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September 2001
Vol. 31, No. 9, pp 29–33.
Succeeding in the Marketplace

Table of Contents

Debra A. Schwartz

Have I got an herb for you!

Aphrodisiacs have been used worldwide since the dawn of human history. Researchers are just beginning to discover their chemical and physiological functions.

Opening Art
Loel Barr

Not long ago, a friend sent me the Web address for an article published in Nerve.com (1). I went to the link and found what I thought was satire. Silly me.

“Niagara—buy it here!” read a small box below the article subhead: “Genie in a bottle: The sex drink that’s rocking Little Rock”. Baited, I prepared myself for a modern-day Jonathan Swift writing Clinton’s Travels. The article described Little Rock as “a bunch of Bible Belters with the sexual curiosity of the deeply repressed in a town big enough to give them plenty of temptation”.

It begins with “redneck” raunch radio raconteur Tommy Smith “growling in a Southern drawl about what the drink [Niagara] does to women, how it juices them up, makes them weak in the knees. And it didn’t just affect women—one man calls in to say the drink made him erect with one swallow; another claims the same.”

An amateur herbalist, I checked the ingredients in the blue liquid from Sweden, and what did I find? Maté (caffeine), guaraná (caffeine, aphrodisiac), schizandra (sedative), and damiana (aphrodisiac), a mix intended to give you “good staying power”.

Although known as the queen of female aphrodisiacs, damiana (the shrub Turnera diffusa) is not just for women. It is a hormone neutralizer affecting the endocrine glands and their secretions, said medical herbalist Tom Wolfe of Smile Herbs, whose forte is Ayurveda (an ancient system of preventative medicine developed in India) and Oriental practices.

beta sitosterol
Chemist, biologist, and master herbalist Louise Tenney noted that damiana helps “with infertility in both males and females, by strengthening the egg in the female and increasing the sperm count in the male. . . . Studies have concluded that damiana has a beneficial affect on sexual debility and nervous tension. The leaves contain β-sitosterol and some aromatic oils that may be responsible for the stimulant effect and the building of the sexual reproductive systems. It strengthens the nerves and brain,” she wrote in Today’s Herbal Health (2). In women, she wrote, it is especially good for coping with menopausal symptoms, PMS, frigidity, and hot flashes; but it is known to increase sex drive in men, as well as women. Schizandra (the Chinese shrub Schizandra chinensis (3) and damiana contain calcium, potassium, selenium, sodium, and vitamin C, Tenney noted.

What’s an aphrodisiac?
By definition, an aphrodisiac implies a stimulus to love, according to the Dictionary of Aphrodisiacs by Harry Ezekiel Wedeck (4). The U.S. Food and Drug Administration clinically defines an aphrodisiac as “a food, drink, drug, scent, or device that, promoters claim, can arouse or increase sexual desire, or libido. A broader definition includes products that improve sexual performance” (5).

What that means is it gets you in the mood and may prolong the pleasure once you’re there. A term derived from Aphrodite, the Greek goddess that personified the sexual urge, regeneration, and the power of love, “aphrodisiacs involve visual images; olfactory and tactile experiences; physiological operations related to food, drink, or drugs; or conceptual pictures that induce libidinous thoughts and impulses. Some so-called aphrodisiacs, though not effective, are at least innocuous, while others may be extremely harmful. It is wise, therefore, to consider all aphrodisiacs both figuratively and physiologically,” Wedeck wrote.

A more common definition comes from Norman Farnsworth, a professor of pharmacognosy at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and investigator for the National Institutes of Health since 1960: “In Webster’s, it says ‘that which enhances sexual desire’. I really don’t think that’s the problem. I think they should change the definition to say ‘improve performance’.”

Damiana for women
Many scientists long thought of damiana primarily as a male stimulant until Cynthia Watson, a family and integrated medical practitioner with UCLA–Santa Monica and St. Johns hospitals in Santa Monica, CA, published her book, Love Potions, a Guide to Aphrodisiacs and Sexual Pleasures (6). In it, she presented evidence indicating that androgens such as testosterone might be effective for stimulating so-called “frigid” women, a characteristic some researchers suspect may be caused by an androgen deficiency. Watson also said she saw a renewed interest in sex among women who used damiana.

