Alternative MedicineSkepticism

Aphrodisiacs: Do They Work? Do We Want Them To?

Valentine’s Day creates a booming market for aphrodisiacs—foods, beverages, spices, powders, supplements, and even insects purported to create desire in humans. But are any of the claims true?

For most, the evidence simply isn’t there, and for a few, the jury is still out. There’s a possible effect of some kind that could be related to desire, but whether it’s an aphrodisiac effect is unclear—and unlikely considering the many ways we can misinterpret our experiences.

The most obvious and pervasive explanation for an aphrodisiac seeming to work is, of course, the placebo effect. Love and desire are largely controlled by our brain, so if we believe something will increase our desire, odds are it will, regardless of whether the substance has an active aphrodisiac ingredient or not. This effect is a bit more difficult to pull off when we’re hoping the aphrodisiac will work on someone else, of course, unless they too believe it will (and want it to).

I lumped “love and desire” together, but that’s an important distinction to make as well. There are different kinds of love, and many forms of love have nothing to do with passion or desire (such as the love between a parent and child). Different hormones, neurotransmitters, and areas of the brain are involved depending on the kind of love we’re talking about as well as desire, which might not have anything to do with love at all. (This is your brain on love.)

Aphrodisiacs are about desire, with or without love involved, which explains another way in which we can easily misinterpret the effects of a substance. Something that causes physiological effects that are similar to the effects of desire can easily be mistaken as causing desire. A particularly dangerous example of this is Spanish fly, which isn’t actually a fly at all but a blister beetle that contains a toxic substance called cantharidin. When excreted after being eaten, cantharidin causes burning and swelling in the urinary tract, which is what people misinterpret as arousal. Hawt.

Other substances that increase circulation, cause swelling, increase our heart rate, make us sweat, boost chemicals in the brain that make us feel good, and so forth are considered aphrodisiacs based on the same faulty logic used to label Spanish fly in this way. Because desire can have all these effects too, it is assumed that anything causing these effects is increasing desire. Kind of like saying that because exercise makes our muscles sore, anything else that makes our muscles sore is exercise—you know, like the flu or lying in bed for long periods of time. Makes you totally buff. Seriously.

Many claims about aphrodisiac effects are quite old, and this is in and of itself used as evidence that it must work. After all, people have used it for centuries, right? This logical fallacy, the appeal to tradition, is commonly used in place of evidence for claims that affect our bodies. Of course, people believed the earth was flat for centuries too. Didn’t make it true. Existing for centuries only means there are powerful reasons for the belief to survive—the placebo effect, confirmation bias and selective thinking (noticing “evidence” that it works and ignoring counterevidence), wanting it to be true, and misinterpreting the effects, as people have done with Spanish fly.

Rhino horn and some foods (oysters, bananas, avocado, etc.) were historically considered aphrodisiacs because they resembled sexual organs. Most people wouldn’t use this reasoning today, but the claims still exist based on the effects on the body of vitamins, minerals, and other substances in these foods. Zinc deficiency can cause impotence in men, so it’s assumed that it must be the zinc in the oysters or in the pine nuts (another popular aphrodisiac) that increases desire in men.

But if you don’t have a deficiency, you’re not likely to feel the effect of the zinc (or other vitamin or mineral) at all. When the body is getting the amount of a particular nutrient that it needs, the excess is simply excreted (or stored in the body to potentially dangerous levels). It doesn’t continue to add benefits beyond what you need. The benefit is simply the result of not having the deficiency rather than a benefit inherent in the substance itself, that will increase as you increase the amount in your body. Doing this with many vitamins and minerals can in fact be toxic.

In the past, more people were undernourished. Deficiencies were more common. This could be one reason why aphrodisiacs seemed to work. Being healthy overall affects our libido. Aphrodisiacs that alleviated a deficiency would make a person healthier, and less fatigued, so it’s easy to see how this could be misinterpreted as the aphrodisiac having a direct effect on desire.

And finally, of course, there’s the individual component. If a particular smell, for example, is associated in your brain with a memory or feeling that causes desire, then that smell could act as an aphrodisiac—for you. It won’t be an aphrodisiac in the sense of something that will create desire in and of itself, for anyone, but it functions in that way for you. And even then, if you’re not already interested in feeling the love to begin with, even that smell might not do it for you.

So the upshot? Any aphrodisiac that creates desire only works if that desire is there in the first place, if you want to feel it and believe that you will. But if you and the person you’re into already feel this, the aphrodisiac is unnecessary. So, yeah. That’s pretty much the definition of something that doesn’t really work.

A one-size-fits-all approach to attraction, desire, and love never seems to pan out. And actually, I think aphrodisiacs kind of get in the way of attraction and love by placing our focus on generalizing and manipulating each other (and ourselves) rather than spending more time finding out about each other as unique individuals, with our own quirks, interests, attractions, loves, and desires. There’s no easy route, no love potion #9, but would we really want that anyway? For love and desire to be predictable and exactly the same for all of us?

Aphrodisiacs are really kind of the least romantic thing in the universe.

Image credits: Kaitlyn Rose, fotografiche.eu, FotoXS, Brian Snelson, Paul Friel.

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Melanie Mallon

Melanie Mallon

Melanie is a freelance editor and writer who just moved to a small town outside Minneapolis with her husband and two young kids. When not counting how often the words "pride," "liberty," and "freedom" are used in local business, road, and pet names, she spends her time wrangling commas, making colon jokes, and raising her two kids to be critical thinkers. She is the managing editor of Skepchick Events, a Grounded Parents admin, and a Skepchick contributor. You can find her on Twitter as @MelMall, on Facebook, and on Google+

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