Many people — especially longtime couples and older folks — lack libido; Can certain spices perk up desire?
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":
- Ginger Lime Halibut Salad
- Triple-Citrus Ginger Sablefish
- Spot Prawns with Teriyaki-Ginger Glaze
- Seared Halibut or Cod with Chiles and Ginger
- Halibut Baked in Parchment with Cilantro and Ginger
- Alaskan Sockeye Salmon with Orange-Ginger Compound Butter
Or, try these recipes for the Moroccan dish known as tagine, which features ginger, cinnamon, and clove:
- Lamb Tagine by Melissa Clark for The New York Times.
- Chicken Tagine with Olives, Cilantro and Lemons by Einat Admony for O (Oprah) magazine
- Bode AM and Dong Z. Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects (2nd edition). 2011. CRC Pres/Taylor & Francis. Chapter 7.
- Costello RB, Dwyer JT, Saldanha L, Bailey RL, Merkel J, Wambogo E. Do Cinnamon Supplements Have a Role in Glycemic Control in Type 2 Diabetes? A Narrative Review. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2016 Nov;116(11):1794-1802. doi: 10.1016/j.jand.2016.07.015. Epub 2016 Sep 8. Review.
- Deng XY, Xue JS, Li HY, Ma ZQ, Fu Q, Qu R, Ma SP Geraniol produces antidepressant-like effects in a chronic unpredictable mild stress mice model. Physiol Behav. 2015 Dec 1;152(Pt A):264-71. doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2015.10.008. Epub 2015 Oct 8.
- Hoffmann KM, Herbrechter R, Ziemba PM, Lepke P, Beltrán L, Hatt H, Werner M, Gisselmann G. Kampo Medicine: Evaluation of the Pharmacological Activity of 121 Herbal Drugs on GABAA and 5-HT3A Receptors. Front Pharmacol. 2016 Jul 29;7:219. doi: 10.3389/fphar.2016.00219. eCollection 2016.
- Khan A, Safdar M, Ali Khan MM, Khattak KN, Anderson RA Cinnamon improves glucose and lipids of people with type 2 diabetes. Diabetes Care. 2003 Dec;26(12):3215-8.
- Kimura I, Kimura M, Pancho LR Modulation of eicosanoid-induced contraction of mouse and rat blood vessels by gingerols. Jpn J Pharmacol. 1989 Jul;50(3):253-61.
- Lindau ST, Schumm LP, Laumann EO, Levinson W, O'Muircheartaigh CA, Waite LJ. A study of sexuality and health among older adults in the United States. N Engl J Med. 2007 Aug 23;357(8):762-74.
- Lindau ST, Gavrilova N. Sex, health, and years of sexually active life gained due to good health: evidence from two US population based cross sectional surveys of ageing. BMJ. 2010 Mar 9;340:c810. doi: 10.1136/bmj.c810.
- Mang B, Wolters M, Schmitt B, Kelb K, Lichtinghagen R, Stichtenoth DO, Hahn A. Effects of a cinnamon extract on plasma glucose, HbA, and serum lipids in diabetes mellitus type 2. Eur J Clin Invest. 2006 May;36(5):340-4.
- Martinez DM, Barcellos A, Casaril AM, Savegnago L, Lernardão EJ Antidepressant-like activity of dehydrozingerone: involvement of the serotonergic and noradrenergic systems. Pharmacol Biochem Behav. 2014 Dec;127:111-7. doi: 10.1016/j.pbb.2014.10.010. Epub 2014 Oct 31.
- Marx W, McKavanagh D, McCarthy AL, Bird R, Ried K, Chan A, Isenring L The Effect of Ginger (Zingiber officinale) on Platelet Aggregation: A Systematic Literature Review. PLoS One. 2015 Oct 21;10(10):e0141119. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0141119. eCollection 2015. Erratum in: PLoS One. 2015;10(11):e0143675.
