Monday, November 17, 2008

The Quest for Aphrodisia: Pheromones

For the human brain, all roads lead to aphrodisia. We can be sexually stimulated through any of our five senses — thanks to a bit of imagination, memory, and a really big brain. Although mankind continues to ransack the planet for anything that might raise his expectations, the most authentic aphrodisiac is a lot closer than we think.

In the morning of the world, when mortal man first encountered the original aphrodisiac, he got mixed results. Paris, a young prince of Troy, had to choose "The Fairest" of three goddesses. Hera offered him riches and dominion over all men. Athena promised him wisdom and renown as the bravest, most invincible of heroes.

Then the goddess of love and beauty spoke. In a sweet voice, teasing with laughter and understanding, Aphrodite said, "Choose me and I will give you love and the most beautiful woman in the world for your wife."

Without hesitation, Paris chose Aphrodite. True to her word, the enchanting goddess introduced him to the lovely Helen, whom Paris promptly proceeded to abduct from her husband, the King of Sparta, which didn't go down too well with him and his boys. (Did somebody say Trojan War?) The rest is mythstory. . . .

Casualties of Lore
Aphrodite herself had a somewhat violent origin. Known to the Romans as Venus, she was born of the sea, having emerged from the white foam (aphros) produced by the god Uranus's severed genitals. Today, mankind's eternal quest for an aphrodisiac — a food, drink, drug, or scent that can arouse or increase sexual desire — continues to bring its share of violence.

Many innocent creatures have suffered abuse from our insatiable appetite that continues to devour creatures large and small, from seahorse to rhinoceros. Animals aren't the only ones who suffer, though. A legendary aphrodisiac called Spanish fly is made from the dried bodies of blister beetles that contain cantharidine. This irritating chemical causes a rush of blood to the sex organs. Spanish fly is a poison that can lead to genitourinary infections, scarring of the urethra, and even death.

Stimulant vs. Tonic
Herbs can be used to stimulate the genitals, but in the long run it's safer and more effective to use tonics — botanicals that strengthen the sexual system — not ones that stimulate it. "If you take an aphrodisiac that creates the illusion of more energy, then you're ripping yourself off," cautions Felice Dumas, Ph.D., author of Passion Play: Ancient Secrets for a Lifetime of Health and Happiness Through Sensational Sex. "You will have used more of your life force. It's like emptying the cup very quickly to feel more in the short term."

Coffee is an empty stimulant; it doesn't strengthen anything. Alcohol is another example. "Venus drowned in Bacchus" was the proverbial Roman expression for the debilitating effects of alcoholic intoxication. Drinking, said Shakespeare in Macbeth "provokes the desire but takes away the performance."

Size Matters
Unlike other primates, who are sexually active only when females are in estrus, human beings have evolved the capacity to engage in year-round sexual activity. Perhaps our 24/7 sexuality is related to our relatively large brain. (Dolphins, too, have proportionately large brains and have been observed to be very sexual.)

Ultimately, the human brain is the greatest aphrodisiac of all. Like the legendary philosophers' stone that transforms whatever it touches into gold, our brains can imbue most anything with aphrodisiacal qualities.

Men and women have devised and believed in love charms since the beginning. Aphrodite herself possessed an enchanting girdle, called Cestus, which was embroidered with arousing amulets that made its wearer quite irresistible. One can only imagine. . . .

The Touch of Kindness
We get sex on the brain through imagination and memory, as well as through all our sensory portals: eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and of course touch. We are easily turned on by the caress of a lover, or even from casual contact with an attractive stranger. Massage relaxes and sets the mood for love, or arouses in the extreme.

Affectionate touching — especially the breasts, lips, and earlobes — can raise levels of oxytocin, a powerful neurohormone. Dubbed the "cuddling chemical," oxytocin is released during female orgasm and nursing. In men, moderate concentrations of oxytocin facilitate both erection and ejaculation.