“In my practice, I have found damiana to be one of the most effective aphrodisiacs available to women,” she wrote, adding, “I’ve had great success with damiana in a number of cases. It’s safe and effective.” About a patient of hers whose sexual desire had decreased in her late 50s following menopause, Watson wrote, “After using damiana, she felt a renewed interest in sex. I’ve had great success with damiana in a number of cases. It’s safe and effective.”

Watson wrote that damiana can balance the hormonal systems of women during menopause—reducing hot flashes—and normalize irregular menstrual cycles of adolescent girls. In addition, “It is also reported to induce erotic dreams when drunk at bedtime.” I can also tell you that damiana makes my dreams at least a little unusual, with qualities worthy of an abstract Walt Disney production.

“Damiana crops up in the literature most frequently as an aphrodisiac, but there have never been any studies in animals and humans to support this finding,” Farnsworth said. “If it’s safe and somebody thinks it’s working, then good life to them.” Schizandra, he said, is used mainly in Oriental medicine as a treatment for liver disease.

Yohimbe for men
If you ask Farnsworth about Niagara, the blue drink in the blue bottle, he’ll say it’s a good dose of caffeine and damiana and that, “if the atmosphere is desirable—nice candlelight and soft music—and you drink this stuff, you get the same effect as if you’re drinking a can of Coca-Cola.” But yohimbe, he said, is the ticket for men.

yohimbine hydrochloride
Yohimbine hydrochloride
To date, yohimbine hydrochloride, a component of yohimbe, the brown bark from the African tree Pausinystalia yohimbe, is the only FDA-approved drug to aid sexual performance in men. The bark itself is classified by the FDA as an unsafe herb because of its side effects, which include anxiety, panic attacks, hallucinations, and elevated blood pressure and heart rate (7).

“There’s a little animal data that suggest it might be an aphrodisiac,” Farns worth said. “Clinical trials have been published, with the most comprehensive one done a few years ago with a large group of hospitalized veterans who were diabetic and impotent, a usual side effect of diabetes. About 40% of those claimed to regain their sexual activity” (8).

According to the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database (NMCD), aphrodisiac activity in yohimbe is “attributed to genital blood vessel dilation, nerve impulse transmission to genital tissue, and increased reflex excitability in the sacral region of the spinal cord” (9).

Yohimbe bark contains ~6% yohimbine, which readily penetrates the central nervous system, primarily by blocking the α-2 adrenergic receptor, as reported in the database. It also has monoamine oxide–inhibiting, calcium channel–blocking, and peripheral serotonin receptor–blocking effects. Yohimbine, prescribed under the trade name Yokon, is most effective for men with “organic vascular dysfunction”, and has favorably affected sexual performance by promoting selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, according to the NMCD database.

“It’s an herb I’m prescribing in a fair amount,” said Steven Lipsius, a clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at George Washington University School of Medicine, Washington, DC, and a certified sexual dysfunction therapist. “But it can be anxiety-producing. That’s one of the drawbacks. Very often herbals jump-start things, which helps in psychotherapy. I try to work on overcoming the sexual problem so my patients don’t need to take these things over the long run.”

Whereas the herb yohimbe and the alkaloid yohimbine are most often thought of as male aphrodisiacs, Seattle sex therapist Roger Libby encourages his female patients to explore both yohimbe and the related bark quebracho. Why? “The biochemical properties of these plant medicines compel engorgement of the clitoris . . . along with increased desire and more sustained arousal. Both are chemical twins that boost testosterone levels” (10).

