Sexual stimulants

The use of sexual stimulants has a long and fascinating history the chaptersof which are still being written. Maintaining sexual potency and interest insex itself has always been a major concern for both men and women, given themany potentially deleterious effects of age, stress, and health problems on this facet of our lives. Indeed, all the attention we give this area points tothe possibility that by using sexual stimulants we are not merely trying toenhance our sex drives. Instead, perhaps, we are really trying to recapture or strengthen the forces that make us feel young, vital, and alive. Most medical experts agree, though, that good nutrition and regular exercise are the best aphrodisiacs of all.

Sexual stimulants are still often called "aphrodisiacs" (after Aphrodite, theGreek goddess of love). However, the name tends to carry connotations of homemade, arcane recipes involving various plant or animal ingredients. However,some of the most ancient plant-based aphrodisiacs, such as ginseng and yohimbine, are still as popular today as in ancient times. In contrast, some modern sexual stimulants, including Viagra, are often developed in a laboratory byhighly trained chemists and pharmacists. Unlike the old-time aphrodisiacs, which were meant only to increase sex drive and/or sexual pleasure, such modern stimulants may rightly be called medications, since their purpose is to correct problems that make sex difficult or impossible.

An Ancient Search

Looking back on the rich, colorful history of sexual stimulants, it is interesting to note, in light of the medical advances we have enjoyed, that many ofthese substances worked to promote sexual interest just by correcting a nutritional imbalance. It makes sense that a person suffering from a mineral deficiency would find his or her interest in sex returning after ingesting a mineral-rich substance touted as an aphrodisiac. After all, a healthy person is much more likely to have the desire and energy for sex.

In ancient times, the pursuit of sexual stimulants was governed by the "law of similarity." According to this rule, whose erroneous precepts still commandcredence in some parts of the world, any item that looks like aroused male or female genitalia will be powerful aphrodisiacs. One example of the principle, the oyster, is as popular among sensation seekers today as it was hundredsof years ago. The root of the mandrake, which resembles a human male, was also much sought after in biblical times. A testimonial to the enduring urgencyof our search for these stimulants is the fact that many of the animals whose parts were and are used as sexual aids under the law of similarity are nowextinct or nearly so.

For instance, the law of similarity is the basis of the continuing popularityin Asia of powdered rhinoceros horn. Often publicized in the news when customs officials confiscate and burn huge quantities of the illegally obtained horn, the fallacy continues that the horn will work as an aphrodisiac. Frequently, poachers will kill rhinoceroses and leave their bodies to rot after usingchain saws to take off the massive protrusions. As a result of this longtimehunt of the animals, all five species of rhinoceros are now endangered. China banned sales of the horn in 1993, but it continues on the black market, fetching prices of up to $27,000 per pound in Taiwan in 1990.

Chemical analysis of rhino horn reveals that it contains ethanolamine, phosphorous, and sugar, along with the free amino acids threonine, aspartic acid, lysine, histidine, ornithine, and arginine. This last ingredient has a reputation for raising the intensity of sexual sensation, although there is little evidence to support this assertion. In general, rhino horn is made of keratin--the same material of which our nails and hair is made. Originally, the penisof the rhinoceros was what men sought to restore their sex drives and potency. Under the law of similarity, this portion of the animal's anatomy must surely have represented a persuasive argument that it would serve their purpose.

Antlers of deer and other similar animals have also been a traditional targetof aphrodisiac hunters. With their similarity to an erect penis, antlers have long been sought as sexual stimulants--especially in East Asia. Although most species of deer shed their antlers annually, providing a nonlethal way forpeople to obtain them, those still attached to live animals are imagined tobe the most potent. Thus, such species as the Tibetan red deer, whose velvetyantlers are rumored to be the most effective sexual stimulants of all horns,have been hunted virtually to extinction.

Under the law of similarity, powdered or dried tiger penis has always been considered especially effective for curing impotence. Again, this is true particularly in East Asia, where people pay as much as $350 for a bowl of tiger penis soup and exorbitant prices for other tiger products, including their fat,bones, and liver. Just like the rhinoceros and deer, the tiger has become extremely rare because it has been hunted for these and other purposes. Unfortunately, the rarity of these animals, and thus the scarcity of the supposed aphrodisiacs they provide, only serves to increase the desire for them in someparts of the world.

Other Animal Preparations

There are many other preparations made from animal ingredients to which the law of similarity does not apply, but whose reputations as aphrodisiacs nevertheless persist. One of them, ambergris (an extremely rare, fat-like substancethat comes from whales) is cited in Arabic folklore as a powerful sexual aid. There are some reports that ambrein, the main chemical component of ambergris, greatly increases copulatory behavior in laboratory rats, although this is a long way from validating its reputed effect on humans. Bear gall bladdersand shark fins are also supposed to enhance sexual vigor, and this, too, hasled to avid hunting of the creatures, resulting in their endangerment.

