‘Thou are to me delicious torment’ – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Like so many things in life sex is much more than the sum of its parts, and desire can never be reduced to a formula, but Valentine’s Day reminds of us of the importance of maintaining – or maybe sparking – the intimacy that lends precious colour and vitality to our workaday lives. And while passion is an emotional phenomenon it’s also a biological one, and there are foods that can have a measurable effect here.
They work in one of several interlinked ways: by engaging our senses, on a pheromonal/biochemical level, by increasing blood flow or by enhancing the activity of feelgood brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. For example, eating protein foods such as poultry, nuts and seeds, pulses and eggs will boost brain levels of serotonin which control libido as well as happiness, while fibre rich wholegrains and veg will promote mood-lifting good gut bacteria. White grains, sugars and trans fats on the other hand, will mess with neurotransmitter activity, gut bacteria, blood sugar levels (leaving you tired and grumpy) and sex hormones.
Vitamin D and omega 3 fats, both found in oily fish, have now been shown to influence brain function (the brain being your most important sex organ), sex hormones and blood flow, which is why a Mediterranean diet combined with exercise has been suggested as a viable alternative to Viagra. The way that drug works is by dilating blood vessels to enhance blood flow (and so arousal, sensitivity and performance), but the same effect can be achieved by eating foods that contain arginine and or/nitrates: nuts and seeds, oats, pulses, eggs, dairy, meat, watermelon, beetroot, celery, lettuce, rocket, spinach, celeriac, parsley and of course dark chocolate. This ancient aphrodisiac also contains several compounds that produce feelings of arousal and euphoria, triggering the same brain chemicals that are released during orgasm.
Vitamin E and zinc (eggs, nuts and seeds, oats and more traditional aphrodisiacs such as asparagus, avocado and oysters) are central to the sexual response, vitamin C and magnesium (berries, greens) to blood flow. Calcium (dairy, oily fish, nuts and seeds, greens, seaweeds) and B3 (tuna, yoghurt, beetroot) increase sensation, while some individual foods carry unique properties. Strawberries dipped in chocolate, figs, asparagus spears or oysters offer a sensuous treat, and oysters actually contain a rare amino acid that boost levels of sex hormone while asparagus works on the receptors of those hormones in the brain. Other boosters are found in fennel, lettuce, honey, oats and bananas.
Apples contain a compound that is similar to the female hormone that acts on female arousal, while eating figs and (for men) celery releases pheromones in the sweat that make us more sexually attractive. (Men might want to remember that eating a lot of animal products apparently make them smell less attractive to women). Just the aroma of certain foods – basil is one – can boost blood flow to the genitals by forty percent, and all spices have a thermogenic effect that, well, spices things up.
And let’s not forget that sex is itself a surprisingly good way to boost overall health. A round up of the research shows that regularly indulging cuts a man’s risk of diabetes by 40%, heart disease by 30% , stroke by 50% and premature death by 50%, while for older men it reduces the risk of prostate cancer. In women it wards off depression and headaches, even migraines in around 50% of cases, strengthens pelvic floor muscles, and significantly raises levels of valuable oestrogen during the menopause. For both sexes it improves lung, muscle, heart, digestive and brain function and lowers levels of harmful stress hormones while promoting levels of helpful neurotransmitters. It boosts the immune system, and contributes to younger looking skin. Chemicals released during lovemaking (and even kissing and hugging) also help to reinforce that all-important bond between partners, and their feelings of attraction, trust, commitment, generosity and protectiveness towards one another—Mother Nature is clever that way. Just don’t forget the candles, the flowers, and of course the chocolates this weekend.
Best foods for libido include:
Apples, asparagus, avocado, bananas, beetroot, berries, broccoli (and all dark leafy greens), celery, dates, fennel, figs, garlic, lemons, lettuce, mango, papaya, passionfruit, peppers, tomatoes, watercress, watermelon; nuts and seeds, especially almonds, walnuts, pine nuts, linseeds and pumpkin seeds; chickpeas, beans, lentils and peas; oats, wheatgerm, wholegrains; oily fish, shellfish, tuna; organic eggs, poultry and meat; cinnamon, chilli, cumin, ginger, black pepper, cloves, nutmeg, cardamom, saffron, basil; honey, cocoa/dark chocolate.