And more for men
Ginseng is widely treasured as a stimulant in China, but new kinds of male aphrodisiacs, allegedly more potent than Viagra, are making their way into that country’s domestic market. They have acquired a following among Taiwanese men taking part in “sex tours” to mainland China and Southeast Asia, as reported in the China Post last April (11). “According to some participants returning from such trips, tour guides routinely distribute complimentary packets of aphrodisiacs to members of their group,” the report said.

A little closer to home, and easy to indulge in if you have the urge, is Love Tea from the San Francisco Herb & Natural Food Co., which sells about 10,000 boxes of it every year, said formulator Barry Meltzer, owner of the Fremont, CA–based company. Love Tea was initially named “Love Potion #9”, but more than 20 years ago, the FDA required Meltzer to tone down his formula and change the name. Now it’s a combination of a dozen or so herbs including the queen of aphrodisiacs (damiana) and muira puama (Ptychopetalum olacoides), also known as “erection root” (12).

“Muira puama is not well understood, but seems to be efficacious in some undermotivated men,” said ACS member Jim Duke, a retired economic botanist formerly with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and currently senior science adviser to Nature’s Herbs, a division of Twin Laboratories Inc. (Ronkonkoma, NY). Touted by natives in Brazil and throughout South America as a neuromuscular tonic, its objective is sexual potency.

Two recent human trials by Jacques Waynberg found muira puama effective in improving libido and increasing the rate of erection. One, a study in Paris of 262 men lacking sexual desire and the ability to attain or maintain an erection, reported that 62% of the patients with low libido said the extract of muira puama “had a dynamic effect”, and 51% who wanted to increase their rate of erection called the herb beneficial (13).

The second study, conducted by Waynberg in France, evaluated muira puama’s positive psychological benefits in 100 men with male sexual asthenia (14). Sixty-two of the 94 men who completed the study said their frequency of intercourse increased significantly; 32 (out of 46 who reported weakened desire at the beginning of the study) revealed a strengthening of their libido; 12 said morning erections were improved at the end of the study; and 52 out of 94 reported muira puama helped them to reestablish stability of erection during intercourse.

Whereas so-called aphrodisiacs have come and gone throughout history, muira puama has had staying power and has risen above the rest because it is believed to provide one of the most effective natural therapeutic approaches for achieving and maintaining quality sexual performance in men (12). The alternatives are few, experts say.

Meltzer’s “Love Tea” relies on three purported aphrodisiacs: damiana, muira puama, and sarsaparilla, which are rushed to their destination in the body by blackberry leaf, white oak bark, ginger root, rosebuds, angelica root, marjoram, Siberian ginseng, echinacea, and bergamot. Like drugs, herbal formulas have carriers that deliver the active ingredients to the blood. For instance, guaraná, a kind of natural “speed”, contains at least 5% more caffeine than coffee, plus the central nervous system stimulants theophylline and theobromine, and it “stimulates gastric acid secretion as well as causes diuresis,” according to the NMCD. Two cups of the “Love Tea” is a reasonable dosage for significant results.

James Green, founder of the California School of Herbal Studies (Forestville) and author of the popular book The Male Herbal: Health Care for Men & Boys (15) looked in his crystal ball for future trends in aphrodisiacs. “Maca [Lepidium meyenii (16)] is becoming quite the designer aphrodisiac these days,” he said. “It seems to enhance male performance. It affects both the male and female energy.”

Maca is simply Peruvian ginseng, Meltzer said. “Ginseng is everywhere; it’s just called by different names. When you go to Brazil, they call it ‘suma’. In India, ‘ashwaganda’.” Each country will have similar herbs that are slightly different, depending on the region in which they are found, he explained. There’s even American ginseng, which was brought here and continues to be cultivated.

Ginseng is an adaptogen that increases the body’s resistance to stress, Meltzer said. “It helps overcome disease by building up our general vitality and strengthening our normal body functions. It gives you a feeling like you didn’t stay up all night,” he said. Meltzer prefers ginseng especially when traveling for business and coping with one meeting after another.

“The ginseng in China is just everywhere,” Meltzer said. “You go to another country, and they don’t know what it is. But they have maca, or something like it.” It takes about a month to build up in the system and become fully effective, he said. It is a stimulant like caffeine, but its effect is less subtle than that from drinking coffee.