Other formulas that people have used throughout the centuries to boost theirsexual interest are less well known: powdered lizard in white wine; dried black ants mixed with olive oil; snake blood; jackal bile or ass's milk (rubbedon the male and female genitals prior to intercourse); fermented leeches (poured over the penis); melted fat from a camel's hump; the king eider duck's billknob (ingested); skin of the toad Bufo Bufo gargarizans (known as Chan Su, a topical preparation that can be deadly when ingested); and the fleshof the lion-tailed macaque (ingested).

Because men are often desperate to cure their impotence and because both sexes want to increase their desire for intercourse, people have sometimes triedpotentially dangerous formulations based on their reputation as sexual stimulants. One of the most famous of these double-edged swords is Spanish fly, whose history appears to go back to ancient Rome. It also appeared in a 15th-century Arab compilation of aphrodisiac recipes called the Perfumed Garden for the Soul's Delectation. Cantharadin is the active chemical ingredient of this legendary aphrodisiac, which takes the form of powdered blister beetle(Cantharis vesicatoria or Lytta vesicatoria). The beetle's Latin nameindicates the physical effects that Spanish fly can produce: lytta means "rage" and vesica means "blister."

In moderate doses, Spanish fly produces irritation of the genitals and a resulting increase in blood flow to the area, mimicking the engorgement that occurs with sexual excitement. However, cantharadin is extremely toxic when ingested, causing serious gastrointestinal distress and kidney damage. The substance can also be absorbed through the skin and mucous membranes. There are records of death occurring after ingestion of 1.6 grams of cantharadin and poisoning after taking only 1.3 milligrams.

The use of Spanish fly by males can lead to a painful condition known as priapism, in which the penis remains erect for an extended period of time--hoursor even days. Caused by the kidneys' excretion of cantharadin and its subsequent irritation of the urethra as the chemical passes out of the body in the urine, priapism is not associated with any feelings of sexual desire. Despitethe many potentially serious side effects of Spanish fly, however, many people have tried and continue to try their luck with the dangerous beetle.


Perhaps the oldest sexual stimulant in the world, alcohol is, paradoxically,a central nervous system depressant. Proven in some clinical trials to be anactual aphrodisiac via its collateral effect as a euphoriant, alcohol works by lowering the social inhibitions and anxiety level of the person who drinksit. In fact, ancient Romans believed so strongly in the power of alcohol to increase libido that women were not even allowed to drink it, although men extolled its virtues in this respect and had free access to alcohol. A 1994 study even suggested that drinking alcohol would raise the testosterone levels ofwomen and thereby their libido. Using alcohol to stimulate sexual interest and pleasure is a delicate balancing act, since too little has virtually no effect and too much acts as a powerful sedative and sexual arousal inhibitor, making sleep far more likely than intercourse.

During the 1800s in Europe, an alcoholic beverage called absinthe was believed to have particularly stimulating qualities. An extract of wormwood (Arthemisia absinthium), it contains many toxic compounds, but is especially rich in the essential oils thujol and thujon. The latter in particular can, with habitual use, cause nerve problems, blindness, and abdominal cramps. In fact, absinthe was outlawed in France in 1915 and continues to be banned in most European countries.

Rich, dark, and nutritious (for an alcoholic beverage), the humble form of beer known as stout has also enjoyed a reputation as a sexual stimulant in somecountries. In addition, some liqueurs, especially chartreuse and benedictine; white portwine (in conjunction with wild strawberries); spiced red wine; and aqua mirabilis (heavily spiced claret) are all rumored to possess libido-enhancing powers.

Synthetic and Plant-Based Stimulants

Many sexual stimulants, especially those used in modern times, take the formof plant-based or synthetic drugs. Perhaps the most famous or these is the "popper," or amyl nitrate. A member of the volatile alkyl nitrite family, amylnitrate was originally used as an antidote to hydrogen cyanide poisoning andangina pectoris. However, once it became a prescription drug, amyl nitrate rapidly became popular as a recreational drug in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It was often readily available, since amyl nitrate was then used as a roomfreshener. People mainly use poppers as a way to heighten the sensations experienced during sex--especially orgasm. By reducing blood pressure, the drug has the effect of heightening awareness, altering mood, and causing dizziness.Unfortunately, inhaling the vapors from amyl nitrate liquid, usually contained in a glass vial, has been shown to cause hemolysis (destruction of red blood cells) and methemoglobinemia (conversion of hemoglobin into a chemical that cannot carry oxygen). There have also been rumors that using amyl nitrate causes Kaposi's sarcoma, a form of cancer usually associated with AIDS, although this has proven untrue. Rather, it appears more likely that people who usepoppers are also those who engage in unsafe sexual practices, thus making them more susceptible to AIDS.

