The short answer is that they may be worth a try, at least when it comes to stoking arousal. To delve deeper into understanding just how sex supplements may level up your sex life, though, it's important to first consider the difference between libido and arousal. “Libido is a complex interplay of numerous neurotransmitters and hormones,” says herbalist Ezza Valdez, vice president of strategy and business development at The Alchemist’s Kitchen, a botanical-medicine shop in New York City. “Arousal refers to libido stimulation as well as the physiological changes associated with it, such as erection, vaginal lubrication, and genital sensitivity.”
“Arousal refers to libido stimulation as well as the physiological changes associated with it, such as erection, vaginal lubrication, and genital sensitivity.” —herbalist Ezza Valdez
Both for people with a penis and people with a vagina, blood flow to sexual organs is one of the major facets of arousal, says Valdez. This happens via nitric oxide, a chemical that signals blood vessels to dilate (aka widen). Because the body makes some nitric oxide from nitrates in food, certain herbs high in nitrates and other synergistic compounds may contribute to increased blood flow and, in turn, leveled-up arousal. And those are some of the key ingredients in natural libido supplements, which can also have an effect on hormone levels and mood (both of which figure big in arousal).
To get specific intel on each of the aphrodisiacs you’ll most commonly find in today’s natural libido supplements, keep reading for a breakdown.
Herbal aphrodisiacs to look for in a sex supplement:
A root that grows in the Andes mountains, maca has long been regarded as a natural wellspring for sexual improvement. It’s possible that maca may help with rebalancing disrupted hormones (which can be a cause of sexual dysfunction), and in that way, boost sexual desire, says Ayurvedic expert Sahara Rose, author of Discover Your Dharma.
That said, it’s also possible that maca has a totally independent effect on mood that may increase arousal, too. One study on people who identify as men found that those who consumed either 1,500 or 3,000 milligrams of maca for eight weeks reported improved sexual desire (interestingly, without any observable changes in testosterone levels). And another study on menopausal women found that those who consumed 3,500 milligrams of maca for six weeks experienced a decrease in symptoms of not only sexual dysfunction but also anxiety and depression.
Functioning as a natural stimulant, damiana—a flowering shrub that grows in Mexico and Central America—may work on sexual desire by increasing stamina and overall energy levels, says Sahara, which may, in turn, also help alleviate depressive symptoms. In fact, the shrub's genus, Turnera, naturally contains a significant amount of flavonoids and caffeine. But while there’s an animal study to support this mechanism’s effect specifically on re-arousal after sexual exhaustion, more research on humans is necessary to determine how it works on sex drive overall.
It’s also worth noting that a small study on a particular sex supplement containing damiana investigated its effects in people who identify as women and found a significant result, too: About 74 percent of the women taking the supplement reported improvement in overall sexual satisfaction, compared to 34 percent of the placebo group—though it’s unclear whether the damiana would have this effect solo, or only in combination with other ingredients in the supplement, like ginseng and gingko.
Ashwagandha—an evergreen shrub that grows in India and parts of Africa and the Middle East—may have more of an indirect effect on arousal, but it's nonetheless often included in natural libido supplements for its holistic slate of related benefits. “It increases blood circulation and stimulation, while its adaptogenic properties also help counteract high stress levels,” says Sahara.
In fact, a study of 64 people with chronic stress found that supplementation with 600 milligrams of extract from the ashwagandha root daily over the course of 60 days resulted in a significant drop in levels of cortisol (aka the stress hormone) in the blood. And decreasing stress can be a major boon in terms of sexual satisfaction, as a wandering or preoccupied brain can make both arousal and orgasm more difficult.
It’s also worth mentioning ashwagandha’s potential to increase testosterone levels (and in turn, improve sexual function) in people with a penis. In a small study of 60 people with a penis struggling with fertility, supplementation with 5,000 milligrams of ashwagandha root daily for three months not only resulted in a substantial drop in stress-related cortisol levels, but also boosted testosterone levels and improved semen quality.
Choosing (and dosing) an aphrodisiac supplement
While herbal aphrodisiacs may boost sexual arousal when taken in supplement form, their effects tend to vary across different people and will be most noticeable if consumed consistently. “Plant medicine works best when body composition and absorption are taken into consideration,” says Valdez. “And most plant medicines work in a sub-perceptual way with cumulative benefits over time.”
Many of the natural libido supplements on the market also combine more than one of the above aphrodisiac herbs, alongside other naturally soothing ingredients like CBD, which can help enhance their effects. “Formulations are typically created with a primary ‘call to action’ and supported with secondary herbal additions to help realize their full potential,” says Valdez.
As far as how much to take of any libido-boosting supplement or natural aphrodisiac in order to see results, that’ll vary based on your age, weight, sleep pattern, and lifestyle, among other factors, says Valdez: “I always recommend that clients begin with a low dosage, then moderate and manage an increase based on how they feel.”
And while none of the above studies found significant side effects from these herbs, it's still important to clear any supplement with a medical practitioner before you add it into your routine. Even herbal supplements can interact with other medications you may be taking, and otherwise may not be advisable depending on any underlying conditions you have.
With that in mind, keep reading for a round-up of gummies, pills, and other supplements that are rich in the above aphrodisiacs, in case your sex life could use a natural lift.
6 natural libido supplements that contain aphrodisiac herbs:
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