How your diet can improve your sexual wellbeing
Are you ready to nourish your hormones and spice up your love life? It’s time to turn it up a notch in the kitchen and the bedroom by harnessing the power of “sexy” nutrition. From aphrodisiac foods to natural circulation enhancers, here’s how to really use food as foreplay — plus, what to do beyond what you put on your plate for sexual wellbeing.
The saying that “you are what you eat” is true when it comes to your overall level of health and vitality. When you are fuelling your body well, this will in turn support all the different aspects of your wellbeing, including sexual health. Going even deeper, the connection between the foods you consume and key aspects of your sexual wellness (think hormones, libido and sexual function) can be used more specifically to help you set the mood each time you set the table. From enhancing your mind–body connection and relieving stress to revving up your sex drive and stimulating blood flow, we explore the foods, herbs and substances that can help take your pleasure beyond culinary delights, along with supporting lifestyle tips to stoke the fire.
The link between what you consume and sexual health
The association between the foods and drinks you consume and your sexual health operates through both direct and indirect mechanisms in the body, either supporting or detracting from your libido, sexual function and satisfaction.
“Cholesterol is the building block of our steroid hormones and the body is highly efficient at converting cholesterol into the hormones we need if we allow it to do so,” explains nutritional biochemist and best-selling author Dr Libby Weaver, who writes as “Dr Libby” — so long as your lifestyle choices don’t interfere with this process. “The biosynthesis of oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone also occurs within the same biochemical pathway as the production of (chronic stress hormone) cortisol,” she points out, which is why when the region in the brain known as the hypothalamus assesses your environment and perceives it to be stressful, it can have a very negative impact on your sexual health.
“What happens is that your brain upregulates cortisol production, typically at the expense of good sex hormone balance. So, the constant, relentless production of stress hormones is one of the biggest disrupters,” warns Weaver, who suggests that making sure you are consuming the nutrients needed in the right amounts for these biochemical reactions to take place, where cholesterol can be converted into sex hormones, is one of the key correlations between what you’re consuming and your libido.
Of course, the connection between substances you consume and sexual wellbeing works the other way around too. Ingesting disruptive foods and drinks in excess can adversely impact how you feel overall, and do so more specifically in relation to your sexual function and sex drive, which is why it is important to be mindful of both what you’re taking in and what you’re leaving out.
What to put on your grocery list
As an overarching rule of thumb, the way you nourish your body on a regular daily basis should be inspired by how you want to feel and the vibration you wish to exude. “If you want to be energetic, vibrant and alive, it is best to consume foods that embody these qualities,” says Raj Barker, a holistic nutritionist and founder of Body Medicine. At base level, this really is as simple as it sounds: think foods in their most natural, whole form — the least tampered with, least processed varieties. Going beyond this to target your sexual health through diet, Barker recommends beginning to profile different foods and herbs, learning which ones provide targeted nutrients “so you can consume food to your sexual advantage.”
Nitric oxide-producing foods
Loading your plate with foods that produce nitric oxide is a great way to support your sexual wellbeing. Nitric oxide is a molecule produced naturally by the body that plays an important role in several physiological processes, including your sexual health. As a substance, it promotes vasodilation (widening of blood vessels), which equals increased blood flow to the genital area that can enhance both sexual function and performance.
Foods that are high in nitrates, such as beets, leafy greens and celery, can promote nitric oxide production in the body through a pathway where the body converts the nitrates into nitrites, which are then converted to nitric oxide. Additionally, foods rich in antioxidants, such as fruits and vegetables, can also support nitric oxide production by preventing oxidative stress, which can damage the cells that produce nitric oxide.
Zinc is a mineral you’ll want to be lavish with. “For cholesterol to be converted into your sex hormones, many nutrients are needed and zinc is an important one of them,” says Weaver. Zinc is essential for testosterone production, so a diet abundant in zinc-rich foods can be incredibly supportive for your sexual health.
Although testosterone is the “male sex hormone”, it’s actually essential in varying amounts for both men and women, so everyone benefits. Low levels of testosterone can lead to decreased libido, erectile dysfunction in men and fertility problems. In research, the level of zinc in seminal fluid has also been positively linked with the quality of sperm.
Topping the list of foods that are naturally high in zinc are oysters and red meats, and smaller amounts are found in eggs and seeds such as sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds. However, according to Weaver, it’s all too easy to be deficient in this nutrient today and so you may want to consider a supplement.
Expert tip: “The absorption of zinc is interfered with by many other factors. For example, tannins in tea, coffee and red wine, or fibre in plants. So zinc (as a supplement) is best taken just before bed.”
Help shift your focus from your thoughts to your physical sensations by using adrenal-supporting adaptogens to cultivate inner balance when your body encounters mental, physical or environmental stressors.
Tonic herb and medicinal mushroom extracts are wonderful ways to alchemise the production of dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), a hormone that signals your body to produce crucial sex hormones oestrogen and testosterone. Not only do adaptogenic substances help your body adapt to stress for general wellbeing, certain ones also have their own unique sensual benefits.
Key players include ashwagandha, which improves sexual endurance (fun fact: it was once tested as a substitute for Viagra); cordyceps, known to boost libido by increasing adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and oxygen supply to cells; and shatavari (which literally translates from Sanskrit as “having 100 husbands”), a herb that has been traditionally used by women for centuries as a sexual stimulant.
