The Love Potion and its Antidote

 

Sex propels the world under Aphrodite's baneful glare—

we are all mortal, desire to satiate desire, guzzle cobra's

     blood and chocolate.

 

But has the time come, love, to recapture shame, idealistically—

calm the raging blood

     and destroy the goddess' red dreams?

 

Deny the pomegranate, love, for licorice root—

     the anaphrodisiac.

 

Is half a year in hell worth indefinite pleasure? a myth

turned on its head reveals a new story: Persephone curled

     up in an alley, dreaming about unnecessary sex.

 

          Aphrodisiacs, agents that increase sexual desire and performance, have been in use for thousands of years. Their use dates back almost to the beginning of recorded human history. The English word for such substances comes from the ancient Greek "aphrodisiakos" which in turn derives from the name of the Greek goddess of erotic love, sex and beauty, Aphrodite.

         Natural male aphrodisiacs include sex pheromones found in women's vaginal secretions, some of which have been characterized chemically. They prove to be mixtures of short chain fatty acids. These compounds, in the right proportions, stimulate the male's sensory neurons via the organs of taste and smell. However, the proper ratios of these volatile substances are hard to reproduce and control, and not everyone responds to the same ratios, making commercialization virtually impossible.

         Aphrodisiacs come in many forms, flavors and fragrances. Over the years, their sale has become a multibillion-dollar industry, much of it bogus. Perfumes, herbs, drugs, oils and certain foods have all been promoted and sold for their sex-enhancing effects. Common foods that claim to enhance sexual desire include nuts, chocolate and oysters. However, many other less readily available food sources such as animal genitalia have been marketed at tremendous cost to the hopeful but ignorant consumer. For example, seals' penises have been marketed as an aphrodisiac at ridiculously high prices, much to the detriment of the seal, which really had a use for his penis in the first place!

         Many agents have the reputation of arousing sexual desire. Spanish Fly, derived from crushed blister beetles, is famous for its purported aphrodisiacal effects, but in fact, it causes swelling and blistering of the skin and is poisonous when ingested in sufficient amounts. Its aphrodisiacal effects have never been scientifically documented. Cobra blood and ground rhino horns have also been sold for this purpose, but again, no evidence supports a sex-enhancing role. In ancient China, eating human genitals, menstrual blood and semen were all believed to increase sexual prowess. These beliefs even led to the practice of cannibalism in some early tribal cultures. It seems that the state of sexual arousal has been valued in innumerable societies.

         Returning to the modern era, we all know that effective aphrodisiacs are available in pill form. A single drug, Viagra (sildenafil citrate), first developed in England in 1989 as a potential hypertension drug, was successfully marketed as an aphrodisiac after almost 10 years of research. It is produced by Pfizer, a pharmaceutical company that has reaped billions of dollars from the sale of this one product. It sells at about $8.00 a pill, and millions of men take it regularly despite the fact that its success rate is only 70%, and it has been known to produce rather dramatic side effects that have even proven fatal to a few dozen men. Considering the monetary incentive and the harmful side effects of Viagra, it's amazing there aren't many more such drugs on the market for both men and women.

         If drug companies can make money selling aphrodisiacs, maybe they can also profit from selling anti-aphrodisiacs (anaphrodisiacs). With both types of drugs available, anyone could freely control his or her amorous feelings. For example, when students want to focus on their studies before an exam, they may want to suppress their distracting sexual feelings and fantasies. Then they may want to take an anti-aphrodisiacal pill. But when they're with their dreamboat, they might find it appropriate to take an aphrodisiac, and maybe even slip one in the drink of the hopeful lover!

Recently, Professor Fred Brown conducted a survey, asking hundreds of his students if they would choose to take anaphrodisiacs (which he called "abstinence pills") if freely available. Seven percent of the respondents said they would take them immediately; 52% said they would use them on occasion, and the remaining 41% answered that they would never use them. It seems clear, therefore, that there would be a tremendous market for such drugs. Several questions then arise: Are safe drugs currently available that suppress sexual desire? Are there natural products, for example, foods or herbs that inhibit these amorous feelings? What substances are in current use in our society to suppress undesired feelings of sexuality?

         A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that ingredients in licorice suppress sexual libido. Roots of the pea-like plant, Glycyrrhiza glabra (licorice root), from which licorice is extracted, contain active ingredients that may in part act by interfering with testosterone production. Ingesting 25 grams (less than one ounce) of licorice has a strong anaphrodisiacal effect. It is about as effective as smoking a marijuana joint.