Singing Me Softly
Sounds can certainly be an aphrodisiac. (It works for birds.) That special tone of a lover's sweet whisperings, even over the telephone, can stir the loins. For the Greek poet, Homer, Aphrodite was "a lover of laughter." Whether the flirtatious giggling and coy cooing of young maidens or the tender tenor of a Cyrano or a Bocelli — the human voice has arousing possibilities.

Charles Darwin suggested that early human females originally acquired musical powers and used their high voices as musical instruments in order to attract the opposite sex. Love songs are certainly a hallmark of our society. We will never know to what extent our population explosion was coaxed along by the seductive sound of Sinatra or Sade, the romantic resonance of Enya or Iglesias.

Who has not been swayed by the music of the world: caressed by jazz; rolled with rock; lifted by arias; transported by Caribbean rhythms. The primal beat of different drums — from Ravel's "Bolero" to Jagger's "Moonlight Mile" — has lit a fire under many a bedspread.

Another auditory aspect is story-telling and its stimulating effect upon the imagination. The word "romance" originated from the fanciful medieval love tales, often in verse, about a hero and his lady. Later written, they were the beginning of erotic literature (Eros is the son of Aphrodite). In ancient Greece, "pornographos" was one who wrote about prostitutes.

First Sight
Studies show that humans everywhere strongly respond to the same visual signals, such as smooth skin, dilated pupils, and a symmetrical face and body. Young women throughout the world have been observed to flirt in exactly the same manner: first she smiles at her admirer and lifts her eyebrows in a swift, jerky movement. This briefly displays more of her eyes until she turns her head sideways, looks back, and drops her eyelids. (Even King Solomon warned his son not to be "ensnared by her eyelids.")

More than skin deep, beauty is a certificate of health. Men are attracted to youthful fertility suggested by rounded buttocks and breasts, full lips, wide eyes, a heart-shaped face, and a particular figure. Whether Rubenesque or Twiggyesque, men unconsciously prefer women with about a 2 to 3 waist-hip ratio — one that suggests a high reproductive status. Although Miss America's weight has decreased over the past fifty years, her waist to hip ratio has been a consistent 7.2, according to David M. Buss, Ph.D., author of The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating.

For women, power is an aphrodisiac. In a global survey of more than 10,000 people in 37 cultures, Dr. Buss found it universally true that women prefer confident, ambitious, and successful men with money, resources, power, and high social status — men who will invest in them and their children.

Visual stimuli such as tallness and broad shoulders are physical cues indicating the potential of a man to protect and provide. The reproductive success of taller men was recently demonstrated in a study of 3,200 Polish men, aged 25 to 60. Those who had fathered at least one child were on average 1.2 inches taller than the men without children. (Nature, Jan. 13, 2000)

Brain chemicals are also affected by visual stimuli. The sight of an infant's face can increase levels of oxytocin, which helps a mother to bond with her child, or a woman with her lover. The chemical basis of "love at first sight" might be phenylethylamine (PEA), a neurotransmitter that can surge at the sight of an attractive partner, or even in response to a romantic movie.

The Dance of Imagination
Thanks to imagination, the flash of a Victorian ankle was a turn-on. The allure of lingerie is a combination of what you see and what you imagine you will get.

Dance is a universal turn-on. From indigenous tribes to trendy clubs, women shake their booties and men strut their stuff in various versions of the human mating dance, from the Masai leap and the flamenco stomp, to the hula, belly dance, and now the lap dance.

The Shape of Things to Come
Sight plays another role in aphrodisia: the notion that animal organs or plants resembling genitalia may impart sexual powers. For example, because of their shape, the tuberous roots of orchids were used as an aphrodisiac. The plant is even named after the Greek word for testicle (orkhis). More well-known examples include rhinoceros horn, oysters, and ginseng.

Rhinoceros horn contains polypeptides, sugars, phosphorus, calcium, ethanolamine, and free amino acids. If one were seriously malnourished, this could possibly provide a boost, but a good multivitamin would do as well.

