If love and romance were meant only for Valentine's Day, all our babies would be born in November. Luckily, amore is in season all year long! Sex, like eating, is a primal urge that should provide some of the greatest satisfaction and joy that life has to offer.
No one knows the true origin of Valentine's Day. Legend has it that St. Valentine was a third-century priest imprisoned by the Romans for secretly marrying young men who would otherwise have been prime candidates for military conscription under the reign of Emperor Claudius II. As for the Valentine's Day cards we exchange, another legend was that when St. Valentine was imprisoned he became enamored with his jailer's daughter and sent her love notes.
Alternatively, Valentine's Day could simply be the product of the church conveniently designating a holiday to coincide with a Roman fertility festival honoring Faunus, the Roman God of agriculture (February 15). Whatever the origin, by the Middle Ages, Valentine's Day was one of the most popular celebrations throughout Europe.
Let's Do It! (Or Maybe Not?): Sexual Taboos
Have you ever wondered why throughout civilization there have been so many sexual taboos? Could it be that the many creative expressions of humanity happen, more or less as a result of sexual repression?
If truth be known, most of us have had reason to lament the fact that just as we try to restrain, twist and contort our gustatory inclinations to deny ourselves the occasional banana split or chocolate sundae, we also try in vain to repress our eroticism. No wonder so many of us are depressed.
When grandmama whose age is eighty, in night clubs is getting matey with gigolos, anything goes!
-- from "Anything Goes" sung by Ella Fitzgerald
"Old" age is just one supposed restriction to enjoying sex.
Not so for the 70,000 residents living in some 40,000 homes who are spending their '˜golden years' at a retirement community called "The Villages" at Lady Lake, Fla. According to a recent article in Fox News, these folks are not wasting any more of their precious time in erotic self-denial. With a female to male ratio of 10 to one, it is a virtual widower's paradise where inhibitions are shed at the slightest inclination. It's not unusual to stumble upon a casual amorous encounter happening on a golf cart. Rumor has it that there is a very active black market in Viagra both for men and women at The Villages. Why not? With families raised, no need for contraception, and obligations and responsibilities to a significant other a thing of the past, I think these people are just making up for lost time.
Do we ever get too old to partake of the joy of sex? For most of us, the answer is NO. Armed with little more than some lubricant (or, in the case of folks at The Villages, an occasional half tab of black market Viagra), most of us remain good to go all the way to the end of our days. So long as we have an appetite for food, we should have an appetite for sex.
We're all alone, no chaperone
can get our number
The world's in slumber
-- from "Let's Misbehave" sung by Eartha Kitt
Unsurprisingly, religion and spiritual practice present sexual taboos as well.
As a practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine, I've had various opportunities to consider the Chinese Taoist teaching that is the bane of women married to too-serious martial artists: that the male should never ejaculate for fear of losing some precious life essence. In my opinion, this is just another form of invasion of the bedroom by a restrictive society. We see evidence in some species that male energy spent as ejaculation is a prelude to death, but for humans, current scientific research shows that sex promotes health.
Let's face it: we only live once. As an herbalist, I suggest that the best aphrodisiac is when we reserve sex as the last frontier of our essential wildness. As long as it's between consenting adults, let's get the government, along with the clerics, hypocritical moralists, and ascetic martial artists out of our bedrooms - or wherever else you choose to "misbehave."
Causes for Low Libido
Just as decreased appetite is an indication of disease or impending illness, so also is a sagging libido. Nowadays, doctors not only don't inquire about a patient's appetite, but they wouldn't dare ask about one's libido. For most of us, a good appetite in all departments is a sign of wellbeing. So if that's you, perhaps you have something to rejoice about.
There are some physiological reasons for low libido. Certainly as we get on in years (despite what you might hear about some of the residents at The Villages), we can expect things to slow down as our hormones diminish. In Chinese medicine these hormones are all encompassed by the concept of Kidney Yang and Kidney Yin with herbs specifically indicated for each. Specifically, the Kidney Yang herbs support the production of all those hormones that increase our motivation in all ways, including sexual appetite. These include testosterone, estrogen, and the androgynous hormones that are necessary and present in varying degrees in both men and women.
