Flashback Friday: Aphrodisiacs

How to get turned on.
Flashback Friday: Aphrodisiacs
William Blake Richmond / Wikimedia Commons

In October, 1979, Gary Selden offered a comprehensive primer on a range of aphrodisiacs, from weed, psychedelics, and cocaine to various herbs such as yohimbe, damiana, fleeceflower root, saw palmetto berries, and sarsaparilla.

Once upon a time, a farmer who had been paying less and less attention to his wife sought a doctor’s help for his waning sex drive. The doctor examined him, pronounced him basically fit but a bit run down, and gave him a box of pills, telling him to take one a day and report back in a week. The former, a cautious sort, tried a pill on one of his stud bulls. By the end of the first day, the bull had broken out of his stall, thoroughly exhausted every cow in sight and then knocked down the barn. The farmer got scared and threw the rest of the pills down the well. “Did you drink any of the water?” the sawbones asked worriedly on hearing the tale. “No,” admitted the chagrined sodbuster, “we couldn’t get the pump handle down.”

A medicine with the same kind of power is described in the classic 16th-century Chinese novel Chin P’ing Mei. The hero, Hsi-men Ch’ing, obtains his supply from an Indian monk to whom he has shown kindness. The potion is in two parts, a pill that is to be taken with a nip of liquor, and a red powder, a few grains of which are to be dropped into the “horse eye” of the penis just before intercourse.

When Hsi-men first tried its his penis stood as awesomely erect as a gladiator: “…the head swelled and its Cyclops eye opened wide; the transverse veins were easily seen; its color was livid as liver; it was nearly seven fingers long and much thicker than usual! Hsi-men was highly pleased…. The woman sitting nude on his knees took his penis in her hand and said, ‘So this is why you wished to drink spirits.'” Of course, although the pills and powder crop up dozens of times throughout the book, nowhere is their composition so much as hinted, and we are left holding the legendary bag.

If any such remedy has ever been found, its secret has been well kept. Belief dies hard. But if many wondrous aphrodisiacs of remote tribes have proven disappointing, some are worthwhile, directly or indirectly, and many remain uninvestigated. If instant elixirs have so far eluded us, hormone therapy has aided many cases of impotence and frigidity. Some scientists confidently predict the first direct, fast-acting pharmacological aphrodisiac by the year 2000.

A wide variety of chemicals are taken with a common urge—to recover a sense that most people feel has been denied or stolen from them. Everyone wants a few hours in the golden age, that mythological era of prehistory or childhood when the body was as free as the sun, with no shadow falling between the emotion and the response, the desire and the spasm.

The further we flee from the sexless homilies we call religion, the closer we come to a faith that idolizes life through a more perfect communion. Western “heresies” and several schools of Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism have recognized that fucking is divine union, a springboard to satori.

Sexual energy is not limited to the genitals but diffuses throughout the body like perfume. Several drugs, notably cannabis and the psychedelics, enhance whole-body appreciation of arousal. Call it soul, libido, aura, orgone diffusion or astral vibrations, sex drugs are taken to spread the energy around, make love less goal oriented, slow one down and let the potential build.

World distribution of former rarities and the boredom of habitual use may have changed our reactions, so that what used to excite us no longer does. When first introduced to Europe, cocoa was an aphrodisiac so strong it was forbidden to nuns and damned from pulpits, but now who gets laid from eating a Hershey bar? A similar drop in response seems to have happened with tea and coffee.

Tradition also touts thousands of herbs and spices, with their aromatic oils or alkaloids. Their fragrance itself is often said to be enough, but most of these plants also have some effect on our bodies or brains. Among those with the hottest reputation are the pepper plants. Their oils irritate the anus, bladder and urethra and by proximity are supposed to heat the gonads. Though not a pepper, the cantharides beetle, or Spanish fly, is the best known of these burning products. But any erections it produces are more akin to the excruciating itch of leprosy than the promptings of Priapus. It is too hard to regulate the dose, too painful and too often fatal to be called an aphrodisiac.

