Illustration: Brett Ryder
Forget oysters and chocolate. The most powerful aphrodisiacs are already inside our bodies.
Mankind has searched for aphrodisiacs for centuries. The ancient Romans slurped down oysters, the Chinese swore by shark fin soup, and the Arabs were keen on camel's hump. But the most powerful aphrodisiacs are already inside our bodies. Humans have evolved three different brain systems to encourage mating: sex drive (lust), feelings of attachment (trust), and romance (being in love). Each of these systems plays a role in desire, and scientists are now beginning to pinpoint the bodily chemicals that trigger each.
Lust: Sex drive is associated with a class of hormones called androgens, particularly testosterone (yes, women produce it, too). Today women with low libido can get a prescription for testosterone, even though it's FDA approved only for use in men. But women can also increase their levels without medication. Playing competitive sports has been shown to trigger testosterone production; in fact, women get a bigger boost than men prior to a competition. Making love can also create the same effect. Studies have suggested that sex raises testosterone levels, so the more sex you have, the more sex you desire.
Trust: Feelings of trust and attachment are fostered by the chemical oxytocin. In a study conducted at the University of Zurich, couples who used a nasal spray containing oxytocin before discussing an ongoing marital conflict were more likely to engage in friendly, positive communication than those who didn't take a whiff. You can stimulate oxytocin naturally with touch. Hold hands while you watch TV, trade massages, or sleep in each other's arms.
Love: The third chemical that drives relationships is dopamine, a key player in the brain's pleasure center that's been found to promote romantic love. Research shows that novelty—taking risks or trying something new—can trigger the release of dopamine in the brain. I'm not just talking about novelty in the bedroom (although that would be a good start). You can get the same effect from sampling a new type of cuisine together or riding the roller coaster at an amusement park.
The afterglow: Scientists may be figuring out how brain chemistry influences emotion, but don't expect to see a real love potion anytime soon. That's because you and I are more than just chemicals. We're thinking beings with a host of experiences, values, ideas, and memories—all of which share the stage with the chemical systems for lust, attachment, and romance. No product will ever trick you into loving someone you really don't like. But if you've already found the right person and want to give your relationship a kick, before you brew up a batch of camel's hump soup, you might give my less-exotic aphrodisiacs a try.
Read another column by Helen Fisher: What keeps a marriage together
From the January 2010 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine