Your sex drive naturally fluctuates all the time thanks to a heady mix of hormones, lifestyle and relationship issues – not to mention any medical conditions you have or medications your might be taking – but if your libido has been on the decline for a while, you might consider trying sex supplements.
The sex supplement market is saturated with thousands of products promising all manner of bedroom benefits, from a supercharged libido to longer-lasting liaisons. But how can you tell which ones actually work? Luckily for you, we sifted through the science behind sex supplements to find out if aphrodisiac capsules are worth splashing your cash.
Before you get stuck in, it's worth noting that some sex supplements interact with certain drugs. If you take medication, always consult a healthcare professional before trying them out. It's also unclear how sex supplements compare with pharmaceutical alternatives, such as Viagra, due to the limited scientific research available, so proceed with caution:
There's some evidence that ginseng can boost libido in both men and women. In a study published in the International Journal of Impotence Research, 60 per cent of men with erectile dysfunction reported 'significant improvements' after taking Korean red ginseng – also known as panax ginseng – three times daily for eight weeks. This is thought to be because ginseng boosts the production of nitric oxide, a compound in the body that causes blood vessels to widen.
In another study, from Chonnam National University, menopausal women were required to take 3 grams of red ginseng per day for two weeks. At the end of the experiment, they reported significantly improved sexual desire and function compared to the placebo group. Ginseng is known to cause side effects such as headache, upset stomach, insomnia and menstrual changes in women and people with vulvas. It may also interact with blood thinning medication.
2. Rhodiola rosea
Rhodiola rosea is a medicinal plant. Also called golden root, rose root and Arctic root, it grows at high altitudes in the mountains of northern Europe, Asia and North America. It's known as an 'adaptogen' – a substance that helps bring the body back into homeostasis by regulating the biological stress response.
Rhodiola rosea is said to act on the dopamine system in the brain, which is crucial to between-the-sheets action. Studies have shown that it reduces feelings of stress and fatigue, two of the biggest contributing factors to waning libido in both men and women. Be sure to look for 3% rosavins and 1% salidrosides on the label to reflect the naturally-occuring proportions of these compounds in rhodiola root.
Arginine, also known as l-arginine, is an amino acid used for several functions in the body, including immunity and repairing damaged tissues. Taking L-arginine as a sex supplement increases your body's production of nitric acid and relax the muscles surrounding blood vessels in the genitals. This increases blood flow to the penis or clitoris, which can help improve arousal and sensation.
It may also help men and people with penises maintain an erection. In a study published in the International Journal of Impotence Research, taking five grams of L-arginine per day improved symptoms of erectile dysfunction in 31 per cent of patients, whereas 1.5 per day had no better effect than placebo.
Nicknamed 'the sunshine spice' due to its efficacy at treating mild-to-moderate symptoms of depression, saffron is harvested by hand from the Crocus sativus flower. It may potentially be a potent aphrodisiac, especially for people taking antidepressants, which are known to cause low sex drive and compound intimacy issues.
When men with antidepressant-related erectile dysfunction took 30mg of saffron daily for four weeks, their symptoms significantly improved, a study by Tehran University of Medical Sciences found. When a second study from the university supplied the same dosage for the same period of time to women with low libido on antidepressants, issues such as decreased arousal and lubrication were improved.
Ashwagandha is an herb commonly used in Ayurvedic Indian medicine, and it's often described as Indian ginseng. Like rhodiola rosea, it's an adaptogen that can help to reduce the mental and physical effects of stress and anxiety. It has also been shown to reduce blood sugar levels, decrease inflammation, and increase muscle strength and size.
While there is currently limited research on ashwagandha, early studies suggest it may boost testosterone levels and fertility among men and people with penises. One study published in the journal Fertility and Sterility found that ashwaganda supplements improved sperm count and motility.
For men and people with penises, zinc is essential for sperm production and testosterone synthesis. The highest concentration of zinc in the men is found in the testes and prostate gland. If you're not getting enough zinc in your diet, it can have a knock-on effect on testosterone production, resulting in low libido and eventually erectile dysfunction.
In one study, the testosterone levels of young men decreased by almost 75 percent after 20 weeks of a low-zinc diet. Low-protein diets, vegetarian diets, and high levels of alcohol consumption can cause zinc deficiency – as can certain medications including ACE inhibitors and stomach acid reducers.
7. Tribulus terrestris
The root and fruit of the tribulus terrestris plant have been used medicinally in traditional Chinese medicine and Indian Ayurveda medicine. While animal studies have proven effective, despite various marketing claims, tribulus terrestris does not appear to increase testosterone in humans.
However, it does seem to increase libido. After taking up to 1,400mg of tribulus terrestris for 90 days, 67 per cent of women with very low libidos experienced increased sexual desire, a study published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology found. Similar results have been observed in male studies, too.
Hailing from the same family as soy, fenugreek has long been revered for its libido-enhancing properties. While scientific studies on fenugreek and sexual function are limited, certain compounds in the plant appear to stimulate the production of sex hormones oestrogen and testosterone.
In one small study published in the journal Phytotherapy Research, supplementing with 600mg of fenugreek extract daily improved sexual function in men. Another study in the same journal revealed that taking 600mg of fenugreek daily significantly improved sexual arousal and desire in women with low libido.
Native to Peru, the maca plant has traditionally been used to enhance fertility, sexual desire, energy and stamina. Sometimes referred to as Peruvian ginseng, it's classed as a cruciferous vegetable – like broccoli and kale – mainly grows at very high altitudes in the Andes mountain range.
Unlike broccoli and kale, however, maca has been certified as a sex drive-booster. A review of the existing science by Pusan National University concluded that maca improves sexual desire – but only after at least six weeks of supplementation. A study by Cayetano Heredia University found it increases the volume, count and motility of sperm.
Sex and relationship resources
For further advice about sexual function or any other relationship or sexual concerns you might have, try one of the following resources:
NHS.UK to check for any medical issues or be referred to a therapist
Brook for under 25
Last updated: 04-01-2021
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