All substances that release energy in body or mind—such as ginseng, cocaine, cocoa or tea—are sometimes called aphrodisiacs, though the energy they release can as easily be directed to scrubbing a floor. But the elusive holy grail of mankind’s age-long hunt remains something more directly erotic than any of these: a potion as sudden and invincible as sex itself, a medicine that without fail will rev up the engines as soon as we swallow it and keep the throttle wide open for hours before we run out of gas.

The widespread popularity of sex should make aphrodisia one of the most talked-about subjects in the world, but it is rarely discussed. It has long been assumed that the discoverer of a reliable love potion could buy an Arab sheikhdom with the proceeds, yet today’s marketplace has little to offer but sex-appeal toothpastes and capsules of cayenne advertised as “genuine ersatz Spanish fly” in the back pages of skin magazines. Except for tests of a few hormones and drugs for impotence or frigidity, no modern scientist has investigated the topic, despite scores of promising leads and thousands of untested plants.

In fact, we know less about aphrodisiacs today than our ancestors did. Throughout the world there once existed an extensive folklore of foods and herbs to fortify the sexual organs, and it is unreasonable to believe that all of them were bogus. Generations of antisexual morality and education have nearly erased these traditions from the West. Marxism, with its Victorian origins and denigration of non-communal pleasures, has done a similar job in much of the East, although some recent Peking wall posters denouncing sexual repression as antisocialistic bring hope of an awakening in China. The poverty of overpopulation and colonialism has made sex a low-priority concern for many, and the worldwide spread of the processed-food industry threatens to create a species of gastronomical morons who can’t imagine a healthy meal, much less a sexy one.

A knowledge of aphrodisiacs is both essential and supremely unimportant. It can rescue the nervous, bolster the weak, entertain the healthy. But no aphrodisiac can substitute for health. Some of these herbs or drugs may help dispel daily cares or the fears resulting from an antisexual upbringing, but when they are relied on too often, unwanted side effects generally appear. None will long mask the effects of poor diet, lack of exercise and imagination, or boredom with one’s mate. After advising the aging Louis XV not to use aphrodisiacs because of his waning health, the king’s physician warned of “the greatest aphrodisiac of all” —change. Whether by variety of partners or variety of style, one can have a phenomenal sex life with nothing but a lover.

Sexy Drugs

Like about half of the 15 to 30 million American pot users, I have found that cannabis has few equals as a safe but capricious erotic catalyst. Norman Mailer was one of the first to write about marijuana’s effects on lovemaking, and his comments agree with what so many others found years later: “It gets into parts of me that nothing else can reach … and sex is invariably truer with pot. You can learn to use your body better. The same move you make every day takes on more meaning.” Naturally, there are dissenters. Some people find sex feels worse when they’re stoned. Summing up this side, Gay Talese wrote: “Nothing will thwart performance more decisively than being stoned, because you’re mellowed out and become slovenly.” Another thing that thwarts performance is performance worry, and it can become frightfully magnified by marijuana.

Many people have tried to explain why cannabis so often heightens the sexual experience. The consensus is that it amplifies the impact of our senses—especially the tactile—on the brain and helps release the mind from guilt or shyness.

Perhaps the archenemy of marijuana, former U.S. Commissioner of Narcotics Harry J. Anslinger, said it best: “In the earliest stages of intoxication, the willpower is destroyed … moral barricades are broken down, and often debauchery and sexuality result.” A mid-’60s potboiler called The Mind Benders tells the tragic tale of “Mariam,” who found herself making ecstatic love to “Scott” and actually enjoying it “even though he was a Negro.” The drug made it all right, though. “It wasn’t really me there, you see. It was someone else who could do all these things and not suffer any recriminations in the morning.”

What it all comes down to, then, is a bit of hocus pocus, a hole in unreal reality through which we can grab a piece of our birthright—become divinities whose bodies are huge unmapped erogenous zones with no forbidden territory.


At first, using LSD as an aphrodisiac may seem like using a fire hose as a water pick. The initiate is overwhelmed by one of the most complete learning experiences known to humanity, and why watch only the erotic film while being shown every movie in town.

LSD and the other psychedelics have fairly nonspecific effects, that is, they release experiences that are already latent in the nervous system and that can sometimes be triggered by other methods, such as long practice of yoga. Naturally, in any culture that has insisted on suppressing sexual enjoyment as long as ours has, much of what gets released will have to do with sex.

