The word 'aphrodisiac' comes from the name of the Greek goddess Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, whose name also meant 'sexual pleasure'. Therefore, an aphrodisiac is something that arouses sexual desire. It could be a substance such as a chemical (drug), but it could also be a sensory stimulant - visual (watching an intimate movie), audio (listening to sultry music), olfactory (a suggestive scent), taste (some foods are said to elicit amorous feelings), and/or touch (in just the right places and with the right intention).
From an herbal perspective, there are several that are considered to have aphrodisiac effects. One of the most common is damiana (Turnera diffusa), which is native to Mexico and South America and was traditionally used by the Mayans and Aztecs to enhance sexual stamina. Modern research indicates that damiana leaf and flower influences the nitrous oxide (NO) pathway, NO being the substance that stimulates blood flow to the reproductive organs, preparing for and enhancing a sexual encounter. Damiana can also calm anxiety and nervousness, has a tonic effect on the digestive system, and has also been shown to have estrogenic activity which supports vaginal moisture.
The fruit and roots of exotic-sounding herb, gokshura (Tribulus terrestris), are another popular aphrodisiac due to its ability to increase testosterone and DHEA (a precursor of testosterone) levels in men and FSH (follicle stimulating hormone) and estrogen in females. From an arousal standpoint, gokshura also stimulates dopamine (the 'pleasure hormone') production and NO, described above.
Next we have horny goat weed (Epimedium spp.), which really shines when it comes to addressing erectile dysfunction in men.Like the pharmaceutical Viagra, horny goat weed inhibits PDE-5, an enzyme that breaks down the enzyme that causes blood to pool in the penis, which results in prolonged erection. It also exhibits mild androgenic activity in men as well as women; thus this herb can be useful for both in enhancing sexual health and libido.
Kapi kacchu (Mucuna pruriens), sometimes just known as 'mucuna' contains L-dopa, a precursor to dopamine. L-dopa has been used in both men and women to treat anorgasmia (the inability to reach orgasm), making the seeds of this plant an invaluable herbal ally in sexual health. As a bonus, kapi kacchu also inhibits prolactin production - high levels of which may contribute to erectile dysfunction.
Though not strictly aphrodisiacs, I also like to mention two reproductive tonic herbs. The first is shatavari (Asparagus racemosus - yes, a relative of asparagus), whose Ayurvedic name roughly translates at "She who has 100 husbands". For women, shatavari root is known as an 'emmenogogue' for its tonic and moistening properties of uterine and vaginal tissue, it has mild estrogenic activity, and it is also calming and nourishing.
For the gentlemen, saw palmetto (Serenoa repens) is a palm of which the berries are widely used for prostate health. Clinically, saw palmetto inhibits the production of DHT, DHT being a byproduct of the breakdown of testosterone that can cause prostate enlargement.
I hope you learned some useful information about herbal aphrodisiacs. For more information about the physiology of sexual health, visit my companion piece on the AskTheHerbalists blog.