Marijuana, LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), and a relatively new drug calledEcstasy have also been touted for their aphrodisiac qualities, although marijuana and its cousin, hashish, have a much longer and richer history. Even asearly as the Middle Ages, when mention of the drug as a sexual stimulant appeared in Garcia de Orta's Colloquies on the Simples and Drugs of India, marijuana has been among the favorites of people seeking stronger libido and more pleasurable sex. In general, low doses of marijuana seem to produce the same effects as alcohol--relaxation, reduced anxiety, and lessened inhibitions. However, it offers an additional benefit in its ability to alter and enhance perception. As with all other alleged aphrodisiacs, though, what a person expects to experience is a powerful influence on the actual effect of the drug. LSD, a product of a fungus (ergot) that grows on some grains, allegedlyfacilitates improved sex through its role as a powerful hallucinogen. Some people have cited LSD's ability to make sexual fantasies much more intense andto engender a feeling of total empathy with a sex partner. Ecstasy has becomea popular drug with young people, getting its start at all-night dance parties called "raves." Chemically known as methylene dioxymethamphetamine (MDMA),Ecstasy is also know as the "love drug" because it reportedly causes all-encompassing feelings of affection, euphoria, and heightened sensitivity in somepeople. Related to amphetamines and the hallucinogen mescaline, Ecstasy hasbeen shown to have potentially neurotoxic effects on serotonin, causing, among other problems, abnormal regrowth of the nerves that produce it.

p-Chlorophenylalanine, or PCPA, has also been popular as a sexual stimulant based on evidence that inhibiting or reducing the production of serotonin, a powerful vasoconstrictor (i.e., it reduces blood flow), would increase sexualinterest. An amino acid, PCPA has been tested on laboratory rats, producing controversial reports that normally taciturn male rats responded to the drug by repeatedly mounting other male rats while ignoring available females.

Amphetamines, collectively know as "speed," have been shown to increase libido and sexual pleasure in low doses, although this mainly occurs among those who take the drugs orally, as opposed to intravenously. Even at moderate doses, however, impotence becomes more common in men and decreased libido occurs in both sexes. At high doses, some intravenous amphetamine users have reportedwhat is technically known as "pharmacogenic orgasm," i.e., drug-generated orgasm, although this has nothing to do with sexual intercourse.

Cocaine has a similar reputation as an enhancer of sexual sensation, but itsproponents cite the added benefit of increasing erectile longevity through its topical application to the penis. A central nervous system stimulant, cocaine elevates mood and increases alertness. It was originally used as a local anesthetic by dentists and surgeons in the early 1900s, but since then cocainehas become the gold standard among drugs used as sexual stimulants. In fact,it was widely known as the aphrodisiac of choice in the 1980s. Cocaine worksby reducing the reuptake of norepinephrine (a stimulating hormone related toepinephrine) at certain sites in the brain, thus raising and prolonging theamount of norepinephrine in the synapses. There are no withdrawal symptoms and no tolerance effect, although long-term use often results in insomnia, paranoia, exhaustion, confusion, agitation, heightened noise sensitivity, and loss of libido.

Antidepressants have a complex role in the ongoing search for sexual stimulants. On the one hand, a drug that increases serotonin uptake in the brain might be expected to dampen the libido by reducing blood flow, but on the other hand, people recovering from depression often find themselves newly interestedin and capable of sex. One antidepressant, clomipramine, whose trade name isAnafranil, does indeed hamper sex by inhibiting the ability to achieve orgasm, but awareness of a curious side effect has emerged as more people take thedrug and report on its effectiveness to their doctors. Apparently, about five percent of Anafranil takers experience spontaneous orgasm when they yawn--aphenomenon that has many Anafranil takers asking for extended prescriptionsand some others looking for ways to obtain the drug, whether they are depressed or not.

Made from the bark of the tropical West African yohimbe tree (Corynanthe yohimbe), yohimbine contains an indole-based alkaloid that has long been rumored to restore or strengthen sexual potency. There seems to be some truthbehind this belief, since some veterinary practices use it to treat impotencyin valuable breeding stallions. Yohimbine is a central nervous system stimulant and a mild hallucinogen, in addition to its serotonin-inhibiting effect.Although it can produce moderate to severe side effects, including vomiting,nausea, and sweating, depending on the individual, there is some evidence over its long history that the drug does indeed work.

Viagra, a member of the phosphodiesterase Type 5 inhibitor family of drugs, is perhaps the latest drug to be used in the search for sexual stimulation. Released by Pfizer in 1998, sildenafil citrate is the first drug for male erectile dysfunction to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It was originally designed as a heart drug, although testing showed it to be ineffective. Researchers noticed, however, that the drug seemed to have pronounced success in causing erections, and within two months after its release therewere more than one million prescriptions for Viagra. Despite its billing asan anti-impotence drug, many women are also interested in Viagra to learn ifthe drug will boost their libidos.

Taken one to two hours before an anticipated sexual encounter, sildenafil works by inhibiting the breakdown of GMP-specific phosphodiesterase. This in turn enhances the availability of nitric oxide, which figures in a chain reaction that leads to relaxation in the penis's smooth muscle, causing an erection.In 21 clinical trials by 1998, Viagra's average success rate was 70 percent.The orally administered drug does not simply produce an erection on its own,however--the appropriate erotic stimuli must accompany its presence in the bloodstream. Viagra can also have side effects of varying severity, includingheadache in about ten percent of cases, "blue vision" (some men have reporteda strange phenomenon in which after taking the pill everything they look atis tinged with blue), and death (8 fatalities as of late 1998).

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