One Kidney Yang herb used in Chinese medicine is Epimedium, aptly known as Horny Goatweed. Lesley describes this herb in her blog. I would only add that this is a common ornamental that can be purchased at most nurseries. One can periodically harvest the leaves; make tea or an alcoholic extract by macerating a good amount in a little vodka. This can then be taken in teaspoon doses once or twice a day.
The fact is, unless there are other physical disabilities such as diabetes or cardiovascular disease, there is no age limit for the world's number one pastime.
Side-effects of prescription drugs
Drugs are a major factor causing loss of libido. For example, the popular drug Proscar is commonly prescribed for Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia (BPH) - swollen prostate in common parlance. BPH usually does not occur before the age of 40, but approximately 50% of men in their 60s and 90% of men in their 90s develop this condition. It is characterized by the frequent urge to urinate, which can result in arising several times throughout the night.
Proscar and related pharmaceuticals treat BPH by altering testosterone metabolism, which in turn shrinks the swollen prostate. The drug's effect on testosterone metabolism, however, can cause diminished libido and erectile dysfunction. You could try having a "drug holiday" on weekends - that is, taking a break from your BPH drug for a couple of days - but it isn't clear if this would restore a man's sex drive. An option would be to ask your doctor whether a lower dose might solve the libido problem and still manage the prostate swelling.
So it seems that if you're suffering from BPH, you have to choose between frequent urination with normal erectile function, or a normal-sized prostate with problems getting going in the sack. What kind of a choice is that? The good news is, there are some natural alternatives to prescription drugs for BPH:
- Saw Palmetto Berries: Extensive European research on saw palmetto, a common berry found growing in abundance in southeast United States shows that saw palmetto is equally effective to Proscar but is not known to diminish libido, cause erectile dysfunction or any other side effects associated with the drug. Just as Proscar needs to be taken over a period of two to three months to effectively shrink the prostate, so too does saw palmetto need to be taken over time (usually not nearly as long as Proscar) to achieve similar positive results. Saw palmetto comes in the form of a standardized extract of 80- 90% fatty acids and is taken at the dose of 160 mg twice a day or 320 mg daily.
- Pumpkin Seeds: Eating a handful of shelled pumpkin seeds three times a week, or better yet daily, is an old time remedy for treating BPH. These contain protective compounds called phytosterols which may be responsible for shrinking the prostate. Like all prostate drugs and herbs these work by preventing the transformation of testosterone into dihydrotestosterone (DHT). High levels of DHT are associated with enlarged prostate. Pumpkin seeds have this action as well, but with no danger of loss of libido.
- Other approaches such as a low-fat diet, zinc supplements, and essential fatty acids (from sources such as fish or flax oil) and another herb, Pygeum africanum, are also useful for treating BPH.
Statin drugs and loss of libido
Millions of people in North America are presently on statin drugs making it the number one cash cow for pharmaceutical companies, but few read the small print of adverse side effects, one of which can be loss of libido. This is because statins interfere with our body's ability to create cholesterol and can cause a decrease of sex hormones with a concomitant dampening of Eros.
There is considerable controversy regarding the relation of elevated cholesterol and cardiovascular disease (CVD) because there has been no study demonstrating that high cholesterol causes CVD. In fact, studies show that nearly as many people with so-called normal to low cholesterol die of CVD as those with high cholesterol.
Cholesterol is a hormone precursor that has a strong genetic factor; some people naturally make more or less cholesterol. It is also a substance that the body manufactures as a result of stress. Be that as it may, if one wants to lower cholesterol, instead of taking statin drugs, try red yeast rice which is a more natural alternative with similar chemistry and results. Better yet, it is a far cheaper alternative to statin drugs and will not affect libido. I would still recommend taking a dose of Co Q10 along with the red yeast rice since statins are known to diminish this vital heart nutrient.
If you work out, you're more likely to make out
Finally, it seems like a no-brainer, but I have to mention that lack of physical fitness is another big factor in sexual dysfunction. It's been found that men who exercise regularly (especially with some strength training) rarely have performance problems. That's because exercise generates natural hormones that keep you youthful and able to enjoy sexual health.