But while the universe may be sexy, the tripper may not feel that way, especially when the experience is still new — there is just too much going on at once. Personal or interpersonal problems may present themselves in terrifying detail to be worked out first. This is where a guide, experienced with acid but not high at the time, is crucial, for with a few deftly reassuring suggestions, roadblocks can in a few minutes dissolve as the shadows they are.


A snort of cocaine is slightly less explosive than an orgasm, but it is still universally described in terms of the flash and the afterglow. Some find the speedup a bit too rocketlike for love; some mitigate it by combining it with grass. Norman Douglas, for example, found cocaine took him to a Playboy-like “paradise where Venus may be seen, but not touched.” But for others the white dust can fuel passion far and above the usual limits of endurance. Men can often keep it up and surging for hours; erection can sometimes be maintained even after one or more ejaculations.

On the other side of the coin, after too much coke over the course of a day or a week, the body’s energy storehouses are gone and the same sexual phenomena are stretched too far: “control” may reach the point of frustration in which orgasm can no longer occur until the body takes a long, slow ride back to equilibrium. Several lovers of men who deal coke confided that toot tends to displace sex when the supply is too good.

Since cocaine is the best local anesthetic known, a little bit dissolved in cream or lotion is sometimes applied to the glans to prevent premature ejaculation or to the clitoris to aid tonguing and fingering when soreness following orgasm would otherwise prevent it. However, because the best (still much cut) bootleg cocaine sells for up to $100 a gram ($20 an ounce legally), most people who want a desensitizer use lidocaine or Solarcaine.


The noble quest for aphrodisiac plants has been part of our most ancient herbal lore: the instinctive knowledge of healing leaves carried over from our tree-dwelling primate past. Two separate traditions seem to have developed—one group of herbs to promote the woman’s fertility, the tribe’s future, and another to raise the man in her estimation. The search for the male aphrodisiac has been more prominent, or at least better publicized, in our 5,000 years of history.

During the age of the great herbals, in the 16th and 17th centuries, doctors and botanists took a fresh look at the herbs, reviving ancient empiricism and laying the foundations of modern medicine and botany. The search for magic potions like aurum potabile (“drinkable gold”) continued, but there was new emphasis on the slow, gradual tonic properties of plants used daily for weeks or months.

The age of exploration brought hundreds of new plants and many exotic aphrodisiacs to Europe and her colonists. This process continues in ethnobotany today. In the past decade, a growing market for legal herbal highs has been generated as a spinoff from the enormous market for illegal highs. Among its best sellers are herbs with some aphrodisiac pretensions, and perhaps a few genuine articles. Mail-order companies like Woodley Herber, Herbal Holding Company, Home Grown Herbs and many others sell effective mixtures of yohimbe, damiana, hops, kava kava, muria puama, et cetera. Health-food stores carry some of these herbs, discussed below.

When experimenting, please heed one word of caution: When trying any unfamiliar herb or drug, it is a good idea to start with half of the suggested minimum dose and gradually work upward, because individuals vary widely in their sensitivity.


This tropical West African tree yields one of the few aphrodisiacs that have been tested in Western medicine. The official conclusion as stated by Goodman and Gilman is that there is “no convincing evidence” for a directly erotic effect. The reddish-brown inner bark from Corynanthe yohimbe has been available to doctors for treatment of impotence since the early ’30s, at which time Norman Douglas crowned it “the most effective of modern provocatives.” It is one of the precious few potions that may excite a genuine undeniable horniness within an hour, as opposed to a gradual tonic effect over days or weeks, but because there are many people for whom it does nothing, it cannot reach the highest pinnacle of the definition.

For years yohimbe enjoyed great repute for impotence until hormone therapy came of age, and veterinarians formerly used it on laggard bulls and stallions.

Yohimbe contains numerous alkaloids. Ajmaline (or rauwolfine), ajmalicine (or delta-yohimbine) and corynanthidine (or alpha- or iso-yohimbine) are all also found in Indian snakeroot (Rauwolfia serpentina) and seem to have similar hypotensive blood-pressure-lowering effects. The most abundant and active ingredient is yohimbine (alias quebrachine, corynine or aphrodine), also found in the bark of the South American quebracho (“ax-breaker”) tree.

