Can food improve your sex life?

If there were evidence that a single food could improve your libido, potency or sexual pleasure, it would probably sell out. A balanced diet, active lifestyle and good mental health can all enhance your sex life. But are any individual foods really natural aphrodisiacs?

Ingredients that trigger happiness-inducing endorphins, contain nutrients associated with a healthy sex drive, or are simply linked to wealth and success, are often claimed to be libido boosters. Let's look at the history and science behind the theories and consider whether any of these foods actually can improve your love life.

Does eating oysters really work?

Casanova is said to have eaten 50 oysters for breakfast, but sadly there is no proven link between them and increased sex drive. So where did the rumour come from? Legend has it that when Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, was 'born', she rose from the sea and so seafood became considered to be an aphrodisiac. There is good news though: oysters are brimming with zinc, an essential nutrient for testosterone production. Research has suggested that zinc may be able to treat male infertility and increase sperm quality.

Good sources of zinc include: other shellfish, red meat, seeds such as pumpkin, hemp and sesame, nuts such as cashews, and almonds, legumes such as chickpeas and kidney beans, milk and cheese.

Can dark chocolate make you a better lover?

Eating dark chocolate can emulate the initial high of falling in love, some say, because it contains the 'love chemical' phenylethylamine (PEA), which is released in the first few months of a relationship. PEA releases dopamine in the pleasure centre of the brain. Only very small amounts of PEA are present in chocolate though, and there is doubt over whether it remains active when eaten. Cocoa is also said to increase blood flow.

So when did the link between chocolate and sex start? Hernán Cortés, a 16th-century Spanish explorer who's thought to be the first European to discover chocolate, wrote to King Carlos I of Spain that he'd observed the Maya drinking chocolate, which “builds up resistance and fights fatigue”. Unfortunately the Spanish may have attributed medical benefits to chocolate that the Maya didn’t, and there is certainly no evidence to support its use as an aphrodisiac.

Other sources of tryptophan include: salmon, eggs, poultry, spinach, seeds, eggs, nuts and soy products.

Will chillies spice up your sex life?

Hot chillies contain capsaicin, which studies show can induce the release of endorphins to create a 'chilli high'. It also speeds up your metabolism and increases your body temperature and heart rate, which we experience when having sex. Perhaps wash your hands after preparing, though!

Does alcohol help or hinder?

Alcohol may heighten desire by lessening inhibitions, but as Macbeth says when drunk, it “provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance”. Sensitivity in both men and women is also reduced by by drinking too much alcohol, and over time it can lessen your sex drive or in severe cases induce impotence. Plus, smelling like a pub isn’t exactly a turn on!

How can you reduce your risk of erectile dysfunction?

Research has reported that eating foods rich in certain flavonoids (plant power) is associated with a reduced risk of erectile dysfunction (ED). The study found that one flavonoid, anthocyanin, found in blueberries, and others found in citrus fruits, offer the potential of preventing ED. A higher total fruit intake is associated with a 14 percent reduction in the risk of ED and a combination of consuming flavonoid-rich foods and exercise can reduce the risk by 21 percent. So tuck into that fruit bowl!

Some research suggests the Mediterranean-style diet can be effective in preventing ED and preserving sexual function. The diet is rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, walnuts and olive oil.

Sources of anthocyanin include: cherries, blackberries, blackcurrants, cranberries, raspberries, some grapes, aubergine and red cabbage.

Aphrodisiacs at a glance

Aphrodisiacs are named after Aphrodite. They can be divided into three categories: libido, potency and sexual pleasure. None have been scientifically proven to work on humans, due to the difficulty of measuring success. In fact, the only aphrodisiac that there is evidence for is the scent of ripe and rotten fruit – but sadly it's only be shown to work in male fruit flies.

Dr Krychman, a specialist in sexual health, says he thinks people eat aphrodisiacs simply because they believe they will work. He suggests that if something works for you, does it matter why?

Many so-called aphrodisiacs are healthy foods, but it is advisable to steer clear of plant extracts and substances if they lack safety data and of anything that claims to be a miracle cure.

Underlying conditions

If you have a reduced sex drive, it is possible you have an underlying medical condition, so always consult your doctor.