Based on their shape, foods such as bananas, carrots, and cucumbers were once considered aphrodisiacs. Perhaps the enzyme bromelain found in bananas and other tropical fruits may influence erectile function due to its positive effect on circulation.

Nineteenth-century French bridegrooms were advised to consume mass quantities of warm asparagus at their prenuptial dinner. In West Africa, the mucilage seeds of the okra pod are considered an aphrodisiac. They are rich in magnesium, iron, zinc, and B vitamins.

Venus on the Half-Shell
Cleopatra's favorite fruit was said to be figs, and the ancient Greeks celebrated the arrival of a new crop of figs by ritual copulation. Other foods that may suggest female genitalia include oysters, clams, and mussels. Many seafoods such as eels, octopus, conch, fugu, sashimi — as well as savory soups like bouillabaisse and chowder — have a reputation as an aphrodisiac, in part because of their association with Aphrodite's emergence from the sea.

In a sense, human beings also emerged from the sea. Recent archeological findings show that early humans thrived along seacoasts and lakeshores where foods high in omega-3 fatty acids were plentiful. The evolution of the large human brain depended on these rich sources of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). (Click here for more information about essential fatty acids and brain structure.)

The omega-3 fatty acids obtained from seafood are also needed by the body to make anti-inflammatory PGE3 prostaglandins, which support proper blood circulation by preventing blood platelets from clumping.

Oysters and Pearls, Boys and Girls
Rich in zinc, selenium, and other minerals, oysters may have gained their reputation at a time when diets were more apt to be deficient. High concentrations of zinc are found in the testes and prostate, and zinc is essential for hormonal activity and reproductive health in both men and women. Zinc is vital to healthy immune and circulatory systems, and is depleted by stress.

Zinc deficiency in children has been linked to a failure of sex organs to properly mature. A deficit of this vital mineral substantially reduces testosterone levels, sperm production, and muscle endurance, as well as decreases the ability to taste and smell.

Raw oysters can be risky due to pollution. Other good sources of zinc include lean meats, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds, peas, lima beans, and wheat germ. Although whole grains contain zinc, they also contain phytates that inhibit the absorption of zinc and other vital minerals. By soaking grains overnight, phytates can be neutralized so the grains, in effect, are predigested and their nutrients more available. These alternatives, however, are no match for fresh fleshy oysters, even if you don't find the pearl.

Seeds of Construction
Eggs and seeds are strong fertility symbols. Chicken eggs are one of the most sexually nutritious foods available. Caviar and a number of plant seeds, especially pumpkin, were considered to be aphrodisiacs. We now know they are rich in vitamin E and fatty acids essential for reproduction. Pumpkin seeds are also high in zinc and selenium.

Then there's the truffle. Ever since the Romans raved about it, this musky mystery has been a perennial favorite in the realm of aphrodisia. A famous French epicurean claimed truffles were "not vegetables, but miracles." Their great rarity, cost, and indescribable aroma adds to their fame.

Ginseng — "the Man Root"
Ginseng's reputation as an aphrodisiac may have originated from its marked similarity to the male body. By far the most widely used herbal tonic, ginseng has been used for millennia because of its invigorating and rejuvenating effects.

Chemical evidence supports the stimulatory influence of ginseng; several steroids, peptides, sugars, and saponins have been isolated from root extracts. Animals treated with ginseng have demonstrated a sexual response, however no successful animal model for assessing aphrodisiacs has been developed that can be applied to humans. Our psychological and socioeconomic factors cannot be replicated.

Just Say NO — Nitric Oxide
A study at the Yale University School of Medicine found a link between Panax ginseng and nitric oxide (NO). Researchers concluded that the aphrodisiac action of the root could be due to enhanced NO synthesis that contributed to ginseng-associated vasodilation in the corpus cavernosum. (Biochem Pharmacol 1997 Jul 1;54.1:1-8) A later animal study showed that crude extracts of Panax ginseng acted as a nitric oxide donor and induced the relaxation of smooth muscle of rabbit penises through the L-arginine/nitric oxide pathway. (Br J Urol 1998 Nov;82.5:744-8)

The corpus cavernosum is a sponge-like structure that forms the erectile tissue which expands with blood in the penis and in the clitoris. Nitric oxide — not nitrous oxide, the "laughing gas" used by dentists — enables the corpus cavernosum (and the corpus spongiosum in the penis) to relax, fill with blood, and become erect.

