Can food really make you horny? Actually, yes! But there's more to it than that. Here's everything you need to know about the foods and substances that can increase your desire and arousal for sex, also known as aphrodisiacs.
What are aphrodisiacs?
According to psychotherapist and sexologist Jessica Cline, LCSW, Ph.D., aphrodisiacs are foods or substances people ingest for a temporary boost to their sexual experience, whether that's to elicit a spark, enhance sexual pleasure, or increase sex drive, desire, arousal, and performance.
Across a varied range of aphrodisiac foods, spices, herbs, and plant-based and non-plant-based substances, Cline says they "ideally [increase] blood flow to genitals or get some of those neurochemicals flowing," such as oxytocin or dopamine, which are neurotransmitters and hormones our brains release during sex.
The science behind how they work.
The science behind aphrodisiacs depends on the particular substance, says Ashley D. Sweet, M.A., LPC, LMHC, CCRC, a licensed psychotherapist and clinical researcher who specializes in sex and pleasure. In general, most aphrodisiacs are believed to work because they increase blood flow, which may help activate the bodily senses, or because they may release feel-good neurochemicals that help relax the mind.
That said, while people often slurp down oysters in hopes that they're an aphrodisiac, Cline says there isn't enough scientific evidence to support many of the aphrodisiacs of pop culture. She explains that when studied, most research doesn’t confirm that foods often considered being aphrodisiacs—such as cocoa, berries, or food resembling genitalia—create a meaningful [sexual] response.
"These foods may increase vital nutrients, such as zinc or magnesium, which help your body function properly (including sexual function), but [they aren't] the pop of horniness that is claimed," Cline says.
Some aphrodisiacs have more scientific evidence behind them1 than others. Among those substances claiming aphrodisiac properties that don't have solid evidence, Sweet notes that a placebo effect is often the true science driving their success as sexual enhancers. "In these cases, the aphrodisiacs work because the person using them believes that they'll work."
Similarly, Cline says, "Many aphrodisiacs elicit a placebo effect—the more you think about sex, the more you desire it, and what you think, you become."
Aphrodisiac foods to try:
Could Beyoncé have been right about this fruit? According to Diana Hoppe, M.D., board-certified obstetrician and gynecologist and author of Healthy Sex Drive, Healthy You: What Your Libido Reveals About Your Life, the answer is yes.
Watermelon is a rich source of citrulline, a naturally occurring amino acid, which Hoppe explains relaxes and dilates blood vessels, similar to Viagra and other drugs aimed at treating erectile dysfunction. "All that citrulline results in increased blood flow, blood vessel relaxation, and sexual arousal," which may lead to improvements in blood flow to the erectile tissue and the clitoral area, Hoppe explains.
Still, don't expect an immediate effect with this aphrodisiac. Because citrulline is most concentrated in watermelon rinds, Hoppe says you'd have to eat lots of them to achieve the desired effect.
Maca root powder
A Peruvian root vegetable and popular superfood powder, maca has been found to increase libido2 and help postmenopausal women with sexual dysfunction, as well as men with erectile dysfunction. Another study also found that it can help boost sexual desire for people taking SSRI antidepressants, which are often linked with reduced sex drive as a side effect. Plus, maca contains arginine, which may support blood flow and has also been linked to increased levels of testosterone3 in animal studies. Testosterone is a hormone that influences libido and sexual functioning4.
Although maca is generally considered safe, more research is needed to better understand its adverse effects.
For hundreds of years, oysters have been considered a natural aphrodisiac and used to increase sex drive and desire. Despite this, their effect on libido is still met with skepticism.
However, both Hoppe and Gloria Tsang, a registered dietitian and founder of Simply Zero Foods, believe they can be effective in certain quantities. "A lot of shellfish—including oysters, clams, crabs, lobsters, and mussels—are high in zinc, which can trigger a surge in the production of sex hormones," notes Tsang.
Hoppe adds that oysters also contain large amounts of the amino acid tyrosine, a nutrient included in the production of dopamine.
