sex.

  • Promoting healthy blood flow. Some products promoted as natural aphrodisiacs may help to dilate blood vessels and promote healthy blood flow, which is a major aspect of sexual function and performance for men.

  • Making sex more intense and pleasurable. While most people think of aphrodisiacs as substances that increase sexual attractiveness, some are used to make sex a more pleasurable or intense experience.

  • Treating sexual performance issues. Some aphrodisiacs are marketed as treatments for common male sexual performance problems, such as erectile dysfunction (ED) and premature ejaculation (PE). 

It’s important to note that the scientific evidence for most natural aphrodisiacs is limited, with few or no large-scale scientific studies available to back up most of these potential benefits. 

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Popular Aphrodisiacs

We’ve listed five of the most popular aphrodisiacs for men below, along with information on the research, or lack thereof, behind each one.  

Oysters

They are rich in nutrients, including zinc, earning them a reputation as a food that can boost men’s testosterone levels and increase sexual desire and function.

Testosterone does play a role in sex drive for men — in fact, a major one. There’s also evidence that certain types of shellfish can boost testosterone levels, although studies in this field largely involve animals rather than humans.

So, are Oysters an aphrodisiac? Still, the high protein content and great micronutrient profile of oysters make them worth adding to your diet, even if the aphrodisiac effects aren’t fully supported by science. 

Tribulus Terrestris

Tribulus terrestris, or just tribulus, is a plant-based nutritional supplement that’s often marketed as a natural testosterone booster and aphrodisiac. 

While research on tribulus is limited, studies have found that it may increase male testosterone levels when used with other supplements. However, its effects appear to be mild, meaning you shouldn’t expect any overnight changes in your sex drive.

Other research has linked tribulus to increases in sexual desire in women and improvements in erectile dysfunction for men.

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Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha is a herbal ingredient that’s produced from Withania somnifera, a shrub that can be found throughout India, the Middle East and parts of Africa.

Like many other herbal supplements, ashwagandha has earned a reputation as an aphrodisiac that can boost sexual desire and performance.

While research on the sexual effects of ashwagandha is limited, some studies have found that ashwagandha may increase testosterone production in men

For example, a study published in the journal Fertility and Sterility in 2010 found that men with poor fertility who used ashwagandha showed increased testosterone levels, higher sperm counts and other positive fertility signals.

Another study of aging, overweight men found that use of ashwagandha was associated with increased testosterone production — a factor that may help to improve sexual desire.

Chocolate

If you’ve ever searched for foods that have aphrodisiac properties, you’ve almost certainly come across recommendations for chocolate. 

The idea of eating chocolate for a better sex drive is certainly an appealing one, but for the most part, scientific research doesn’t seem to support the idea that chocolate improves sexual desire, function or performance. 

While some research shows a link between chocolate consumption and women’s sexual desire, the relationship disappears when age is taken into account.

Still, there’s no denying that chocolate tastes delicious, or that a small serving after dinner might help to get you and your partner in the mood. 

Yohimbine

Yohimbine is the active ingredient in yohimbe, a natural supplement that’s made from the bark of the Pausinystalia yohimbe tree, which is native to Africa.

Over the years, several studies have found that yohimbine may have positive effects on sexual performance and desire.

In one study published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior, researchers found some support that some men who used yohimbine had sex more often than normal. Some men also reported an increase in their response to sexual imagery, suggesting a general increase in sexual vigor.

A small study published in the International Journal of Impotence Research in 2002 found that some men with mild ED who used yohimbine experienced improvements in erectile function. 

Despite these findings, it’s important to note that the evidence for yohimbine as an aphrodisiac is mixed overall. It also has several safety issues, which we’ve discussed in more detail in the section below.

Related read: Is weed an aphrodisiac?

Do Aphrodisiacs Actually Work?

Yes and no. While there is some evidence that certain aphrodisiacs may boost your sex drive or increase aspects of your sexual function, most aphrodisiacs haven’t been studied enough for us to know whether or not they actually work. 

For many aphrodisiacs, a big part of their effectiveness is probably due to the placebo effect — a phenomenon in which thinking something will have a certain effect causes it to actually have the intended therapeutic effect, at least to some extent.

While most aphrodisiacs aren’t harmful, it’s important to be aware that some may cause adverse effects or interact with medications.