For both men and women, healthy sexual arousal depends on a sufficient flow of blood to the genital area. Poor circulation can be a major cause of sexual dysfunction, which is perhaps why many hot foods gained their claim to aphrodisiac fame. Peppers, chilies, curries and other spices can raise heart rate and sometimes cause sweating: physiological effects similar to the physical reactions experienced during sex. Damiana, a Mexican herb, is reputed to stimulate blood flow to the genitals, (but it can interfere with iron absorption).

Arginine, Viagra, and Yohimbe
In the body, the amino acid arginine is the primary source of nitrogen for the production of nitric oxide. In turn, nitric oxide increases levels of a substance called cyclic GMP. A shortage of cyclic GMP interferes with the erectile tissue relaxation response that is necessary before blood can engorge the clitoris and penis. Foods high in arginine include chocolate, carob, and oats.

Viagra works by prolonging the effects of cyclic GMP, allowing the penis to engorge with so much blood that the outflow of blood is blocked. Because Viagra will not work without sexual stimulation, it is not considered an aphrodisiac. It is only promoted as an impotence drug, however Hugh Hefner regards Viagra as a good deal more than that: "It takes the uncertainty out of performance. . . It redefines the boundary between fantasy and reality."

NO may help account for the sexually stimulating effects of yohimbine, an alkaloid found in the bark of the West African yohimbe tree, which natives have long regarded as a tonic to enhance sexual power and virility. Yohimbine has been used in the West as a sexual stimulant for domestic animals and, more recently, to treat impotence in men. A 1999 study with humans found that certain compounds of yohimbine functioned as nitric oxide donors. (J Pharmacol Exp Ther 1999 Jul;290.1:121-8) The FDA considers yohimbine an unsafe herb, due to its potentially dangerous effects on the cardiovascular and nervous systems.

Padre, Is That a Rocket in Your Garden?
Arugula, also known as garden rocket, had a good reputation in Europe as an aphrodisiac, except for one 17th-century French monastery where arugula was grown and consumed regularly by the monks. An 1869 book on aphrodisiacs reported they "were so stimulated by its aphrodisiacal virtues that, transgressing alike their monastic walls and vows, they sought relief for their amorous desires in the fond embraces of the women residing in the neighborhood."

Europeans have long appreciated parsley and savory for their aphrodisiac properties. More recently, nettles, oats, and saw palmetto berries have been studied for their ability to maintain levels of free testosterone, which stimulates sexual activity in both men and women. Compounds in these plants seem to inhibit the breakdown of testosterone into di-hydrotestosterone (DHT), a metabolite that causes the prostate gland to enlarge and lose its vitality.

Montezuma's Romance
While many sweet herbs, such as skirret and licorice root, were at one time considered sexual stimulants, chocolate's designation as an aphrodisiac has remained undisputed for centuries. In the early 1500s, the Aztecs introduced the Spanish to the bitter seeds of the cacao tree, which was concocted into a sacred drink associated with Xochiquetzal, the goddess of fertility. (The Spanish reciprocated with small pox, the god of decimation.)

Besides added sugar, chocolate contains significant amounts of caffeine (5-10 mg per ounce), iron, plus an amphetamine-like substance called phenylethylamine (PEA). In the brain, PEA is a neurotransmitter involved in states of arousal and activation. It may be responsible for the excitement and euphoria of falling in love. It's not certain, however, that the PEA in chocolate actually reaches the brain. (The essential amino acid phenylalanine is known to raise PEA levels in the brain, and D-phenylalanine inhibits enzymes that break down endorphins.)

The psychological effect of indulging in chocolate, especially when received from a lover, certainly adds to its aphro-mystique. The power of mind to imbue food with passion is well-illustrated in Like Water for Chocolate, where cooking is used to enchant a lover.