Numerous studies suggest that this pricey Southwest Asian spice can actually bring the heat. Five studies5, part of a systematic review, found saffron had a significant positive effect on sexual dysfunction. Another study found6 that it boosted arousal and lubrication in women, while another showed that it proved successful in improving erectile function7 with 30 milligrams of saffron per day.
Foods high in antioxidants
Antioxidants have been shown to wield a hefty range of potential benefits on our sexual health. For starters, they relax the blood vessels (potentially helpful for erections) and are thought to improve testosterone levels11. Researchers have also found that increased consumption of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables can reduce the risk of erectile dysfunction by 38%.
Here are some foods high in antioxidants:
- Olive oil
- Goji berries
- Dark chocolate
- Dark-colored grapes
- Red wine
Foods high in magnesium
In general, there are many known benefits of magnesium. A daily dose of this important mineral is associated with better sleep quality, better cardiovascular and metabolic health outcomes12, support for mental well-being13, and much more. When it comes to your sexual health, research suggests magnesium may help testosterone14 remain in your bloodstream. Magnesium also promotes relaxation and regulates stress hormones, so you might even be able to enjoy yourself more during the act.
You can try taking magnesium supplements (our favorites here), and you can get eat magnesium-rich foods such as the following:
- Almonds (or cashews and peanuts)
- Pumpkin seeds
Foods high in zinc
Zinc sustains our health in many ways, making it an essential nutrient. (It's literally found in every cell of your body!) Besides supporting our immune systems, metabolism, and brain health, zinc also helps in the production of the key sex hormone testosterone.
Why is this important? Because low testosterone is associated with low libido, fatigue, and even erectile dysfunction. Testosterone significantly increases sex drive, making zinc a bedrock for sexual function. According to one study, zinc is essential for male fertility15.
Consider upping your intake of these zinc-heavy foods:
- Meat (beef, pork, chicken)
- Whole grains
Foods with sexual shapes and textures
While some aphrodisiac foods have some scientific evidence backing their ability to get you in the mood, others are considered to be enhancing simply because of their sexy shape, texture, or the seductive ways you can eat them.
Here are a few foods that are more legend than science when it comes to stimulating the parts of your brain and body that increase sex drive:
- Dark chocolate
- Chili peppers
- Pistachio nuts
Aphrodisiac herbs to try.
Across big and small studies, many herbal and natural aphrodisiacs have been scientifically proven to improve sexual dysfunction. Sourced from around the world, these herbs are rich in nutrients that support health, making it easier to connect with your desire.
Gentle warning: Before taking any of these herbs as aphrodisiacs to boost libido or enhance sexual pleasure, be sure to consult your doctor(s), especially if you currently take other medication.
Sweet recommends ginseng root, a staple herbal remedy in traditional Chinese medicine that provides numerous health benefits. Research on red ginseng's impact16 on male reproductive function shows it can be effective as an aphrodisiac, enhances erections, and increases the production of sex hormones. Although studies observing its effect on women are limited, at least one study found17 that ginseng boosted sexual arousal in menopausal women.
An extract from the ancient tree species native to China, Ginkgo biloba is another herb commonly seen in traditional Chinese medicine. It's typically used as a remedy for depression, sexual dysfunction, and other ailments because of its ability to increase blood flow—which is a major reason it makes a worthy aphrodisiac.
Like all aphrodisiacs, conclusions on whether Ginkgo truly benefits sexual health are mixed. But clinical studies18 that link the herb to improved sexual health show that it increases nitric oxide levels in blood, which is one of the keys to achieving and maintaining an erection. For people with vaginas, this herb's ability to stimulate blood flow means it may potentially help with increased vaginal arousal, pleasure, and orgasms.
Sometimes called "herbal Viagra," Yohimbe is a West African herb that's found in the bark of yohim trees. For centuries, this herbal aphrodisiac has been considered one of the best ways to naturally enhance sexual performance, and some studies have found it useful in supporting healthy erections19.
How does this herb work? Yohimbe stimulates spinal nerve centers and blocks the receptors in your body that prohibit erections (alpha-2 adrenergic receptors). Evidence is limited on its effectiveness, so take caution with this aphrodisiac before jumping right in, and be wary of its known side effects20, such as anxiety, weakness, overstimulation, and hallucinations.
