Sexy Science: How Aphrodisiacs Work


By Chris Spencer

This Valentine’s Day, you may find a stunningly beautiful person staring at you with the piercing gaze that only comes from a feeling of pure, unadulterated lust. You then may notice that person’s look of longing slowly morph into a visage of confusion and dismay. The reason they look so dejected is that you clearly aren’t mentally undressing them. You’re lost in thought, trying to work out exactly what it is about oysters that seems to get everyone going. If I were you, I’d satiate my scientific curiosity now, and focus on a different form of satisfaction on Valentine’s Day.


Using studies in rats, nutmeg has been proven to enhance sexual desire. In fact, reading the study lead me to one of my favourite scientific phrases; “feeding nutmeg increased mountings onto females.” It is as clear cut as that ladies and gents. The probable mechanism nutmeg more than likely stems from its nerve stimulating properties, so grate some onto your risotto on the big night.

Spanish Fly (Lytta vesicatoria)

If like me, you’re a fan of the 1987 Beastie Boys classic “Brass Monkey,” then you’ll be aware of the aphrodisiac potency of the Spanish fly. The beetle secretes cantharidin when threatened – a toxin which is toxic to humans in high enough doses. Despite this, people have been grinding Spanish fly up and putting it in peoples’ drinks for at least 2000 years. The toxin inhibits phosphodiesterase and protein phosphatase activity and stimulates a mild urethral irritation that can lead to priapism (a sustained erection of the penis or clitoris). This one seems to be a difficult one to administer safely, so maybe give it a wide berth. I certainly don’t condone spiking anybody’s drink with it.

Red Wine

That leads me neatly onto alcoholic beverages, specifically red wine. Red wine is a double whammy in terms of getting you in the mood. The high concentration of phenolic compounds such as resveratrol and tannins are present in numerous traditional aphrodisiacs, and they have been shown to increase blood flow to your danger zone. This is another compound which has been shown to make rats mount other rats under experimental conditions. The other side of the coin with red wine is alcohol. Of course alcohol relaxes you, and if you’re with someone new (or trying something a bit new) – that feeling of relaxation may well be vital. Don’t get carried away though, or you gentlemen might find that priapism won’t feature on your list of problems.

Chilli Peppers

The erotic component of hot chillies is capsaicin, a molecule which fools our thermoreceptors into thinking it’s hot. Capsaicin works in two ways: not only does it release endorphins to stimulate a mild euphoria, but it increases circulation and speeds up metabolism, which are similar responses to those experienced during sex.

This one comes with a caveat. If you’re preparing any spicy dishes yourself, take it from me, you’ll probably want to wear gloves while you’re chopping the chillies. There are a couple of rather intimate mucosa that you probably don’t want to get capsaicin anywhere near. “Burning loins” are just a figure of speech, you should endeavour to keep it that way.


That is right, chocolate has done it again. The pharmacologically active substances in chocolate are phenylethylamine, which reportedly enhances pleasurable sensations in the brain and affects serotonin and endorphin levels, and N-acylethanolamines, which may activate cannabinoid receptors to increase tactile sensitivity. Pass the dessert.

Symbolic Aphrodisiacs

A fair number of reported aphrodisiacs don’t actually have a proven mechanism of action. Examples such as the avocado (avocado comes from the Aztec word for testicle tree) and the banana are pretty much just phallic symbols. Oysters are used primarily because of their association with the Aphrodite herself.

That’s not to say that these foods won’t get you going of course. If you and your partner sit down to a candlelit dinner of oysters, then I’d imagine you’ll both know it’s on.