Yohimbine is extracted as a white powder that can be dissolved under the tongue, snorted, or ingested by capsule in doses of 5 to 20 milligrams (mg).

There is no consistently noticeable difference between the actions of pure yohimbine and the crude bark. Yohimbine penetrates the brain well and can produce increased pulse and blood pressure, sweating, physical restlessness, urine retention or sometimes nausea. Sexual excitement may result from stimulation of nerves in the sacral plexus, inducing hyperemia (engorgement with blood) of the pelvic area. Spontaneous erections that sometimes pop up without outside enticement are guaranteed to promote a grateful respect for herbs even among the most skeptical.

The yohimbe alkaloids also have a blocking effect on the neurotransmitters acetylcholine and epinephrine, which is presumed to cause the herb’s mild psychedelic and brain-stimulating effects, especially in larger doses of up to 50 mg yohimbine. The mental changes run toward heightened empathy and emotional openness rather than the visual fireworks and confrontation with the ground of being more characteristic of full doses of LSD or psilocybin. Skin sensitivity is sometimes enhanced so much that the specific ecstasy of flesh flowing and bodies melting into each other is often felt for the first time.

Yohimbe is a weak serotonin inhibitor. Part of its aphrodisiac effect may be a reduction of accumulations of this vasoconstrictor in some persons. An excess is known to produce increased blood pressure, sleepiness, lack of energy and loss of interest in sex.

The increased flow of blood to the genitals can be harmful in some cases of impotence caused by inflammatory disease, such as prostatitis. All users must note the fact that yohimbe is a monoamine oxidase (MAO) inhibitor. This means that it blocks the enzyme that normally protects the body against amines, such as the tyramine widespread in foods, which can otherwise cause a dangerous rise or fall in blood pressure associated with cardiac problems, headaches and in severe cases even death. As a result, the widespread tribal custom of fasting before a sacrament is advisable, and yohimbe is, despite its pleasures, not a substance one can use regularly or casually.

It should not be taken with other drugs, especially not with other MAO inhibitors. Most tranquilizers must be avoided, although Librium (chlordiazepoxide) or sodium amobarbital can be safely used if the yohimbe voyager develops an anxiety reaction. Tryptamine and harmala alkaloids, most sedatives, antihistamines, amphetamines and all diet pills, mescaline, alcohol in any form, cocoa, aged cheese, pineapples, bananas, sauerkraut and any other foods rich in the amino acid tyrosine (converted to tyramine in the body) must also be avoided on the day yohimbe is used. Don’t forget to consider prescribed medication, as many are long-acting MAO inhibitors, and merely stopping their use for a day or two will not avoid the danger. Finally, any persons with diabetes, hypoglycemia or any organic problems of liver, heart, kidneys or circulatory system should avoid yohimbe altogether.

Yohimbine, tried for a time by doctors as a local anesthetic, is sold under names like Yocaine as a cocaine substitute. As such it is a less energizing but more directly aphrodisiac sniffable; it takes effect in a few short minutes and eliminates the nausea that the oral route sometimes entails in the entrails. Here again, there are no MAO warnings on the labels. Most yohimbe experimenters survive this ignorance without damage, but there have been a few close calls hospitalized with near fatal hypertension. Many take too small a dose to do much of anything and, if they feel dizzy or headachy, often just give up on this particular herb.

To experience the rewards of yohimbe without its dangers, avoid the foods listed above on the day of use. Simmer three to six teaspoons of the powdered bark (up to eight if in shaved form) in a pint of water for 10 minutes. As with all psychoactives, it is best to start with a low dose, even at the risk of no effect, and work upward—especially if you are a person of low body weight. As the tea cools, dissolve one gram (1,000 mg) of vitamin C in the cup. California self-experimenters proved that the yohimbine ascorbate thus formed is more easily assimilated. Sip the drink slowly, preferably with honey for your taste buds’ sake. Because of the vitamin, the first effect—usually a warm, shivery feeling in the lower back—will be felt in about 15 minutes instead of 30 to 45. The experience seldom lasts more than three hours, and there are no aftereffects except the fatigue that normally follows an intense experience.