The category of foods that sound the sexiest are certainly aphrodisiacs, which everyone has heard at least a whisper about and perhaps put to the test on a date with a dozen oysters. Yet what exactly is this exotic group of foods? Aphrodisiacs are those that contain substances which facilitate sexual arousal and desire, and may help to support a healthy libido.
“Think of the classics: dark chocolate (cacao), oysters, pomegranates, figs, truffles! These mysterious foods are rich in the semi-essential amino acid L-arginine, a precursor for nitric oxide production, a key player in sexual health,” explains Barker.
Chocolate lovers need not be told twice; however, it is interesting to know that some of the other reasons to reach for that block of rich dark chocolate is because cacao contains phenylethylamine (PEA), a neurotransmitter that is released in the brain when people fall in love. PEA is believed to promote feelings of passion, excitement, attraction and pleasure, which certainly sounds like a recipe for increased sexual desire. Cacao also contains flavonoids, which are potent antioxidants that can improve blood flow by relaxing and dilating blood vessels, leading to improved sexual function. Plus, it’s a rich source of magnesium, which is another star micronutrient for feeling in the mood.
When it comes to aphrodisiacs, you may also want to consider adding a regular dose of maca to your protocol. It is easily available in powdered form or capsules, and is derived from the root of a cruciferous vegetable native to Peru. Maca has been traditionally used in the Andean region for its aphrodisiac and fertility-enhancing properties, and now the science is here to back it up. A study conducted a 12-week double blind placebo-controlled trial in which treatment with different doses of maca were compared to placebo. An improvement in sexual desire was demonstrated with maca after eight weeks of treatment.
Hormone-loving fats and powerful protein
You simply can’t go past including plenty of essential fats in your diet. “This is a key food group and there are two types to include,” says Weaver, “omega-3 essential fats, which are found in fish, flaxseeds, chia seeds and walnuts — and omega-6 essential fats, which you can receive from evening primrose oil, borage oil and whole blackcurrants (it’s in the little seeds, so chew well).” Ensuring plenty of essential fatty acids in your diet is especially significant when it comes to women’s sexual health, as it is not only crucial for sex hormone production, but is also important for maintaining healthy vaginal tissues and lubrication, since the vaginal walls are made up of fatty acids.
Along with optimal fat intake, protein is another key macronutrient that experts promote as being a sexy player on your plate. “Protein is the building blocks of muscles in the body for both men and women. Having a strong and healthy foundation ensures stamina and longevity in the bedroom,” says Barker. There are plenty of delicious ways to incorporate protein into your day: lean meats, fish, eggs, tofu, edamame, beans and quality protein powders, to name a few.
The not-so-sexy list
Now you’ve loaded your shopping basket with all the good things, make sure you know what to leave off your grocery list for sexual health, or at least limit. “Highly processed foods are out! As is excess alcohol,” says Barker. Yet it’s not black and white. “This is not to say you need to have a flawless diet — that would be boring. But living off packaged food made from artificial ingredients is not the key to feeling good in your body, yet alone the ticket to a healthy sex life.”
Weaver also agrees that these are the two main categories you want to be mindful of. “Alcohol is a depressant, even though it might initially feel like it sparks energy,” she explains, “so the regular overconsumption of alcohol can be a disruptor.” While it is often used to relax the body, anything beyond one or two drinks will negatively impact your sexual function. Likewise, too much ultra-processed food can contain substances that have the ability to disrupt certain metabolic pathways needed for a thriving sex life, so that junk food, excess sugar or refined carbohydrates will certainly not lead to anything hot and steamy.
So what about that bottle of wine? “Alcohol can cause erectile dysfunction for men, and long-term alcohol abuse can unfortunately make this dysfunction a permanent problem,” reveals Barker. “For women, excess alcohol can make it difficult to get wet as regular blood flow response is weakened due to alcohol. The result can create discomfort and dryness during sex. If you feel so inclined, have fun while sipping a few beverages but just know that anything beyond that is not going to guarantee you
a solid performance between the sheets!”
Beyond the plate
Foods alone are unlikely to make a drastic difference if you don’t support your sexual health in other areas of your lifestyle. At the top of the list is getting enough restorative shut-eye each night. “Sleep helps with mood, appetite/nourishment, energy … everything!” says Weaver. To get a good night’s sleep, it’s important to establish a regular sleep routine, avoid caffeine and alcohol before bedtime, create a comfortable sleep environment and practise relaxation techniques like deep breathing or meditation.
Next up, move that sexy body … outside of the bedroom! Research shows that increased physical activity is linked with enhanced sexual desire and activity. Bouts of exercise can drastically improve sexual function. Choose to move in a way that you love and enjoy a mix of high intensity, with more restorative forms of exercises and rest days.
“The benefits of moving your body go far beyond looking and feeling great — although this is undoubtedly a bonus when considering the quality of your sexual health,” says Barker. “Aerobic exercise (anything that elevates the heart rate) increases circulation and therefore circulatory health — a key component for promoting arousal in both men and women.”
Exercise also stimulates the release of a plethora of feel-good neurotransmitters such as adrenalin, dopamine and endorphins. Flooding the body with these is a sure-fire way to promote feelings of happiness: “What’s more attractive than a happy individual? It truly is a magnetic quality,” says Barker.
Of course, taking care of your body’s needs at a biochemical level with the foods, drinks and supplements you consume is a wonderful way to bolster your sexual health, yet it is true that sexual energy comes from more than aspects such as your hormones, circulation and bodily relaxation. It’s how you truly feel within yourself that exudes sexuality. On that note, Weaver’s final word sums it up beautifully when it comes to boosting your sex life — “Authenticity”.