Viagra works by enhancing circulation to the penis enabling its erection, and may work in women similarly, by increasing blood flow to the clitoris. L-arginine is an amino acid which in itself is not a cure for impotence or sexual dysfunction, but is used by the body as a vaso-dilator, benefitting circulation and endothelial function. Endothelial cells line the inner surface of blood vessels. Erectile dysfunction and endothelial dysfunction both share the common problem of impaired circulation, for which L-arginine is effective. As such, it is a good supplement to add to an herbal program to enhance sex. The difference is that while Viagra increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke, L-arginine decreases these risks and costs just pennies compared to the current market price of $15 a pill for Viagra.
Foods and herbs for enhanced sexual performance
- Oysters: These are high in zinc which is a necessary nutrient for fertility and male prostate and sexual health. You needn't be too concerned with the fact that oysters have the peculiar ability to change sex many times during their lifespan. They have a high reputation as a sexually nourishing food.
- Asparagus root: Asparagus, rich in hormone promoting steroidal glycosides, has a high reputation as an aphrodisiac. Both in China and India, the root of Asparagus racemosa is used to increase sperm count and nourish the ovum. Chinese herbalists believe that the Yin-nourishing qualities of asparagus root induce feelings of peace, compassion and love. Traditionally, Chinese herbalists would reserve the sweetest roots for their personal consumption. In India Asparagus root is known as shatavari, which literally means "she who possesses 100 husbands."
- Oregano: Whether it's used as a spice on pizza or in pasta sauce, oregano leaves may help to spice up one's love life. Homeopathic preparations of oregano are claimed to sexual excitability.
- Ashwagandha: Withania somnifera is considered the most important single herb in Indian Ayurvedic medicine. It is recommended as a rejuvenative tonic for general debility, brain fatigue, nervous exhaustion, impotence, general aphrodisiac purposes, low sperm count and lack of motility, infertility, and to prevent and treat habitual miscarriage. It works by normalizing male and female hormones. The powder can be taken in capsules, as a tablet, or as an alcoholic extract. One Ayurvedic aphrodisiac formula combines one part ashwagandha to 10 parts milk and one part ghee (clarified butter). You boil the mixture down until only ghee remains. This end product is called Ashwagandha Ghrita. The ancient texts recommend taking a heaping tablespoon of this mixture morning and evening. Eventually, one will experience a significant boost in vitality, libido and sexual stamina.
- Maca: Lepidium meyenii is an annual plant which produces a radish-like root. The root of maca is typically dried and stored, and will easily keep for seven years. The plant is cultivated in Peru's Central Highlands, and was highly revered by the Inca. Sometimes known as Peruvian ginseng, maca's sexual boosting properties for both men and women properties are legendary. When Kris Kilham, an ethnobotanist known as "the medicine hunter" asked a native Peruvian woman why she used maca, she smiled and replied, "Well, for sex of course." Maca is a food-grade herb and the Peruvians would consume 3,000-5,000 mg of maca a day or more. For the average consumer, 4 to 5 capsules a day (1,800-2,250 mg each) is an effective dose. I recommend purchasing maca powder by the pound to take in capsules, sprinkle on food or in blend into smoothies.
A word about consumer expectations of herbs vs. drugs
Most of us are used to the promise of fast-acting drugs. While a drug like Viagra can produce a lasting erection within an hour or so, we have to be realistic when we consider our expectations of herbs and other natural supplements. Herbs bring harmony and health to the body over time. As a result, herbs' actions are accomplished more slowly but are generally longer lasting. Keep this in mind when treating any condition, but especially sexual dysfunction, with herbs.
In the heavens, stars are dancing and the mounting moon is new,
What a rare night for romancing, mind if I make love to you?
-- from "Mind if I Make Love to You" sung by Frank Sinatra
Sexual energy is a reflection of an overall state of health and well-being. A healthy sexual appetite is as natural as an appetite for food. Drugs often interfere with libido and whenever possible we are better off looking for nutritional and herbal substitutes for drugs, not only to treat sexual dysfunction, but also to treat the conditions that may cause loss of libido in the first place! With this approach, may you enjoy your lover in health and happiness not only on Valentine's Day but year-round.