At best, yohimbe should be thought of as a sort of botanical sex therapist. The preparation and precautions make it too cumbersome to do regularly, even if one wanted to subject oneself to a psychedelic every day or so. For some men, the external boost in the rigidity department provides the confidence needed to relax into natural sexual response more completely than ever before, a benefit that can then accrue to every encounter thereafter. Except for the spinal stimulation, the yohimbe experience is much like low doses of the more common psychedelics. Like them, it can be used to warm up special holidays in bed or to make sure your id remembers the fullest possibilities of orgasm, wherein all the tension is released, the beauteous present is momentarily eternal and all the colored wheels fly away in the brain.


The ancient Aztecs used this herb as a tonic, aphrodisiac and cure for impotence, but most of their knowledge of the plant disappeared during their zealous persecution by Spanish missionaries. Fortunately, damiana was not altogether forgotten; modern lovers are rediscovering its potential and creating their own traditions.

Also called shepherd’s herb and stag’s herb, known to Indians as Xmisibcoc and to botanists as Turnera diffusa or Turnera aphrodisiaca, damiana is a small shrub native to the American Southwest, Mexico and the West Indies. A compound called damianin produces both a bitter taste and direct stimulation of the nerves and sexual organs. A volatile, greenish oil that smells like chamomile may aid in the herb’s activity.

Damianin is chemically related to strychnine, with the advantage strychnine lacks—safety. An active dose of strychnine allows nerve messages to spread out undirectedly throughout the nervous system. The stimulus is unbearable, causing uncontrollable convulsions or death from overstimulation of the heart. Damianin has a similar but much milder effect on nerve sensitivity, with a large margin of safety. Still, in Mexico, Nux vomica, the plant source of strychnine, is sometimes mixed with damiana to heighten its effect.

In the 1930s several livestock breeders were using damiana to stimulate their studs, a fact that led sexologist George Ryley Scott to try it. He pronounced it, after “extensive experiments, quite useless” but did not mention how he prepared it. He may have used too little or may not have taken it continuously long enough. Philadelphia doctor W.H. Myers, after extensive use of it in cases of sexual debility, pronounced it “the most effective and only remedy that in my hands had a successful result in all cases,” using 15 to 30 drops of fluid extract per day.

The last decade’s resurgence of interest in herbs has brought damiana back, if not to popularity, at least to the realm of available knowledge. A tea is usually prepared with one or two tablespoons of the dried leaves steeped in a pint of hot water. Some people also smoke the leaves, but the herb is so harsh on the throat that a water pipe is usually needed. The smoke in combination with the tea gives a faint marijuanalike high, too faint to be worthwhile.

Word of mouth has it that damiana has a stronger effect on women, but both sexes tell of erotic dreams when they drink a cup before bedtime and increased sensitivity when they take it before balling. The effect is cumulative, growing more noticeable after a few days. Personally I noted no change in my dream content and no immediate effects after each cup. But a marked rise in the lust level was unmistakable after four or five days, especially with the cordial described below. Upping the dose beyond a cup or two per day does not seem to increase the effect, however, and prolonged overuse (many cups daily) is suspected of causing liver damage. But a cup a day is a definite sensual turn-on with no known side effects.

Once available only through such herbal pharmacies as Kiehl’s in New York, damiana is now marketed by many herbal companies, by mail or through health-food stores. It is often blended with saw palmetto berries for an even stronger boost.

Louis T. Culling, in his Manual of Sex Magic, describes his sexual rejuvenation after two weeks of damiana tea every evening. To make his tea, Culling immersed two heaping tablespoons of the dried herb five minutes in one large cup of water; he drank an extra cup or two just before, or ideally a few days before, coitus. Culling feels damiana is a “communicative” aphrodisiac as well as a physical one. He and friends who tested it found that “people who would ordinarily have conversed with us quite casually were unusually friendly, even to the point of intimate interest.” He kept a diary of his test of damiana during an affair at age 69 with a young Tijuana waitress. At one point he writes: “Last night was like being in an Arabian Nights’ story. Four times was La Encantadora taken on the magic carpet to the mountain of ecstasy. Three times I sailed with her—already an incredible exploit for me. Yet she has said that she is going to be with me again the coming afternoon and night! It is time for that feeling of complete surfeit. Yet I am looking forward to this with an enchanted imagination that rivals the anticipation of the first love affair of my youth.”