For example, yohimbe — the tree from which yohimbine is produced — has been associated with a range of health risks, including stomach problems, tachycardia (rapid heart rate), anxiety, high blood pressure, and even severe issues such as heart attacks and seizures.

Since most aphrodisiacs aren't regulated by the FDA, many have issues with hidden ingredients and inaccurate labeling — a topic we’ve discussed in our guide to over-the-counter ED pills

If you’re considering using a natural or manmade aphrodisiac to increase your sex drive or spice up your sex life, it’s always best to talk to your healthcare provider first, especially if you have an underlying health condition or currently use prescription medication.

Your healthcare provider will be able to tell you about the risks of the substance you plan to use and help you avoid issues such as drug interactions. 

Other Options for Improving Your Sex Life

In addition to trying aphrodisiacs, there are several other ways that you can increase your sex drive, improve your sexual function and enjoy a better, more satisfying sex life. 

Focus on a Healthy Diet and Regular Exercise

Your sex drive and sexual health tend to reflect your overall health. Have a healthy lifestyle and there’s a real chance you’ll be fit and healthy in bed; maintain unhealthy habits and there’s a risk that they could affect your libido, erections and overall sexual function. 

To maintain good sexual health, try to eat a balanced diet and get plenty of exercise, especially cardiovascular exercise that strengthens your heart and lungs.

Not only can eating healthy and working out improve your sexual health — it can also make you more attractive to potential partners, improving your dating and sex prospects.  

Our guide to boosting your sexual performance naturally shares habits that you can prioritize for a better sex life, as well as negative habits that are best avoided. 

Try to Boost Your Testosterone Production Naturally

As a man, testosterone plays a critical role in every aspect of your sexual health, from your level of interest in sex to your ability to get and maintain an erection.

Common symptoms of low testosterone include feelings of fatigue or lethargy, a weak sex drive, erectile dysfunction and changes in your body composition, such as an increase in body fat and reduction in your muscle mass and strength.

If you’re recently started to feel less interested in sex than you normally are, it could be linked to your testosterone levels

Our guide to increasing testosterone shares proven techniques that you can use to boost your T production, from minimizing stress to eating testosterone-increasing foods such as lean protein, leafy greens, legumes, oysters and more. 

Consider ED Medication

If you’re considering aphrodisiacs to improve your erections and treat ED, you’ll likely get better results by using erectile dysfunction medication. 

Contrary to popular belief, ED medications like sildenafil (the active ingredient in Viagra®) aren’t just for older men. Most of these drugs can be used by men of all ages to improve erections and prevent issues like erectile dysfunction from affecting your sexual function. 

Most ED medications belong to a class of drugs called PDE5 inhibitors. They work by increasing blood flow to your penis, making it easier to get and maintain an erection. 

In addition to sildenafil, popular options include tadalafil (Cialis®), a longer-lasting ED treatment that’s often referred to as a “weekend” pill) and avanafil (Stendra®), a new medication that can start working in as little as 15 minutes and has a reduced risk of causing side effects. 

You can learn more about these medications, how they work and their effects in our guide to the most common ED treatments and drugs

Use Spray or Medication to Treat PE

If you need help with the stamina side of sex, you’ll get better results from proven treatments for premature ejaculation than from herbal aphrodisiacs.

Products such as our Delay Spray for Men, which uses the topical anesthetic lidocaine to lower penile sensitivity and slow down ejaculation, are designed specifically to help you last longer in bed.

There are also prescription medications available to slow down orgasm and ejaculation, such as sertraline and paroxetine

While these treatments don’t increase sexual desire, they can have a serious positive impact on your sexual confidence if you’re one of the tens of millions of men prone to PE.

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Are Aphrodisiacs Worth Using?

Although foods like oysters and chocolate or herbal supplements like tribulus and ashwagandha are often promoted as possessing aphrodisiac qualities, the scientific evidence to support this is pretty thin.

If you’re interested in boosting your sex drive and improving your love life, you’ll usually get the best results by doing things the natural way. Focus on eating a healthy diet, keeping active and maintaining good sleep and stress management habits.

If you struggle with sexual dysfunction, options like ED medication or PE treatments can help to improve your sexual function, performance and pleasure.

You can also learn more about improving your libido naturally in our detailed guide to increasing your sex drive

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment or medication.

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