The boom in aphrodisiacs
There are 2500 plants being used as aphrodisiacs, mainly in developing countries, Farnsworth said. He works under a $7.8-million grant for the National Center for Botanical Dietary Supplements Research, Chicago, funded by NIH’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine and the Office of Dietary Supplements, to study botanical dietary supplements used for women’s health—especially menopause. Farnsworth’s focus at the moment is black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa) and red clover.

Is Viagra an aphrodisiac?
“There isn’t any herb that works immediately like Viagra,” said Tom Wolfe, owner of the Smile Herb Shop in College Park, MD. “In the long run, some herbal combinations are probably better than Viagra,” he added, citing the physical effect of water retention and emotional or spiritual well-being and balance.

Indeed, Viagra does not qualify as an aphrodisiac by strict definition. For instance, a 1998 study by cardiologist Robert A. Kloner at Good Samaritan Hospital’s Heart Institute at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, showed that Viagra “is not an aphrodisiac and therefore will not work without sexual stimulation” (17).

“There’s a general shift to go to alternative and more natural medicine, so it makes sense that in this field [aphrodisiacs], there would be the same tendency,” said Hani Miletski, a certified sex therapist in private practice. “Sexual desire is the most common problem at the moment, and it’s the most difficult one to treat. Because of Viagra, the sexual desire issue is becoming more of a problem,” she said (see box, “Is Viagra an aphrodisiac?”).

More of a problem? How is that possible? “Men who before could not have performed now can, and their partners are trying to deal with this. Before it was status quo. Now, all of a sudden, you have all these women with sexual desire problems,” Miletski said. Viagra has no effect on sexual desire in men, it only helps with erection, she explained. “So all of a sudden there’s a lot of focus on desire in both genders.”

If you’re not sure which aphrodisiac is right for you and your lover, try the “Aphrodisiacs Decoder” from the Heaven & Earth Shop (18). It lists 144 pleasure-giving substances, along with recipes for love potions, perfumes, and aromatic baths, and a soup-to-nuts show of which aphrodisiacs work for what and in which medium, as well as which are likely to make you sick if used excessively.

The next time you reach for an apple of love (as tomatoes were called by Spanish explorers who brought yellow ones back from the lower Andes) or that dark hero Triple Chocolate Overload—divert from the sexual mainstream with a cup or two of herbal tea or a blue brew from Sweden.

Food for love?
Recognizing that visual stimulation is one of the features that defines an aphrodisiac, producers of recent movies such as Chocolat and Like Water for Chocolate showed audiences some of the most sensual, fully clothed scenes ever recorded, marking a new era in lusty cinema. One recipe given in Chocolat warms and soothes the lower abdomen, where it counts. The shop served dark sweetened hot chocolate topped with whipped cream and cayenne pepper.

It has been well documented in recent clinical studies that chocolate enhances a sense of pleasure (19). The “hot” ingredient in cayenne pepper, capsaicin, warms the body, but at the same time, it “has a reputation for inhibiting orgasm, but so far that’s just folklore,” said botanist Jim Duke, senior science adviser to Nature’s Herbs. “I fear capsaicin, like ginger, might be working more by irritating the genitalia,” he said. Duke calls his own combination “Heat Flash”; it’s a blend of chocolate and Tabasco, which he says is equally promising.

Duke also recommends that women seeking to boost their sex drive and receptiveness to touch embrace dong quai, damiana, epimedium, fenugreek, ginger, and ginseng, “and that most ‘yin’ herb of folklore, wild yam”. Duke, who formulated the blend, calls it “Frigiditea”. His new book The Green Pharmacy Anti-Aging Prescriptions—Herbs, Foods, and Natural Formulas To Keep You Young (20) includes several aphrodisiac formulas supported by research, including “Turn-On Tincture”, designed for women.