Culling also mentions a damiana cordial imported from Mexico, called “Liqueur for Lovers.” This, however, contains too little of the herb to be effective.

The following recipe has been circulating in the California underground for a few years and first surfaced in Adam Gottlieb’s excellent Sex Drugs and Aphrodisiacs. Soak an ounce of dried damiana in a pint of vodka for five days. Pass the liquid through a coffee filter, then steep the vodka-sodden leaves in spring or distilled water (chlorinated tap water will affect the taste) for another five days. Filter as before. Then warm the water extract and mix with one-half to one cup of honey. Keep the temperature under 160 degrees F., though, or the honey’s flavor will also begin to deteriorate. Combine two solutions. Drink it as is or age it for a few weeks. A cordial glass of it makes a delicious and sexy nightcap.

Saw Palmetto Berries

Also known as sabal or fan palm, Serenoa serrulata (or S. repens) grows in dense stands of scrub within one to five miles of the Atlantic shore from South Carolina to Florida. The sweet reddish-brown or purple berries look like dark olives, ripe from October to December. For many decades they have been known to herbalists as one of the most fortifying foods for regaining strength after wasting illnesses. They help build up glandular and muscular tissue and can be used by both overweight and underweight people to help normalize their weight. They have been used with some success to reverse atrophy of the testes and increase sperm production. It has also been claimed that long-term use can enlarge underdeveloped breasts. Their effectiveness is greatly increased when combined with damiana. They are one of the safest and most generally beneficial of all aphrodisiacs. If available, fresh berries are best, a dozen or more per day. The same number of dried ones may be eaten as is, reconstituted with water or powdered and brewed as a tea.

Fleeceflower Root

The smoke-dried tubers of Polygonum multiflorum are one of the favorite tonics of Chinese herbal medicine. Oriental doctors say their ho shou niao nourishes most of the essential organ systems, including nerves, muscles, bones, viscera and glands. It is about half starch and contains a great deal of lecithin.

Fleeceflower tuber can occasionally be found in this country as a powder, which makes preparation a simple matter of boiling a teaspoon or more (7 to 15 grams) in a cup of water for a few minutes. Otherwise the rocklike spud must be wrapped in a cloth and cracked with a hammer or boiled for an hour or two until it can be mashed, boiled some more (or pureed in a blender) and strained. Powder or broken pieces can be steeped in spirits for a week or so, then filtered for an alcohol extract. Like all tonics, fleeceflower’s effects are gradual and take at least a week or two to become noticeable.


Sarsaparilla still smells of spiffy white summer suits, wrought-iron ice-cream-parlor chains and handlebar mustaches. Back when root beer was made with roots, sarsaparilla was one of them, and it was commonly sold as a spring tonic, blood purifier and restorer of lost manhood. A Spanish doctor named Monardes introduced it to white-man’s medicine in 1568 after studying the Indians’ use of it as a strengthener and remedy for syphilis, for which it was used until the advent of arsenicals.

Native Americans from Mexico to the Andes had valued these species of Smilax in treating impotence and sexual debility of old age. Most sensible whites considered this to be typical savage silliness, and many still do because the flashier antics of der Führer in 1939 overshadowed the discovery of raw materials for sex hormones in sarsaparilla. Dr. Emerick Solmo, a Budapest chemist living in Mexico, found that the well-known root bark contains sterones. Today sarsaparilla is the chief commercial source of testosterone, the “male” secretion that grows beards and fully developed penises but is essential to muscle tone and sexual drive in both sexes. The plant also yields sarsapogenin for making the female hormone progesterone. Synthetic cortin, an adrenal hormone that defends us against infection and depression, also starts from sarsaparilla.

Older herbals recommend a simple tea in which the root bark’s effects are too weak to be felt. A modern recipe, first promulgated by Adam Gottlieb, is a sure but perhaps temporary cure for lax libido caused by hormonal insufficiency. “Simmer two to three heaping tablespoons (up to one-half ounce) of the shaved inner root bark for five or ten minutes in one pint of water. Be careful it doesn’t boil over, as the saponins will create a head of foam. Drink one to two cups (up to a pint) of this decoction morning and evening. An excellent homemade tincture can also be prepared by stuffing a bottle half full of sarsaparilla and filling it up with equal parts water and grain alcohol—or vodka. Let it stand two weeks, shaking it well each day. Take a tablespoon four to five times a day.”

