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Do herbal aphrodisiacs truly exist?

The answer is twofold:

  • YES, when it comes to warming herbs that reinvigorate the heart/kidney Qi, blood and spirit: herbs that stoke not just the fire of our libido, but of our digestion and overall zest for life.
  • NO, when it comes to the interpretation of “aphrodisiacs” as silver bullets that somehow push us to magically feel one way without addressing the roots that underpin why we are feeling disconnected from desire or pleasure. 

When one is struggling with their relationship to sensuality and excitement, this may also reflect a disconnect in other areas of life — community, passion and the joy of life in general.

In herbalism, this is often part of a cold or stagnant tissue state. It’s something that so many of us experience, and should never be a source of shame. Life can be extremely difficult and many of us are still learning our tools and how to feel safe in our bodies.

In fact, this frequently goes back to stress: the mind overriding our primal inclinations due to chronic fight/flight mode, shame and/or trauma, nervous system imbalance leading to feelings of distress or nervousness, or even an inability to feel truly “incarnated” our physical body ~ to slow down enough to invite pleasure in. There are several physiological factors that can be involved as well, including hormone imbalances, blood circulation, and more.

WHAT ARE “APHRODISIAC” HERBS, REALLY?

“Aphrodisiac” herbs are not sexual tonics, but rather, they are what one of my herbalism teachers called “wonder tonics.” They “increase interest and the desire to experience your human body and all that is possible.”

In essence, these are all plants that work on the nervous system and HPA axis in some way, especially with the mind and the heart at the forefront. While not miraculous cures, warming and heart opening “aphrodisiac” herbs, combined with more connection, movement, and outward expression, can slowly and gently help warm up a stagnant state… supporting not just libido but digestion, mood, and our ability to engage with life with more courage and ease.

What we call “aphrodisiacs” are actually:

  • herbs that are relaxing, grounding, invigorating, warming, Blood or Qi moving, and toning to the pelvic area.
  • herbs that are mind-clearing, Shen-nourishing that connect the mind, body and heart in order to promote deep presence and intimacy.
  • herbs that warm and loosen blocks within the perceived self and emotional body, helping to bring you into your body safely.
  • herbs that nourish and calm the nervous system in order to support us in the face of stress and tension that may be hindering our ability to feel fully connected with ourselves (and thus, those we love). our nervous system needs to be balanced and flexible in order to offer us the possibility of entering into a parasympathetic state of rest and relaxation. 
  • herbs that support hormone balance and promote blood flow and vitality to the pelvic area to disperse congestion.
  • herbs that promote connection and intimacy.

WHAT ARE THE BLOCKAGES TO INTIMACY + LIBIDO?

There are several obstacles that can contribute to low libido.

Physically, factors can include: hormone imbalances (testosterone/progesterone/estrogen), chronic stress + high cortisol, adrenal exhaustion, fatigue, lack of proper blood flow to the sex organs, poor digestion which can affect not just our aforementioned blood circulation but our mood via the gut-brain axis, microbiome imbalances that may contribute to an unhealthy inflammatory response, and more.

Emotional factors can include: a lack of intimacy with the self, a dissociation from the body/the present moment, a lack of trust in yourself or your intimate partner, work-related stress or unhappiness, overwhelm (this is a big one that I hear so often and have felt myself!), comparison to others or an outward gaze that can affect the way that one may feel as though they are ‘enough’, a lack of mental clarity and most importantly mental fogginess that leads to an inability to be present.

WHY BLOOD CIRCULATION IS KEY

Blood circulation is one of the physical factors mentioned above, and it’s something I don’t think we give enough attention to when it comes to libido: desire, arousal and sensation.

Healthy blood flow truly is life — it’s one of the most important things we must be mindful about and fiercely protect for long term health and longevity. For example, your cognitive function can begin to suffer or even decline if your brain is receiving inadequate blood supply, nutrients, and oxygen to its crucial tissues. Reduced blood flow can also affect us by making us cold (especially cold hands and feet as blood is having a harder time reaching the farthest tissues) and is a factor involved in thyroid disorders and Raynaud’s.

In the context of intimacy, reduced blood circulation can lead to erectile dysfunction in men (which is something that is quite noticeable for the person physically) — yet in women, it’s not so obvious. Yet blood flow absolutely can play a role in our ability to feel stimulated, the ability for our tissues to engorge and become more sensitive to sensation, and even our ability to feel desire in the pleasure centers of the brain. Healthy blood flow to the reproductive system and pelvic area helps to heighten our physical senses and supports us in becoming and staying aroused.