Cornucopia and Coition
Many foods are exotic and sensual in their own right. From peaches and apricots to strawberries and grapes, the texture, color, taste, and aroma of these botanical delights can, in the right circumstances, jump-start amorous intentions. Aphrodite herself was associated with golden apples and red pomegranates.

Around the Mediterranean, pine nuts have a reputation as an aphrodisiac. Nineteen-hundred years ago, the Greek physician Galen recommended drinking a glassful of thick honey, and eat 20 almonds and 100 grains of the pine tree before going to bed. After three nights, a man will acquire "vigour for coition."

Honey Do
The Greeks frequently referred to Aphrodite's beauty as "golden," and golden honey is another classic food for lovers. Cavemen no doubt used sweet honey to win female favors (and vice versa). Since honey was obtainable only seasonally and at great personal risk, its annual collection and sharing may be echoed by our annual Valentine's Day, although rejection is now the primary risk.

The wedding ceremonies of many cultures include honey, and that month of tender pleasures is called the honeymoon — also named because love is as changeable as the moon.

Made from the nectar of flowers, honey is a natural candidate for aphrodisia. Bee pollen is the male sexual grains of seed-bearing plants, and royal jelly nurtures queen bees. The ultimate preservative, honey never spoils. A Haitian text describes honey on bananas as an "exquisite" aphrodisiac.

Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses is Isabel Allende's evocative personal odyssey to aphrodisia. In it, she tells how Cleopatra beautified her skin by applying honey and ground almonds, and how her lovers, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, were "fond of licking dessert from the intimate goblet of that seductive queen."

Olfactory Alchemy
Aromas such as pumpkin pie and freshly baked cinnamon buns can be more sexually stimulating than fine perfume, according to research done by neurologist Alan R. Hirsch, M.D., author of Scentsational Sex: the Secret of Using Aroma for Arousal. He reports that the smell of certain foods, especially licorice and doughnuts, actually increased penile blood flow.

Older men experienced the greatest enhancement with vanilla. Those who felt sexually satisfied responded most to strawberry. Lavender was most stimulating for men whose sexual partners wore cologne.

Aphrodite's favorite flower was the rose, and for multitude of Valentines, roses will do the trick. Cleopatra supposedly perfumed the sails of her gilded yacht with the scent of Damascus rose, so the desert winds would announce her arrival.

"A rose is a rose is a rogue," novelist Tom Robbins reminds us in Jitterbug Perfume, his erotic ode to aroma. In his signature style, Robbins salutes the magnificent nose of a legendary perfume formulator: "It functioned as a catalytic laser, oxidizing the passion that slept unaware in a violet, releasing the trade winds bottled up in orange peel; identifying by name and number the butterflies dissolved in chips of sandalwood and marrying them off, one by one, to the wealthy sons of musk."

Reminiscents — Aroma and Memory
The sense of smell is closely connected with the sense of taste, and much of a food's emotional impact is due to its scent. The olfactory pathway is a direct route to the brain's limbic system, the cerebral crossroads of emotion and memory. That's why smell is the most nostalgic of all the senses. One whiff of eucalyptus can transport an octogenarian back to his kindergarten playground faster than you can say "sinful Caesar sipped his snifter, seized his knees and sneezed."

Probably the most renowned aphrodisiacs are essential oils, especially those derived from white, night-blooming flowers that are moth-pollinated, such as jasmine and narcissus.

The Oil of Olé
"Jasmine has the poise of a wild creature, some elusive self-sufficient thing that croons like an organic saxophone in the tropical night." (Robbins again, who also bemoans the modern trend of naming perfumes after "glorified tailors" — in contrast to the epic scents of yesteryear: Tabu, My Sin, Love Potion, and Sorcery.) Cleopatra used jasmine to distract Marc Antony during business meetings.