Oddly enough, sarsaparilla will not make an already lusty person much lustier; it may eventually decrease desire. External sources of hormones tend to signal the body to shut down its own internal factories. Therefore this remedy should not be continued beyond a couple of weeks. The idea is to support lazy glands, spark them into renewed life, rather than become dependent on a substitute.

Calling Dr. Love

Pharmaceutical researchers haven’t given up on the quest for a powerful, reliable, safe aphrodisiac. In fact, the dope docs have stumbled across some very interesting substances in their researches on how the brain and central nervous system work—and these may lead us to the instant aphrodisiac of the future that may work directly on the sex centers.

One of the things that happens to the brain as it gets older is a degeneration of nerve pathways that use the neurotransmitters dopamine, epinephrine and norepinephrine—the catecholamines (which are normally made in our bodies from L-dopa, or dihydroxyphenylalanine, a precursor in turn made from the amino acid tyrosine in our diet). These electrochemical pathways drive all the hormone-balancing work of the pituitary gland. As these catecholamine pathways decay, they are slowly replaced by others using a different transmitter, serotonin.

In cases of extreme dopamine loss (Parkinson’s disease), an external source of the precursor, levadopa, can for a time restore the function. The dramatic return of sexual desire in patients was at first hailed as the sign of the aphrodisiac, but an endless list of side effects pertains, and no rushes of desire occur from it in youthful animals or humans.

PCPA (parachlorophenylalanine) was tested after researchers at the National Heart Institute tried it on a woman with bowel cancer. She got permission for her husband to stay at the hospital because “she was trying to grab everybody.’’ Dr. Allesandro Tagliamonte studied the substance further on rats and found “hyper-sexual aggression” lasting for several hours and ending with “all the animals in one cage attempting to mount each other at the same time.”

PCPA seems to work by inhibiting the production of serotonin, antagonizing the sexual antagonist, as it were. But it too has an emerging list of problems. In humans it seems to take several days for any effect to show, then several days to wear off, during which time sleep is impossible and exhaustion inevitable. This property may have given birth to the rumor of a mythical three-day aphrodisiac called “steam” a few years ago.

Dr. Joseph Meites of Michigan State University Medical School has worked with both of these compounds, and his colleagues have succeeded in rejuvenating aged female rats whose estrus cycles have stopped, the effect proven by pregnancy. No live young have been born yet, because the long-unused womb is subject to infection. Dr. Meites points out that the ovaries of old rats can be reactivated, but those of old humans cannot, because the ovaries shrink up like an appendix so that new hormones have no effect. Male rats are much closer to humans, in that sperm and hormone production seem to decrease reversibly.

One of the most promising of the dopaminergic helpers is part of the same complex of drugs made by the ergot rye fungus that gave us LSD. Bromergocryptine, or simply promocryptine, has been available by prescription in West Germany and Switzerland for several years. In experiments at the University of Siena, Italy, scientists found the drug restored menstruation in all 11 women tested, whose cycles had stopped for as long as 12 years. In other tests in Sweden and Holland, sexual desire awoke in many “frigid” women. In some who “never had erotic feelings in their entire lives, bromocryptine led to normal sexual activity,” concluded Dr. Andrea Genazzini.

The surprising thing is that there have been no adverse effects noted so far. In late 1978 bromocryptine was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for prescription use in cases of galactorrhea amenorrhea. This is a condition, usually postpartum, in which milk flow never stops and menstruation never starts. By fortifying the dopamine pathways, bromocryptine inhibits the milk-secreting hormone prolactin and stimulates production of the gonadotropic hormones.

Still other molecules, like antiserotonergic-ergot derivative methysergide, will be checked out in coming years. But there is no evidence that any of them have much effect on healthy people. Two things—fear and orgasm—have been produced in animals by direct electrical stimulation of the appropriate parts of the brain. Maybe the true aphrodisiac is somewhere we’d hardly thought of looking.

The electrode might just be the hottest love-juice booster of all.

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