Herbs that move blood and Qi (energy) keep the fluids of the body flowing as well which can promote stamina, lubrication and endurance through our sexual performance

Because the heart is at the center of the body’s circulatory system, it’s important to have a healthy heart if you aim for optimal circulation everywhere else in your body. A healthy, strong heart gives a better chance to protect our blood flow as we age, and also contributes to our ability to keep our “Shen” strong (aka keep the heart-mind clear, present and connected during intimacy with ourselves and our partners).

OUR FAVORITE HERBAL APHRODISIACS

1. Rose

Rose is a loving aphrodisiac, warming and moving our blood as it activates, heightens sensation, and opens us up to the sweet sensuality of the spectrum of pleasure us humans can tap into. The “heart” of its power lies in its ability to act as a blood mover and “pelvic decongestant,” breaking up stagnation and bringing movement to the area in order to tone and nourish the reproductive tissues. As a Shen tonic, Rose helps us to be more open and present, in our hearts and in our eyes and emotional connection, with our intimate partner.

On the other hand, as a “nervine” herb, Rose does not necessarily “support libido” by working on “libido.” Rose instead supports libido by easing the feelings of distress that act as blocks to any of the areas above: the mind, the heart, the nervous system and our ability to be in our body fully and presently. 

2. Damiana

Think of this warming herb as Mother Nature’s love potion: a passion-inspiring, digestion-supporting, mood-enhancing, nerve-calming powerhouse most commonly used as a supportive tonic for libido.

Damiana is your friend if you live in your head, helping to ease stress and worry, allowing one to better connect with their body, thus supporting deepened physical pleasure. Basically, instead of creating sexual energy out of thin air, it helps you focus in on and be present with the sensual nature that is already within you by calming and quieting distractions and worries.

However, just because Damiana is powerful for the mind doesn’t mean it’s only working in one place; Damiana is also said to have warming and stimulating effects on the body—helping to support and maintain the optimal flow of blood and oxygen to the pelvis, bringing energy down out of the mind and into the body. This herb’s blood-and-Qi moving properties are responsible for its ability to support heightened sensuality within the senses.

3. Cacao

As an all encompassing digestive, respiratory, and cardiac bitter, Cacao invigorates and fortifies the spirit, clears heat from the heart-mind, and maintains healthy blood flow. Traditionally used to ‘open the heart,’ this medicinal food and herb promotes connection and creativity by supporting the smooth flow of Qi.

As a stimulating and balancing bitter herb, Cacao helps to open the channels of the body; not just the heart, but the heart-mind or our “spirit,” perception and creativity. This herb is uniquely able to lift the mood with its moving and dispersing alkaloids and tannins that dredge up stagnant Liver Qi and get stagnant emotions flowing.

The action responsible for this effect may be the way Cacao supports healthy blood flow to the brain, supporting the circulatory system. This same blood-moving nature supports us in desire, arousal and sensation, as well as presence with an open and clear heart.

4. Cinnamon

Cinnamon is considered “pure yang” in its energetics, meaning it is extremely warming, active, stimulating, opening, and strengthening. Directly addressing the stomach, spleen, kidneys, and blood, Cinnamon can also enhance the Qi and blood tonic activity of other herbs. The twigs are typically used for dispelling wind-cold, while the bark warms the interior.

Traditionally, a small amount of cinnamon bark is added to formulas in order to enhance Qi and blood tonic activity of other herbs — making it the perfect aphrodisiac to enhance and potentiate other aphrodisiacs. Cinnamon also supports healthy blood sugar and insulin levels, assisting hormone balance (which can contribute to healthy libido) in a top-down fashion.

HOW TO USE APHRODISIAC HERBS

There are so many ways that you can bring more aphrodisiacs into your life: something as simple as rose, cardamom and cinnamon tea in the evening with your lover, or a homemade Damiana syrup using a recipe like this that we love so much for mocktails and cocktails!

This year, we created a formula that meets not only your digestive, but libido-supporting needs, and aptly named it “Spice it Up” Love Bitters. It’s a blend of the herbs mentioned above, along with a few others like Yohimbe and Orange Peel (which Dr. Jill Blakeway says helps to ‘drain our psychic weight down so that our spirit can lift up’).

In the moment, this spray supports our digestive juices and helps to combat occasional gas and bloating (as well as that sense of food stagnation that can totally take you out of the mood) — and then over time, this blend supports healthy hormones and a healthy libido with its warming, blood moving qualities. If you love our original Digestive Juice, this is a great way to switch it up and ‘stack’ herbal benefits with bitters you may not have tried before!

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