Aphrodisiacs past and present: A historical review


The drug Viagra (sildenafil) has drawn public attention to aphrodisiacs. The search for such substances dates back millennia. Aphrodisiacs can be classified by their mode of action into 3 types: those that increase (1) libido, (2)potency, or (3) sexual pleasure. Various substances of animal and plant origin have been used in folk medicines of different cultures; some have been identified pharmacologically, allowing for under-standing of their mechanisms of action. For increasing libido, ambrein, a major constituent ofAmbra grisea, is used in Arab countries. This tricyclic triterpene alcohol increases the concentration of several anterior pituitary hormones and serum testosterone. Bufo toad skin and glands contain bufotenine (and other bufadienolides), a putative hallucinogenic congener of serotonin. It is the active ingredient in West Indian “love stone” and the Chinese medicationchan su. The aphrodisiac properties are likely of central origin, as are the other effects of the drug. For increasing potency,Panax ginseng, used in traditional Chinese medicine, works as an antioxidant by enhancing nitric oxide synthesis in the endothelium of many organs, including the corpora cavernosa; ginsenosides also enhance acetylcholine-induced and transmural nerve stimulation-activated relaxation associated with increased tissue cyclic guanosine monophosphate, hence the aphrodisiac properties. For increasing sexual pleasure, cantharidin (“Spanish fly”) is a chemical with vesicant properties derived from blister beetles, which have been used for millennia as a sexual stimulant. Its mode of action is by inhibition of phosphodiesterase and protein phosphatase activity and stimulation of β-receptors, inducing vascular congestion and inflammation. Morbidity from its abuse is significant. The ingestion of live beetles (Palembus dermestoides) in Southeast Asia and triatomids in Mexico may have a basis similar to cantharidin. It is of paramount importance for the physician to be aware of the options available to help his or her patients, and to advise them in using the correct drugs while avoiding “miracle” remedies that could be potentially harmful.

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Correspondence to Paola Sandroni M.D., Ph.D..

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Sandroni, P. Aphrodisiacs past and present: A historical review. Clinical Autonomic Research 11, 303–307 (2001). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02332975

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Key words

  • aphrodisiac
  • folk medicine
  • Viagra (sildenafil)