Need to spice up your sex life? All the ingredients you need may be found at your local grocery store.
Like many aspects of health, our sex drive is affected by what we put into our bodies. Certain foods affect the body in different ways. Depending on what you consume, wining and dining a date can induce more sleep than romance. A big, fancy dinner, a bottle of wine and fine chocolates may sound sweet — but such meals are actually little more than empty calories.
To really get your blood going, consider circulation-enhancing dishes. Food that's high in Omega-3 fatty acids such as mackerel, salmon and wild salmon are best. "Omega-3 makes your nervous system function better," says Dr. Barbara Bartlik, assistant professor of psychiatry and sex therapist with the Human Sexuality Program at Weill Cornell Medical Center. "Sex is really about circuitry." Multivitamins and minerals will help, too. Both improve neurological function, which contributes to good circulation.
Grab some granola
Improved circulation results in greater erectile response. To accomplish that, go for food rich in L-Arginine, such as granola, oatmeal, peanuts, cashews, walnuts, dairy, green vegetables, root vegetables, garlic, ginseng, soybeans, chickpeas and seeds. Studies show that L-Arginine is helpful for improving sexual function in men. There haven't been studies done on women — but remember, erectile response isn't just a guy thing. "Women have erections too: in their clitoris and the tissue surrounding the vulva," says Bartlik.
Humans have sought ways to enhance or improve their sex lives for millennia — and have never been reluctant to spend money to make themselves better lovers. The ancient Romans were said to prefer such exotic aphrodisiacs as hippo snouts and hyena eyeballs. Traditional Chinese medicine espoused the use of such rare delicacies as rhino horn. Modern lovers are no less extravagant. In 2005, for example, according to Amsterdam-based health care information company Wulters Kluwer, Americans spent just under $1.4 billion to treat male sexual dysfunction disorders alone.
Of that amount, Viagra rang up $1.2 billion in sales for Pfizer, or 60 percent of the total market. Among the other drugs trying to find their way into American's bedside tables and back pockets are Levitra and Cialis.
There is a difference, of course, between helping sexual dysfunction and arousing our passions.
Aphrodisiacs, for the most part, have been shown to be ineffective. Named for Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of sex and beauty, these include an array of herbs, foods and other "agents" that are said to awaken and heighten sexual desire. But the 5,000-year tradition of using them is based more on folklore than real science. "There is no data and no scientific evidence," says Leonore Tiefer, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine. "Product pushers are very eager to capitalize on myths," she says.
Most libido-enhancing products offer short term benefit at best, according to Dr. John Mulhall, director of the Sexual Medicine Program at New York Presbyterian and associate professor of urology at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University. Mulhall, who also sits on the Nutraceuticals Committee of the Sexual Medicine Society of North America, says, "Every year, we review the literature on these compounds — these nutraceuticals like nitric oxide and ginseng — and there are none that have really been shown to be more than a placebo."
When it comes to sexual function, the placebo effect probably accounts for 30 percent of improvements in men and around 50 percent in women, he says. That means there are a lot of people out there who believe a pill they are taking or a food they are eating is doing a lot of good for them sexually. In reality, their mind is doing all the work.
So, besides renting "The Story of O" and opening a bottle of red wine, what can people do to kick-start their sex life?
For a good time, try soy
One thing they can do is change their diet. Soy, for example, binds estrogen receptors, which helps the vaginal area remain lubricated and combats symptoms of menopause — particularly hot flashes. Studies have shown that soy is also beneficial to the prostate, a crucial male sex organ. However, it's important to note that women who have a history of breast cancer should not eat large amounts of soy, because the binding of estrogen receptors actually increases the risk of reoccurrence.
Foods that promote weight loss also hold libido-boosting potential. "There has been very solid research showing that obesity is a risk factor for erectile dysfunction and low testosterone," says Dr. Ridwan Shabsigh, director of the New York Center for Human Sexuality and associate professor of urology at Columbia University's medical school. "Reducing weight," he says, "results in an increase of testosterone, and thus an increase in sexual function."
'Good for your heart, good for your penis'
"From an erection standpoint, anything that's good for your heart is good for your penis," says Dr. Mulhall. Too much saturated fat can, over time, clog arteries and, in doing so, prevent an adequate flow of blood from reaching the genital region. This not only interferes with the ability to perform, but also with sexual pleasure. Too little fat, on the other hand, is also bad.
"You need fat to produce your hormones," says Beverly Whipple, professor emerita at Rutgers University and president of the World Association for Sexology. "Cholesterol is metabolized in the liver, and you get your testosterone and estrogen, which you need for your sex drive," she says. Olive oil, salmon and nuts are optimal sources of the "good" kinds of fats —monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.
According to Dr. Judith Reichman, author of "I'm Not in the Mood: What Every Woman Should Known about Improving Her Libido," medical and hormonal problems are major contributors to sexual dysfunction and a low libido — but so are too much stress, relationship difficulties and psychological issues. Antidepressants, such as Prozac by GlaxoSmithKline and Paxil by Eli Lilly, can negatively affect sex drive as well.