Start with the unrelenting stress of modern life. Add a dash of dysregulated circadian rhythms, a pinch of endocrine-disrupting food additives and environmental toxins, and garnish with too much time spent sitting in front of computers and insufficient time outdoors in nature. What do you have? A recipe for sexual dysfunction.
With so many dietary, environmental, and emotional stressors bombarding people from all angles, it’s no wonder that sexual and reproductive dysfunction is so common among men and women alike. Sexual function is one of the first things “to go” in the face of the onslaught of physiological and psychological challenges to simply maintaining healthy homeostasis in the 21stCentury. With more important things to take care of—like just staying alive—libido and reproductive function in general tend to fall on the chopping block when the body tamps down non-essential functions. (Despite how much we might think a fulfilling sex life is essential, our evolutionarily hard-wired bodies would disagree.)
Whether after menopause, andropause, or among younger patients whose sexual function is taking a hit, people are on the lookout for natural compounds that can help boost libido and support reproductive health. (That is, assuming candlelit dinners and Isaac Hayes music fail to do the trick…)
Specific foods are regarded for their aphrodisiac qualities, such as oysters and pumpkin seeds (likely due to their zinc content), chocolate, figs, pomegranates, and strawberries. For individuals who may not enjoy these foods but are still in search of natural ways to get a boost, the damiana plant (Turnera diffusa) has some interesting potential.
Damiana is a shrub native to southwestern Texas, Central and South America, and the Caribbean. It blossoms in early to late summer, producing small, aromatic flowers followed by fruits that taste similar to figs. Owing to essential oils in the plant, damiana has a strong spice-like odor reminiscent of chamomile. For this reason, damiana has been used as the base in a traditional Mexican liqueur that is sometimes “used in lieu of triple sec in margaritas. Mexican folklore claims that it was used in the ‘original’ margarita.”
Apart from its use in alcoholic beverages, damiana has been used as an aphrodisiac in folk medicine. In a study of “sexually exhausted male rats” (one wonders how they determined that…) damiana administered at 80mg/kg “significantly increased the percentage of males achieving one ejaculatory series and resuming a second one.” (Observing this must just be all in a day’s work for some voyeuristic researchers!) There are many potential mechanisms for this effect, but one is that damiana is a natural aromatase inhibitor, which may help males maintain healthy testosterone levels. Another path by which damiana may be effective is via modulation of nitric oxide (NO). With NO’s role in supporting blood vessel dilation, and erectile dysfunction being one of the earliest signs of cardiovascular trouble in men, it makes sense that compounds in damiana that affect NO could lead to improved erectile function. Other compounds in damiana exhibit estrogenic activity, so it’s possible that the plant is an adaptogen, helping to normalize hormone imbalances, which could be beneficial for men and women alike.
Anxiolytic effects are another interesting property of damiana. In a mouse model of anxiety, apigenin—believed to be the principal bioactive component of damiana (specifically, the Turnera aphrodisiaca species)—was shown to significantly reduce signs of anxiety. The effects were observed as quickly as 30 minutes after oral administration, and were similar to those of diazepam. The anxiolytic properties of damiana likely go hand-in-hand with its aphrodisiac qualities: when someone is anxious, their stress response is on full alert and their mind is filled with racing thoughts about real and perceived “threats.” Having sex isn’t going to be among their top priorities.
As for that romantic dinner, maybe things would be helped along by replacing wine with that damiana liqueur!