Let’s talk about sex ... and the lack thereof.
Among folks who aren't getting enough romance, lack of libido is a common cause.
Hormones can be the problem, and doctors often prescribe testosterone for low libido.
But libido is a complex thing, and the role played by our olfactory sense often gets overlooked.
Pardon the pun, but lifting your libido — and/or your partner's — can be a matter of common scents.
The role of scent in sex: It’s all about the brain
Many of Sigmund Freud’s ideas about psychology have since been discarded as fanciful.
But he was right to endorse people's ancient belief in the ability of scent to spark desire, and to presume it has a biological basis.
Freud reportedly advised some patients — oddly and impractically — to repress their olfactory sense, lest they walk around in a constant state of arousal!
The olfactory bulb is the only part of your brain that extends outside your skull. When you inhale, odor molecules get absorbed and filtered by the olfactory bulb, which passes scent-related signals to your hypothalamus — a major player in sexual response.
Dartmouth Medical School put it this way: “… many complex behaviors are patterned by the hypothalamus, including sexual responses … the hypothalamus requires … inputs from most of the body as well as from olfaction [sensing smells] …”. (Swenson R 2006)
The hypothalamus is part of the brain’s limbic system, which is critical to emotional feelings.
And when we inhale aromatic chemicals, they attach to receptors in the hypothalamus, which may explain why scents can raise — or lower— mood and libido.
Before exploring the traditions and evidence around spicy scents and libido, let's probe the roles that aging — and sensitivity to smell — play in human sex drive.
Libido doesn't naturally decline with age
Advertising, movies, TV, and the Internet all reflect — and reinforce — a cultural bias toward youth.
Judging by pop culture, sex is for the young, and people in their 50s — certainly folks over 60 — have little or no libido.
But research reveals the baseless naure of the media's explicit and implicit messages about libido and aging — in fact, many grandmas and grandpas have still got it going on.
For example, in 2007, researchers from the University of Chicago reported that people aged 57 or older remain very interested in sex, and actively participate (Lindau ST et al. 2007).
The Chicago team found that 85 percent of those between the ages of 57 and 65 felt sex was important, and 69 percent had been sexually active during the prior year.
Seventy-five percent of those aged 66-75 considered sex important, and 50 percent said they were sexually active.
The University of Chicago study revealed that 31 percent of people between the ages of 76 and 85 were sexually active, 54 percent were having sex at least two to three times a month, and 23 percent were sexually active once a week or more.
That said, good health is essential to sexual desire and performance, and women tend to lose their libido earlier in life than men.
A later University of Chicago study confirmed that gap between the genders: "Sexual activity, good quality sexual life, and interest in sex were higher for men than for women and this gender gap widened with age ... but men lost more years of sexually active life as a result of poor health than women." (Lindau ST et al. 2010).
Loss of libido: Is lack of smell partly to blame?
In order for scents to exert libidinous effects, you need a healthy sense of smell.
Unfortunately, as people age, the sensitivity of their sense of smell often declines.
According to a study from San Diego State University and the University of California, “Prevalence of olfactory impairment among older adults is high and increases with age.” (Murphy C et al. 2002)
Of the 2,491 older men and women (average age 69 years) who participated, nearly 25 percent suffered from an impaired sense of smell, and more than 62 percent of those aged 80 to 97 had lost their sense of smell almost entirely.
Possible impediments include smoking, chronic nasal congestion, and use of antidepressants or pain-relieving NSAIDs (ibuprofen, naproxen, aspirin, etc.), which can impair your ability to detect and decipher particular aromas.
Encouragingly, a study from the University of Wisconsin found that regular exercise can reduce the risk of losing your sense of smell as you age (Schubert CR et al. 2013).
Scent-sational ways to stimulate sexual desire
Science has yet to discover a "universal" aphrodisiac.
What excites one person may leave the next unmoved — but the search goes on.
Everything from oysters, ginger, rosemary, and bananas to animal parts, licorice, and figs have been touted as aphrodisiacs.
Throughout the 18th to 19th centuries, Western physicians and herbalists considered vanilla an aphrodisiac, with some claiming it could cure impotence.
Chocolate's sexy reputation, which arose during the same period, persists today and seems credible, because cocoa contains mood-elevators that may help also lift libido.
It's definitely worth leveraging the potential power of scent to boost your libido — or lift a partner's level of desire.
Venerable folk traditions, backed by some evidence, hold that four aromatic spices — cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and nutmeg — can lift libido, and act as aphrodisiacs.
Experiment, to see whether one or more can extend their heat beyond the kitchen and into the bedroom!
When Western traders — including Crusaders — returned from the Middle East or Asia, they brought cinnamon, among other sprices.
Aside from its attractive scent and flavor, cinnamon became prized because of its reputation as an aphrodisiac.
In addition to short-term libido stimulation, cinnamon may help long-term, through its ability — albeit an inconsistent one— to lower high blood sugar levels, which are linked to erectile dysfunction and loss of libido (Costello RB et al. 2016).
Ancient peoples across Persia, Egypt, and Arabia considered this spicy scent an aromatic aphrodisiac.
In the Sudan, women make a potion that consists of clove mixed with musk, cherry, and sandalwood, which they reportedly wear to wedding parties to attract a potential future partner.
Indian researchers found that (in male rodents) low doses of clove raised levels of both libido and testosterone: a hormone as critical to women’s sex drive as it is to men’s (Tajuddin et al. 2003; Tajuddin et al. 2004; Mishra RK et al. 2008).
And the aroma of clove is proven to relieve anxiety and stress in rodents. That effect — if it's applicable to people — should aid romance (Hoffmann KM et al. 2016).
Among the potential reasons for its romantic reputation, ginger can boost attention and mood, and possibly aid blood circulation (Waggas AM et al. 2009; Martinez DM et al. 2014; Marx W et al. 2015).
Ginger acquired a reputation as the spice of “burning desire” — thanks in part to medieval-era Persian physician Avicenna (Ibn Sīnā), whose works became highly influential across Europe and the Middle East.
Avicenna mixed ginger with honey as a supposed cure for impotence — a condition for which it probably didn't work very well, unless by "impotence" he really meant "low libido".
Women in Senegal reputedly wear a belt made of ginger root to attract a man, while natives of New Guinean allegedly employ ginger’s strong scent to entice or excite a partner.
The Chinese are particularly fond of nutmeg’s aphrodisiac qualities, claiming that it invigorates desire and elicits rapturous feelings.
Early American colonists — men and women alike — often added nutmeg to their nightcaps, possibly because they knew it could spark romantic notions.
Rodent studies show that the spice revs up sexual desire in male rodents (Tajuddin et al. 2003; Tajuddin et al. 2005)
And, like clove, nutmeg has been shown to relieve anxiety and stress in rodents (Sarveiya VP et al. 2002).
Get some spicy magic going
Spread the scents of these spices in your bedroom, bathroom, or wherever tickles your fancy.
Just set out spice-scented candles, diffuse essential spice oils, or spread a spicy potpourri.
And you can start a romantic evening by cooking a dinner or a dessert infused with these erotic spices.
Cook it with ginger
Our recipe archive includes many that include ginger as a primary seasoning, including these — you'll find more if you search our website for "ginger recipe":
Or, try these recipes for the Moroccan dish known as tagine, which features ginger, cinnamon, and clove: