Every year before Valentine's Day, we get a surge of people asking us what supplements they can take to crank up their libido and boost their testosterone. In other words, they’re looking for evidence-based aphrodisiacs.
Named after the Greek goddess of love and pleasure, Aphroditē, aphrodisiacs are supplements marketed to improve your sex life. Even more than with other supplement categories, it takes research to figure out which might work, and which are a waste of money.
Libido essentially means “sex drive”, and when sex drive goes down, most people don’t know exactly why. Whether the root cause is stress, hormonal issues, or a variety of other factors, supplements are often sought to give some immediate boost.
Specifically, Panax ginseng, tribulus terrestris, zinc, horny goat weed, B-complex vitamins, fenugreek, L-arginine, maca, dehydroepiandrosterone (aka DHEA), ginkgo biloba, and yohimbine have all been advertised as “libido-enhancing” supplements. But such supplements rarely undergo rigorous scientific examination. Though some of the supplements listed below have evidence to support their effects, even the very best options have only been tested in a handful of studies.
While many supplements are marketed as “libido-enhancers”, few have enough research behind them to support such claims.
People often assume that in order to increase libido you must increase testosterone. While testosterone level does play a role in libido, it is not the only factor. Take for instance the herb maca (Lepidium meyenii), which can affect your libido yet have no effect on testosterone levels.
Vitamins and minerals such as magnesium, vitamin D, and zinc can help support healthy testosterone levels, but do not necessarily boost them if intake is already sufficient. If you are looking for a primer on increasing your testosterone levels, check out our infographic on what testosterone is, and how you can increase it naturally.
Ensuring sufficient intake of magnesium, vitamin D, and zinc will help support testosterone production. And while optimal testosterone levels can help improve libido, that is far from the only factor at play.
Maca and cocoa extract are two of the more well-researched libido-enhancing supplements. Both require at least a week of supplementation to provide benefits. Maca, specifically, may not reach full potency until two months of consistent supplementation. Research into Maca has also shown promise for postmenopausal women, an oft-overlooked population when it comes to libido enhancement.
The effects of cocoa extracts on libido are more indirect. Low nitric oxide (NO) levels can lead to poor circulation, which can contribute to erectile dysfunction. Flavonoids in cocoa can help bolster NO levels, improving blood flow and possibly alleviating erectile dysfunction.
Similar supplements include Tribulus terrestris and Eurycoma Longifolia Jack, though there have been very few human studies done on each of these herbs. Currently, the animal evidence does support the preliminary results found in human trials, suggesting these herbs might be useful supplements to improve libido.
Supplements that are able to improve libido immediately after oral supplementation are rare and often come with unwanted side effects. Yohimbine has been shown to help those with orgasmic or erectile dysfunction, but because it’s also a stimulant, yohimbine should not be supplemented by people using medication for heart and brain conditions.
Alcohol can also be an effective spur-of-the-moment libido-enhancer for some people (in moderate doses). The obvious reason is because alcohol can reduce inhibition. But it may also provide a small, short-lived boost to testosterone. However, this effect doesn’t work for everyone. Some people experience a small reduction in testosterone after imbibing alcohol, or no effect at all. This unpredictability, combined with alcohol’s health risks, make it unsuitable as a long-term testosterone booster and libido-enhancer.
While supplements like Maca and cocoa extract are more likely to help with libido and sexual function, others like Tribulus terrestris and Eurycoma Longifolia Jack need more research. Yohimbine and alcohol can help, but also have notable negative effects.
There are many more herbal supplements marketed as libido-enhancers, brimming with marketing hype. Have you heard of Dehydroepiandrosterone, also known as DHEA, Ginkgo biloba, L-DOPA, or velvet antler? All of these supplements have been marketed as libido-enhancers, despite no good evidence suggesting they work.
Even foods traditionally associated with romance and love turn out to have a limited effect on libido once they’re studied. There is no evidence to suggest eating oysters before bed improves performance. Though if you’re low on zinc, oyster consumption could alleviate a deficiency, which can negatively affect several hormones that influence libido like testosterone.
Rose essential oil, used in aromatherapy, and chocolate may both have mild relaxing properties, notably for women. These effects might contribute to libido enhancement indirectly, via stress reduction.
Sexual enhancement is a lucrative market so nearly all libido boosters are overhyped. As a general rule, avoid “proprietary blends” as they obscure how much of each ingredient they contain.
Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), Ginkgo biloba, L-DOPA, velvet antler, rose essential oil, chocolate, and oysters have all been marketed as potent aphrodisiacs. While there could be some truth to these claims, most are just hype.
Some people choose to introduce stimulants into the bedroom for special occasions. These supplements should be used cautiously, not just in terms of safety, but due to their potential effect on performance.
Apart from pharmaceutical options like Viagra, stimulants are generally not recommended for bedroom use. While cigarettes are often depicted as a post-sex activity, beware of smoking before sex, as nicotine can reduce arousal in both men and women.
Any substance that increases diastolic blood pressure or increases the risks of cardiovascular damage should not be used with Viagra. For example, one case study described marijuana use resulting in a heart attack when combined with Viagra, since marijuana increases diastolic blood pressure.
Be cautious of using stimulants to enhance performance — they may have the opposite effect or even cause harm if combined with medications like Viagra.
Don’t let the marketing get to you. Chances are, you’d be better off spending your money on an extra-romantic date night.
Before introducing a new supplement into the bedroom, talk to your partner. People taking medication or with chronic health conditions should talk to their doctor before attempting supplementation. And be sure to test them one at a time — some supplements claiming libido enhancing properties combine up to 33 ingredients in one pill!
Have fun and stay safe this Valentine’s Day!
And if you want a step-by-step breakdown of supplements that work synergistically for increased libido, check out our Libido & Sexual Enhancement Supplement Guide.
- Effect of Lepidium meyenii (MACA) on sexual desire and its absent relationship with serum testosterone levels in adult healthy men. Andrologia. (2002) Gonzales GF, et al.
- Subjective effects of Lepidium meyenii (Maca) extract on well-being and sexual performances in patients with mild erectile dysfunction: a randomised, double-blind clinical trial. Andrologia. (2009) Zenico T, et al.
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- Beneficial effects of Lepidium meyenii (Maca) on psychological symptoms and measures of sexual dysfunction in postmenopausal women are not related to estrogen or androgen content. Menopause. (2008) Brooks NA, et al.
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- Myocardial infarction following the combined recreational use of Viagra and cannabis. Clin Cardiol. (2002) McLeod AL, McKenna CJ, Northridge DB.
- A Urologist's Guide to Ingredients Found in Top-Selling Nutraceuticals for Men's Sexual Health. J Sex Med. (2015) Cui T, et al.