Foods of love: aphrodisiacs answers!
Oysters, chilli and chocolate - the food of love? Victoria Trowse looks at the truth behind aphrodisiacs.
Are you planning a romantic dinner for Valentine’s Day? How about using some aphrodisiac foods to spice it up?
An aphrodisiac is a substance that increases sexual desire. The name comes from Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and sexuality! Throughout history, many foods have had a reputation for making sex more pleasurable. Some are said to be aphrodisiacs simply because of their shape and some because of their aromas, while others claim a chemical basis for their 'amorous' powers. However, arguably there is no scientific proof that any particular food increases sexual desire or performance. So, do aphrodisiacs really work or are their alleged powers mainly due to the belief by their users that they are effective?
Many believe that oysters were originally labelled an 'aphrodisiac' because they resemble the female sex organ. Casanova reputedly ate 50 raw oysters before a sexual encounter.
Oysters are an excellent source of zinc, which is essential for the production of testosterone,  the hormone responsible for promoting sex drive in both men and women. It is also a key regulator of sperm production. Zinc deficiency compromises fertility in men,so any food rich in zinc could be considered an aphrodisiac in that respect.
Avocados and asparagus
The Aztecs called the avocado Ahuacuatl, or 'testicle tree'. They thought the fruit hanging in pairs on the tree resembled testicles. Asparagus is considered an aphrodisiac because of its phallic shape.
Both are great sources of vitamin E, which is involved in the production of sex hormones and folic acid, which is said to boost histamine production necessary for the ability to reach orgasm.
Chilli peppers contain capsaicin which generates physiological responses such as sweating, increased heart rate and circulation) that are similar to those experienced when having sex.
Chocolate has always been associated with love and romance. The Mayan civilizations worshipped the Cacao tree and called it 'food of the gods'. Rumour has it that the Aztec ruler Montezuma drank 50 goblets of chocolate each day to enhance his sexual abilities.
Pure chocolate contains a host of compounds including anandamide, a feel-good chemical, and phenylethylamine, the 'love chemical', which releases dopamine in the pleasure centres of the brain, reaching a peak during orgasm. Cocoa also contains tryptophan, known to promote a sense of relaxation, and arginine - ‘nature's Viagra’ - the amino acid that enhances arousal and sensation in women and men.
Does all this mean chocolate increases sexual desire? Probably not - but if it makes you feel good and it might lower your inhibitions so that you're more receptive to suggestion.
In medieval times, people drank mead, a fermented drink made from honey, to promote sexual desire. In ancient Persia, couples drank mead every day for a month after they married (hence 'honeymoon') in order to establish a successful marriage.
Honey is a great source of boron,a trace mineral that metabolizes oestrogen, the female sex hormone, and also enhances testosterone levels in the blood. In addition, honey contains B vitamins, which are needed for testosterone production, and nitric oxide, which dilates blood vessels.
Damiana and ginseng
Damiana is a herb widely used in Latin America, dating back to Mayan culture. Spanish missionaries first recorded that the Mexican Indians used the leaves to make tea and incense, both of which were used for its aphrodisiac and relaxing effects.
Damiana has long been claimed to have a stimulating effect on the libido, and several animal studies have shown evidence of increased sexual activity in rats, possibly through its potential to increase testosterone levels in the blood.  Whether this herb has the same effect in humans has yet to be established.
Ginseng was first mentioned in ancient Indian medicine as a remedy for sexual dysfunction, as it was believed to increase sexual health and desire. A study of the effects of Korean red ginseng on impotence reported that it can be an effective alternative for treating male erectile dysfunction. 
Liquorice and vanilla
Liquorice is the root of glycyrrhiza glabra, from which a sweet flavouring can be extracted, and was used in ancient China for its love and lust-provoking properties. Research has revealed that the smell itself is particularly stimulating and a study found that black liquorice enhanced blood flow to the male organ by 13%. It is also reported to be particularly stimulating to women.
In old medicinal literature, vanilla was described as an aphrodisiac. The vanilla orchid was cultivated by the Aztecs and was introduced to Europe, along with chocolate, by the Spanish. Research studies have shown that vanilla increases the blood flow to the sexual organs.
Although none of these foods really have any proven aphrodisiac qualities, if we believe that they will raise our sexual desires, the chances are they will work. Some say the power of aphrodisiacs is all in our heads. After all, the body's most powerful sex organ is the brain!
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