An aphrodisiac is defined as a food or drug that arouses sexual instinct, brings on desire or increases sexual pleasure or performance.
Naturally, aphrodisiacs are a hot topic, as evidenced by the myriad of pharmaceutical drugs available and marketed specifically for their libido-boosting effects.
However, some individuals prefer natural alternatives, as they are generally safer and tend to have fewer side effects.
This article reviews 7 science-backed aphrodisiacs that can boost your libido.
Maca is a sweet root vegetable with several health benefits.
In South America it's commonly used to boost fertility, even going by the nickname "the Peruvian Viagra." It grows predominantly in the mountains of central Peru and is related to cruciferous vegetables including broccoli, cauliflower, kale and cabbage ().
Maca is one of the few popular natural aphrodisiacs that's actually backed by science.
Animal studies report increases in libido and erectile function in mice and rats fed maca ().
And maca seems to have libido-boosting effects in humans too. Four high-quality studies reported that participants experienced enhanced sexual desire after they consumed maca (, , , ).
Furthermore, a small study suggests that maca may help reduce the loss of libido that's commonly experienced as a side effect of certain antidepressant drugs ().
Most studies provided 1.5–3.5 grams of maca per day for 2–12 weeks ().
Participants generally tolerated these intakes well and experienced few side effects. However, more studies are needed to determine safe dosages and long-term effects.
Summary: Maca is a sweet root vegetable that may help boost libido.
Tribulus terrestris, also known as bindii, is an annual plant that grows in dry climates.
It is commonly used to help improve athletic performance, infertility and loss of libido ().
This supplement is also backed by some science. Animal studies report increased sperm production in rats given Tribulus supplements ().
Another study found 88% of women with sexual dysfunction experienced increased sexual satisfaction after taking 250 mg of Tribulus per day for 90 days ().
Additionally, a group of researchers examined the effect of Tribulus in women with sexual dysfunction by giving them 7.5 mg of the extract per day.
After four weeks, the women given Tribulus reported significantly higher levels of desire, arousal, lubrication and orgasm satisfaction ().
That said, more research is needed to evaluate optimal dosing, as well as the effects of Tribulus supplements in men.
Summary: The Tribulus terrestris plant may have aphrodisiac effects in women. More research is needed to evaluate optimal doses of Tribulus, as well as its effects in men.
3. Ginkgo Biloba
Ginkgo biloba is an herbal supplement derived from one of the oldest species of trees — the Ginkgo biloba tree.
It's popular in traditional Chinese medicine as a treatment for many ailments, including depression and poor sexual function.
Ginkgo biloba is said to act as an aphrodisiac by helping relax blood vessels and increase blood flow ().
Nevertheless, studies have produced mixed results.
For example, one small study reports that ginkgo biloba reduced the loss of libido caused by antidepressant use in around 84% of participants.
Both male and female participants said they experienced increased desire, excitement and ability to orgasm after consuming 60–120 mg of the supplement daily, although effects seemed stronger in female participants ().
However, a follow-up study noted no improvements in a similar group of participants who took ginkgo biloba ().
Ginkgo biloba is generally well tolerated, but it may act as a blood thinner. Thus, if you're taking blood-thinning medications, make sure to check with your health care professional before taking ginkgo biloba ().
Summary: Ginkgo biloba may have aphrodisiac effects, but study results are inconsistent. The herb may also interact with blood thinners, so consult your health care practitioner before using it.
4. Red Ginseng
Ginseng is another popular herb in Chinese medicine.
One particular type — red ginseng — is commonly used to treat a variety of ailments in men and women, including low libido and sexual function ().
Several studies have investigated its use in men and observed that red ginseng was at least twice as effective as the placebo at improving erectile function (, ).
Also, one small study in menopausal women found that red ginseng may improve sexual arousal ().
However, these results are not universal. Moreover, some experts question the strength of these studies and warn that more research is needed before strong conclusions can be made (, ).
One study had participants take 1.4–3 grams of red ginseng daily for 4–12 weeks ().
This and another study found that people generally tolerate ginseng well, but it may interfere with blood-thinning medications and the treatment of hormone-sensitive cancers.
In some cases, ginseng may also cause headaches, constipation or minor stomach upset (, ).
Summary: Red ginseng is a popular herb that may help boost sex drive and erectile function in men and sexual arousal in women. However, stronger studies are needed to confirm these effects.
Fenugreek is an annual plant cultivated worldwide.
Its seeds are most commonly used in South Asian dishes, but it's also popular in Ayurvedic medicine as an anti-inflammatory, libido-boosting treatment.