Essential oils used in aphrodisia start by promoting physical relaxation. Their fragrance can then trigger more subtle sensations of bodily pleasure. Neroli, named after an Italian princess, is distilled from the white blossoms of the evergreen orange tree. Patchouli is obtained from the fermented leaves of a perennial herb that grows in tropical Asia. Ylang-ylang is distilled from the freshly picked yellow flowers of a tree native to Southeast Asia. It's said that when a man is aroused, he releases an aroma similar to sandalwood (extracted from the roots and heartwood of a small Asian evergreen tree).

The Essence of Aphrodisia — Pheromones
Many romantic fragrances are essentially the sexual attractants of flowers that beckon insects to help with pollination. Humans also react to chemicals from animals, especially musk from the East Asian musk deer, castoreum from the scent glands of certain beavers, and civit, a honey-like secretion from the Ethiopian civit cat. No surprise then that we have our own natural scents, and ones that do a much better job at attracting a mate.

Hormones are potent "local" chemicals that travel throughout your body to help regulate metabolism and behavior. "Hormone" means to set in motion, excite, stimulate. You also produce similar "long distance" chemicals called pheromones, which work outside the body and can affect the hormones of others. "Pherein" means to bring, to bear along. Your pheromones literally entice and excite the opposite sex.

Numerous glands in the skin around your armpits and genitals produce these sexual scents, and the tufts of hair that begin sprouting at puberty collect and help broadcast your fragrant chemicals (some so subtle, they're considered odorless). Trapped beneath layers of clothing, however, these potentially erotic scents can become stale and deteriorate.

Fragrant Tokens
In her classic 1992 book, Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray, Helen Fisher, Ph.D., tells how a woman in Shakespeare's time would hold a peeled apple under her arm until it was ingrained with her scent. She would then offer this "love apple" to her lover to inhale. In parts of Greece and the Balkans today, some men successfully invite women to dance after offering them a handkerchief which had been carried in the armpit.

In Aromantics: Enhancing Romance, Love, and Sex with Nature's Essential Oils, Valerie Ann Worwood reports that men find a woman's odor most alluring during ovulation, when she is most likely to conceive. In response, men produce an odor of their own that has an aphrodisiac effect on women. Also, during ovulation women were found to be a thousand times more sensitive to a testosterone-like chemical.

A poor sense of smell will dull your love life. In tests with mice and monkeys, when the males' noses were plugged, they ignored females in heat. Good nutrition, especially enough zinc, is important to a healthy sense of smell. Sickness exudes an ill wind of its own that some people say they can sense — a good evolutionary adaptation that we probably all have to some degree. Unfortunately, though, the prefrontal cortex in the human brain can override an instinctual response to olfactory input.

Excessive bathing or use of deodorants and perfumes can overwhelm your sexual scents. Napoleon knew this. He asked his sweetheart Josephine to abstain from bathing several days before he returned to her.

Sweat T-Shirt Contest
In her 1998 book, Sex on the Brain: The Biological Differences Between Men and Women, Deborah Blum tells about a revealing Swiss experiment with a group of college students. Each woman was seated alone in a room at the time of ovulation, when her sense of smell was most acute. She then sniffed the T-shirts slept in by different men over the previous weekend. The women rated each shirt for sexiness, pleasantness, and intensity of smell.

What's remarkable was that the sexiness of the shirts correlated with the degree of difference in MHC genes. This is good, because these MHC (major histocompatibility complex) genes code for the disease detectors in the immune system — the more variety, the better. The women had a stinkual attraction to males whose MHC genes were least like their own.

Be the Aphrodisiac
Our natural scents and sensitivity thus play a vital role in identifying and attracting an ideal mate, one with whom we have the best chances of producing a healthy child capable of withstanding the onslaughts of life. And that's the name of the evolutionary game.

Our smell is as unique as our face. While it won't be alluring to everyone, we can count on having real chemistry with the ones we do attract. And the feeling will be mutual.

Not surprisingly, the quest for aphrodisia brings us full circle back to ourselves. This is good news for all Earth's creatures and gives new meaning to the words: "in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make."