Sex & Relationships

Can Herbal Supplements Give You Better Sex?

They can get things started, but if you're super-stressed, no pill or potion can fix it.

Photo Credit: Yuriy Rudyy / Shutterstock

There is no shortage of libido enhancers available, from branded products, to generic vitamins and minerals, to herbal supplements like ginger and maca, to simple foods you can eat like pumpkin seeds, celery, and watermelon. What works?

The answer to that, says Ellen Barnard, a sex educator and counselor at A Woman's Touch Sexuality Resource Center, requires an understanding of what libido is in order to know what might improve it.

Libido is "not simple and it's not just physical," Barnard says. "Literally, libido as originally defined by Freud is psychic energy that drives one toward sex. Right there," she continues, the words "psychic energy tells you a lot....Libido starts in the mind... however, the mind and the body work really close together."

Often, we feel that libido begins in the body. Both men and women experience blood flow to their genitals. "If you notice that blood flow to your genitals," explains Barnard, "it's a sensation. They get heavier, or women start getting a little bit wet, or men start getting a little erection—or a lot of erection, and their brain says, 'ooh, sex, that's a really good idea.'"

But if one is stressed or feels unsafe, their brain says that's not a good idea and shuts the desire for sex down. For Barnard, the key to enhancing one's libido is to ask "how do we set up circumstances where the mind says that's a good idea?"

On the physical side, one needs to have enough blood flow so that blood can flow to their genitals. Some libido enhancing supplements aim to support blood flow. Barnard believes that even though there are herbs that can help with this, "a healthy diet is the best way to support blood flow." (This article on libido enhancers recommends so many healthy whole foods—pumpkin seeds, watermelon, dark chocolate, strawberries, asparagus, garlic, bananas, halibut, walnuts—that it's basically a recommendation to eat a healthy diet.)

Both men and women get erections, Barnard informs. "Women don't see their erections but actually that thing you feel is your clitoris filling with blood." While some claim watermelon has a "Viagra-like effect," Barnard emphasizes that the thing only proven to have a Viagra-like effect is actual Viagra. One would need to eat a large number of whole watermelons in a single sitting to see any effect from it. In women, scientists think testosterone amplifies the sensation of arousal that they feel in the genitals, but Barnard counters that the overall body of research to date is inconclusive.

She identifies two different issues one may have that interfere with this process of arousal outlined above (step one, genitals fill with blood; step two, your brain decides sex is a good idea). One problem may be that your genitals are not filling with blood on their own accord, giving your brain the signal to consider whether it wants sex right now. Second, your brain might decide sex is not a good idea.

If your problem is that your body is not taking the lead, then your mind will have to do it. "When we are young, we feel those sensations so often and when we fall in love, those sensations are so loud. But that's a temporary thing," Barnard explains. So if your body is not giving your mind cues to desire sex, you must train your mind to pick up the slack on its own. But that can be done.

Sex therapists call this tactic "responsive desire." Barnard explains it this way: "Your physical responses are kind slow and not as obvious [but] it doesn't mean you can't teach your mind to think about sex and want sex." Instead, you can "invite sex in a deliberate way instead of waiting for it to happen."

"We can do things like making sex dates and putting them on the calendar and then noticing and getting interested and planning for it," says Barnard. "It's like two days of foreplay." You think about your upcoming date, and plan for it. What are you going to wear? What will you do? Is there an erotic story you want to read to your partner? A new position you'd like to try? A sexy film you want to watch? Barnard calls that "the deliberate and conscious inviting in of sexy thoughts."

In short, she says, "We're used to letting the body start the process. All of those supplements are things that will make the physical sensations speak louder and they may or may not work," but you don't need them if you let your body take the lead.

As an afterthought, she adds, "the placebo effect always works a little bit." If something you've tried works for you, who cares whether it really works or it's the placebo effect? It's working. But you may be spending quite a bit of money, and you'll want to make sure the supplement you're using does not have any harmful side effects. If it's the placebo effect that's doing the job, she says that you might as well get it from fruits, veggies, exercise, and putting a sex date on the calendar.

The second issue is that your mind may not think sex is a good idea. This could happen if your body does not feel like you are in a safe enough place to have sex. It may be that you physically do not feel safe with, or attracted to your partner, but it could be as simple as being preoccupied with work or fearing the baby could wake up or your kid might walk on in you any moment.

"That's often the thing that happens that makes people start worrying about their libido," Barnard explains. "It's actually their mind worrying about other things that are going on... and short circuiting the whole process and just shutting it down."

Several other potential life stressors may make your body unable to relax enough for sex. If your partner cheated on you, the sense of betrayal might make you feel unsafe. If you have a history of trauma, your body may never feel fully safe. "When women have pain during sex, their brains say 'whoa baby don't do that again' and they literally shut everything down and they lose their libido," she adds.

The key to this aspect of libido is the autonomic nervous system. Your autonomic nervous system rotates between sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest). When you are in fight or flight mode, your body prepares to run or fight. That's no time to take a nap, digest food, or reproduce. You need to run away from that bear! (Or in the modern day version, you need to get that big report to your boss in an hour, or get both kids dressed, fed, done with homework, and to school on time so you can get to work.)

Can you have sex while you're stressed? Yes.

"People have sex in all kinds of stressful situations," says Barnard. "Some people actually get a charge out of a little bit of fear." But, she emphasizes, not a lot of fear like "I am going to fall off this balcony any moment." Additionally, you can even have an orgasm if you are stressed, because that can be a reflex. Your body may be shut down, and you can even be dissociated if the sexual experience you are having is traumatic to you. Your body will do the part of sex that is a reflex, but your brain will not experience the full enjoyment of intimacy and an orgasm that it does when you are relaxed and you feel safe.

If this is your problem, no pill or supplement will fix it.

If your feeling of not being safe comes from trauma—or even if you were raised in a strict religious home to believe that sex is bad, solving the problem is "a process of retraining and undoing" and "it takes a long time and effort," says Barnard. There are several different approaches to healing trauma, and a mental health therapist, particularly one who specializes in trauma, can help.

In short, you need to feel safe and be free of pain to have a healthy libido, in addition to having all of the physical components in place (e.g. good blood flow). And, Barnard elaborates, "safe is defined a lot of different ways, from literally in fear for your life all the way down to the simpler 'I don't feel safe because I'm afraid my kid's going to walk in on me."

As a final thought, she notes that, "libido goes up and down depending on what's going on in [your] life" and that's normal.

Jill Richardson writes about food, agriculture, the environment, health, and well-being. Currently pursuing a PhD in Sociology at University of Wisconsin-Madison, she’s the author ofRecipe for America: Why Our Food System is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It.