- Mishra RK, Singh SK Safety assessment of Syzygium aromaticum flower bud (clove) extract with respect to testicular function in mice. Food Chem Toxicol. 2008 Oct;46(10):3333-8. doi: 10.1016/j.fct.2008.08.006. Epub 2008 Aug 15.
- Murphy C, Schubert CR, Cruickshanks KJ, Klein BE, Klein R, Nondahl DM Prevalence of olfactory impairment in older adults. JAMA. 2002 Nov 13;288(18):2307-12.
- Musicki B, Kramer MF, Becker RE, Burnett AL Inactivation of phosphorylated endothelial nitric oxide synthase (Ser-1177) by O-GlcNAc in diabetes-associated erectile dysfunction. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2005 Aug 16;102(33):11870-5. Epub 2005 Aug 5.
- Pancho LR, Kimura I, Unno R, Kurono M, Kimura M Reversed effects between crude and processed ginger extracts on PGF2 alpha-induced contraction in mouse mesenteric veins. Jpn J Pharmacol. 1989 Jun;50(2):243-6.
- Saenghong N, Wattanathorn J, Muchimapura S, Tongun T, Piyavhatkul N, Banchonglikitkul C, Kajsongkram T Zingiber officinale Improves Cognitive Function of the Middle-Aged Healthy Women. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2012;2012:383062. doi: 10.1155/2012/383062. Epub 2011 Dec 22.
- Schubert CR, Cruickshanks KJ, Nondahl DM, Klein BE, Klein R, Fischer ME Association of exercise with lower long-term risk of olfactory impairment in older adults. JAMA Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2013 Oct;139(10):1061-6. doi: 10.1001/jamaoto.2013.4759.
- Serby MJ and Chobor KL (eds.). The Science of Olfaction. 2012. Springer Science & Business Media. p. 22.
- Sonavane GS, Sarveiya VP, Kasture VS, Kasture SB Anxiogenic activity of Myristica fragrans seeds. Pharmacol Biochem Behav. 2002 Jan-Feb;71(1-2):239-44.
- Swenson R. Review of clinical and functional neuroscience. Dartmouth Medical School, 2006. Accessed at https://www.dartmouth.edu/~rswenson/NeuroSci/chapter_9.html
- Tajuddin, Ahmad S, Latif A, Qasmi IA Effect of 50% ethanolic extract of Syzygium aromaticum (L.) Merr. & Perry. (clove) on sexual behaviour of normal male rats. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2004 Nov 5;4:17.
- Tajuddin, Ahmad S, Latif A, Qasmi IA Aphrodisiac activity of 50% ethanolic extracts of Myristica fragrans Houtt. (nutmeg) and Syzygium aromaticum (L) Merr. & Perry. (clove) in male mice: a comparative study. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2003 Oct 20;3:6.
- Tajuddin, Ahmad S, Latif A, Qasmi IA, Amin KM An experimental study of sexual function improving effect of Myristica fragrans Houtt. (nutmeg). BMC Complement Altern Med. 2005 Jul 20;5:16.
- Talaei B, Amouzegar A, Sahranavard S, Hedayati M, Mirmiran P, Azizi F Effects of Cinnamon Consumption on Glycemic Indicators, Advanced Glycation End Products, and Antioxidant Status in Type 2 Diabetic Patients. Nutrients. 2017 Sep 8;9(9). pii: E991. doi: 10.3390/nu9090991.
- Waggas AM. Neuroprotective evaluation of extract of ginger (Zingiber officinale) root in monosodium glutamate-induced toxicity in different brain areas male albino rats. Pak J Biol Sci. 2009 Feb 1;12(3):201-12.
- Sarveiya VP, Kasture VS, Kasture SB Anxiogenic activity of Myristica fragrans seeds. Pharmacol Biochem Behav. 2002 Jan-Feb;71(1-2):239-44.
- What Is Anosmia? Accessed at http://www.webmd.com/brain/anosmia-loss-of-smell#1.