Perhaps the most commonly used anaphrodisiacs in American society are alcoholic beverages and cigarettes. Because alcohol reduces inhibitions, it is often used to facilitate initiation of sexual activities, but careful studies have revealed that alcohol decreases arousal and makes achieving climax more difficult for both men and women. For this reason alcohol is a true anaphrodisiac. However, it can be addictive leading to alcoholism, and excessive use can cause diseases such as cirrhosis of the liver. Cirrhosis is one of the ten leading causes of death in the United States, making alcohol an unsafe solution.

         Cigarettes contain numerous alkaloids, but studies have led to the conclusion that nicotine is the primary active ingredient in cigarettes that decreases sexual libido. Unfortunately, nicotine is highly addictive. In fact, some studies have found it to be more addictive than heroin! Of even greater importance, smoking cigarettes has so many negative health consequences that it cuts an average of 20 years off a person's life. It causes lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema and many other serious health problems. Clearly, smoking cigarettes is not a plausible solution.

         What types of prescription anaphrodisiacal drugs are available? Basically, they fall into two categories: estrogens and anti-androgens. Most of the synthetic compounds currently used to curb the antisocial activities of sex offenders are anti-androgens as these are the most potent. However, the estrogenic drugs are in general gentler and safer.

         Androgens, including testosterone, the primary male sex steroid, have been shown to increase the sex drives of both men and women. Estrogens, of which estradiol is the primary female sex hormone, have the opposite effect. Both steroids are actually produced by both men and women, but androgens predominate in men while estrogens predominate in women. When estrogens are administered to men, they produce a variety of mild side effects such as tenderness and swelling of the nipples, and when taken in sufficient amounts over extended periods, they cause feminization. If applied to women, they can have definite beneficial effects, helping overcome depression and other psychological problems associated with menopause, for example. But they also increase the incidence of ovarian and breast cancers. In both sexes, estrogen therapy has been reported to increase the incidence of stroke and heart attack.

         What about anti-androgen drugs? Cyproterone acetate (CPA), a progesterone analogue, has been reported to have several potential side effects. These include fatigue, headaches, mood disturbances, loss of body hair, and breast development. It is nevertheless one of the drugs most frequently prescribed for habitual sex offenders. Another anti-androgen, medoxyprogesterone acetate (MPA) is an FDA-approved contraceptive, but it is also used as an anaphrodisiac for treating sexual abusers. Importantly, however, the dose required for decreasing the sex drive is about 40 times higher than that used for contraceptive purposes. While safe for contraception, it may therefore be risky for suppression of libido.

         Evidence has shown that a combination of estrogens and anti-androgens are highly effective because androgens and estrogens exert opposite effects. When used in combination, lower doses of both drugs suffice to cause the desired decrease in libido. However, not surprisingly, their combined use has been shown to exert synergistic effects in promoting feminization of the male body. In fact, several pharmaceutical companies market medications that combine these two types of drugs for men who wish to become more feminine.

         Based on all of this information, it seems clear that the currently available drugs for counteracting sexual libido create health risks and other side effects that may prove undesirable for a large segment of the population. Much more research will be required before safe anaphrodisiacs will be available in drug form for general use. For the present, then, it seems advisable for people seeking relief from excessive sexual arousal to avoid aphrodisiacs and drugs and just stick with licorice.

         But what about the side effects of licorice? Licorice root not only suppresses libido, due at least in part to its mild estrogenic content, it also has been reported to have numerous beneficial medicinal effects. These include cleansing of the colon, promoting adrenal gland function and countering respiratory ailments. Harmful side effects have not been documented scientifically. Because of this, licorice has affectionately been called "The Great Harmonizer," "Grandfather Herb," and "Sweetwood."

         Licorice has been valued historically for its beneficial applications. The Egyptians used it as early as the third century B.C. In fact, it was so valued, that King Tutankhamen was buried with a large supply, presumably to help him in his travels to the afterlife. It has been valued by many societies from the Greeks and Romans on up to the present. It is currently the second most prescribed herb in China.

         Licorice root contains all kinds of good things: nutrients, gums, oils, and glycyrrhizin, a natural sweetener 50 times sweeter than sugar. Licorice was even featured in Menotti's Christmas opera, "Amahl and the Night Visitors" in which one of the three kings sings: "This is my box, this is my box, I never travel without my box." At the end of the song, the king reveals that his box contains licorice.

         Even if this herb doesn't yield all of the claimed benefits, it will certainly do you less harm than taking drugs, drinking alcohol or smoking cigarettes. Additionally, because of its distinctive flavor, licorice root is used in a variety of delectables such as liqueurs, ice creams and candies. For the present, at least, it seems that the "Great Harmonizer" may prove to be the cheapest, safest and most effective anti-aphrodisiac available for general use.