Mix 1 tsp damiana, five leaves of yinyanghuo, ¼ tsp fennelseed, ½ tsp fenugreek, and 1 tsp ground ginger with 4 oz of vodka or 6 oz of red wine. “I prefer the taste of the vodka, but think the efficacy potential is greater for the red wine,” Duke said.

More from Duke: Men should get to know horny goat weed, yohimbe, and muira puama. Garlic and red wine consumed by candlelight are effective for seducing men and women.

The book Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel (21) spills decadent formulas that blend into mouth-watering and body lubricating moments of sensual pleasure. Esquivel’s highest-rated aphrodisiac vegetables are Libyan truffles, followed by truffles from Greece and France. In 1825, Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in Physiologie du goût (22) devoted six pages to truffles and their erotic properties. Truffles are said to make women more yielding and men more amiable.


  1. Parker, S. Genie in a Bottle. Nerve.com; www.nerve.com/dispatches/Parker/genieInABottle.
  2. Tenney, L. Today’s Herbal Health: The Essential Reference Guide; Woodland: Pleasant Grove, UT, 2000.
  3. Herb Seed Index & Growing Guide; www.chatlink.com/~herbseed/schizand.htm.
  4. Wedeck, H. E. Dictionary of Aphrodisiacs; Philosophical Library: New York, 1961.
  5. Nordenberg, T. Looking for a Libido Lift? The Facts About Aphrodisiacs. FDA Consumer, Jan–Feb 1996; www.fda.gov/fdac/features/196_love.html.
  6. Watson, C. Love Potions, A Guide to Aphrodisiacs and Sexual Pleasures; Jeremy Tarcher: Los Angeles, 1993.
  7. Yohimbe; Lycos Health with WebMD; http://webmd.lycos.com/content/article/3187.13773.
  8. Susset, J. G.; Tessier, C. D.; Wincze, J.; Bansal, S.; Malhotra, C.; Schwacha, M. G. J. Urol. (Baltimore) 1989, 141, 1360–1363.
  9. Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database; Therapeutic Research Faculty: Stockton, CA, 2000; pp 1144–1146.
  10. Libby, R. J. Longevity Research 1995, 1 (10), 10–11.
  11. Returning Sex Tourists Take Home Aphrodisiacs. China Post (Taiwan), April 23, 2001.
  12. Raintree Nutrition Products: www.rain-tree.com/muirapuama.htm.
  13. Waynberg, J. Aphrodisiacs: Contributions to the Clinical Validation of the Traditional Use of Ptychopetalum guyanna. Presented at the First International Congress on Ethnopharmacology, Strasbourg, France, June 5–9, 1990.
  14. Waynberg, J. Male Sexual Asthenia—Interest in a Traditional Plant-Derived Medication. Ethnopharmacology, March 1995 (in French); www.rain-tree.com/clinic/clinic_a.htm (in English).
  15. Green, J. The Male Herbal: Health Care for Men & Boys. The Crossing Press: Freedom, CA, 2000.
  16. Raintree Nutrition Products: www.rain-tree.com/maca.htm.
  17. Kloner, R. A. Viagra: What every physician should know. Ear Nose Throat Journal 1998, 77, 783–786.
  18. Dynamo House; www.dynamoh.com.au.
  19. Schwartz, D. A. CHEMTECH 1999, 29 (12), 64–IBC.
  20. Duke, J. A.; Castleman, M. The Green Pharmacy Anti-Aging Prescriptions—Herbs, Foods, and Natural Formulas to Keep You Young; Rodale Press: Emmaus, PA, 2001.
  21. Esquivel, L. Like Water for Chocolate; Doubleday: New York, 1992.
  22. Brillat-Savarin, A. Physiologie du goût (The Physiology of Taste: Meditation on Transcendental Gastronomy); Liveright: New York, 1970.

Note: All of the URLs were last accessed in September 5, 2001.

Debra A. Schwartz is a freelance writer and editor in the Washington, DC, area (debinmld@aol.com). She is working toward a doctorate in journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park.

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