A wild shrub native to South and Central America, Texas, Mexico, and the Caribbean, dried Damiana leaves have long been used as an aphrodisiac to improve sexual response. It's also said to have hormone-balancing benefits.
Although few studies prove this plant's effectiveness, some pilot studies have found supplements containing Damiana leaf may enhance sexual satisfaction and desire as well as increase clitoral sensitivity, vaginal lubrication, and even orgasm frequency.
Other ways to boost libido.
Looking to spice up your sex life without (or alongside) aphrodisiacs? There are a variety of things you can do in your everyday life that can help. Consider these natural approaches:
Boost your self-confidence.
If your brain likes to run feedback loops of all your worst thoughts about yourself during sex (e.g., you're not enough or too much or your body is [insert judgment]), it's time to stop it in its tracks. When those self-esteem-killing thoughts appear, try to replace them with ones that are more encouraging and forgiving—because the more open you are about yourself and sex, the easier it'll be to freely explore your sexuality. After all, you deserve to feel good when you're trying to feel, well…good.
Limit your substance intake.
Many people enjoy an alcoholic drink or use cannabis before having sex to relax and open themselves up. In fact, Sweet shares that new research21 is emerging about cannabis, CBD, and wine acting as aphrodisiacs.
While they can definitely help with that for some people, too much likely won't get you going. Alcohol can cause problems with erections in people with penises, and either substance might make you too tired to even have sex. Moderation is key with these.
Reduce your stress and anxiety.
Not many people can relax their bodies enough to enjoy sex when their stress or anxiety levels are sky-high. Whether you're experiencing life stress or specific sex-related anxiety, these feelings are a known barrier to an active libido and proper sexual functioning, not to mention getting or maintaining an erection.
To reduce your stress levels (and increase your pleasure levels), consider meditation, yoga, more exercise, or setting firmer boundaries to achieve a better life balance!
Get plenty of sleep.
Quality sleep helps us way more than some people give it credit. With more sleep in your life, you can improve your overall mood and energy levels, achieve stronger focus, and lower your risk for serious health issues. Without adequate sleep, your sex life (among other things) might suffer. Sleep disorders like sleep apnea and insomnia have been connected to sexual dysfunction, and research shows that sleep deprivation has been associated with reduced sexual desire22 and arousal in people with vaginas.
Build intimacy in your relationships.
Experiencing a lull in sexual desire and frequency at various points of a relationship is normal. However, you don't have to stay in that place. Focusing on improving, and sometimes rediscovering, your connection to each other can boost both your sex drives.
- Take sex off the table and stick to foreplay to build anticipation.
- Plan more date nights.
- Do activities together outside of the bedroom.
- Practice open communication.
- Set time aside for quality time with each other.
Find some support.
Sexual desire is complex and factors in both psychological and physical components. Even if you have a physical condition that affects libido, bettering your emotional and psychological response to sex can be just as key to enhancing sexual functioning.
If you want to increase your desire for sex or address concerns you think may be affecting your drive, therapy is a great option to consider—whether individual therapy, couples therapy, or sex therapy. Who said achieving orgasm can't involve teamwork?
The bottom line.
Exploring new ways to enhance your sex life is a varied experience that, yes, can include food. Aphrodisiacs can be a creative way to boost your and your partner's libido, though there's much to be aware of. Note that some supplements containing insect or plant extracts can come with side effects, so always consult your health care provider before adding any new ones. They can also look into underlying medical conditions, offer suggestions, or refer you to a sex therapist or counselor to help you support your libido in other ways.
Farrah Daniel is a freelance writer based in Colorado. She has a bachelor's degree in Digital Media Studies from the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Her work has been published at The Penny Hoarder, The Write Life, and elsewhere. Daniel manages and creates content for small businesses, nonprofits, and lifestyle publications. With five years of professional writing under her belt, her diverse portfolio includes topics such as wellness, personal finance, sales and marketing, shared micromobility and equity, and more.