And perhaps this is for good reason — this herb appears to contain compounds that the body can use to make sex hormones, such as estrogen and testosterone (, ).
In one small study, men given 600 mg of fenugreek extract per day for six weeks reported experiencing increased sexual arousal and more orgasms ().
Similarly, a small study investigated the effects of a daily dose of 600 mg of fenugreek extract in women who had reported having a low sex drive.
It observed a significant increase in sexual desire and arousal in the fenugreek group by the end of the eight-week study, compared to the placebo group ().
Fenugreek is generally well tolerated, but can interact with blood-thinning medication and may cause minor stomach upset ().
Moreover, due to its influence on sex hormones, fenugreek may also interfere with the treatment of hormone-sensitive cancers ().
Summary: Fenugreek may help boost sexual desire and arousal in both men and women. Individuals taking blood-thinning medication should avoid it.
6. Pistachio Nuts
People have been eating pistachio nuts since 6,000 BC.
They are quite nutritious and particularly rich in protein, fiber and healthy fats ().
Pistachios may have a variety of health benefits, including helping lower blood pressure, control weight and reduce the risk of heart disease (, , ).
Moreover, they may also help reduce symptoms of erectile dysfunction.
In one small study, men who consumed 3.5 ounces (100 grams) of pistachio nuts per day for three weeks experienced increased blood flow to the penis and firmer erections ().
Experts have suggested these effects may be due to the ability of pistachios to improve blood cholesterol and stimulate better blood flow throughout the body.
However, this study did not use a placebo group, which makes it difficult to interpret the results. More studies are needed before strong conclusions can be made.
Summary: Pistachio nuts appear to increase blood flow, contributing to firmer erections. However, more studies are needed before strong conclusions can be made.
Saffron is a spice derived from the Crocus sativus flower. It is native to Southwest Asia and one of the most expensive spices by weight.
This spice is often used as an alternative remedy to help treat depression, reduce stress and enhance mood ().
What's more, saffron is also popular for its potential aphrodisiac properties, especially in individuals taking antidepressants.
One study observed that a group of men given 30 mg of saffron per day for four weeks experienced greater improvements in erectile function than men given a placebo ().
A follow-up study in women reported that those in the saffron group experienced higher levels of arousal and increased lubrication, compared to those in the placebo group ().
Nevertheless, studies on saffron's aphrodisiac properties in individuals not suffering from depression yield inconsistent results (, , , ).
Summary: Saffron may help increase sex drive in individuals taking antidepressant medications. However, results in other groups remain mixed.
Well-Known Aphrodisiac Foods That Are Not Backed by Strong Scientific Evidence
Several other foods are touted to have aphrodisiac properties. However, their libido-boosting effects are often supported by very little scientific evidence.
Here are some of the most popular of these questionable foods:
- Chocolate: Compounds in cacao are often touted to have an aphrodisiac effect, particularly in women. However, studies provide little evidence to support this very popular belief ().
- Oysters: While one study reports that they may have some libido-boosting effects in rats, no studies exist to support the libido-enhancing properties of oysters in humans (, ).
- Chasteberry: Studies suggest that this fruit may influence hormone levels and reduce premenstrual syndrome (PMS) symptoms in women. However, there is no evidence that it offers any libido-boosting benefits (, ).
- Honey: It has allegedly been used for centuries to bring romance into marriages. One variety called "mad honey" is even marketed as a sexual stimulant. Yet, no studies support this, and it may contain dangerous toxins (, , ).
- Epimedium: Also known as horny goat weed, it's popular in traditional Chinese medicine for treating ailments like erectile dysfunction. Cell and animal studies provide some early support for this use, but human studies are needed (, ).
- Hot chilies: According to popular belief, capsaicin, the compound that gives hot chilies their spiciness, stimulates nerve endings on the tongue, causing the release of sex drive-boosting chemicals. However, no studies support this belief.
- Alcohol: Alcohol may act as an aphrodisiac by helping both men and women relax and get in the mood. However, heavy drinking may actually reduce arousal and sexual function, so moderation is key (, ).
Summary: The supplements listed above are often said to help increase sexual desire. However, there is currently limited scientific evidence to support their use as aphrodisiacs.
The Bottom Line
When it comes to boosting sex drive, the list of foods with potential aphrodisiac properties is very long.
However, only a small proportion of these supposed aphrodisiacs are actually backed by science.
If you're interested in giving the science-backed options a try, you may want to start with small amounts and increase the dosage based on your personal tolerance.
Also, it's important to note that natural aphrodisiacs may interact with some medications.
If you're currently taking medication, make sure to check with your health care provider before giving these foods and herbs a try.