Walk into most convenience stores, and you’ll see an array of sexual performance-enhancing pills, with images of rhinos and bulging muscles and underlined words like “harder” and “fuller.” While the functional mushroom industry may take a different approach (more minimal branding with trendy muted color palettes), there is still an entire industry dedicated to selling you medicinal mushrooms that will improve your sex life.
But are these claims true? Are there mushrooms that have aphrodisiac qualities? To what extent can they help you increase your sexual drive? There are loads of different mushrooms with varying health benefits, but which ones specifically improve sexual health? There are a select few that have been distinguished for their libido-boosting properties based on traditional medicine, anecdotal evidence, and scientific review.
Cordyceps, which you may have already heard about from Planet Earth’s zombie ant clip, is a parasitic fungus with huge (pun intended) aphrodisiac associations. Like many other “superfoods,” cordyceps is boasted to be a cure-all – from immunity-boosting antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties to improving energy levels and vitality.
The use of cordyceps dates back to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). One writing from a Tibetan physician in the 1400s described Yartsa Gunbu (cordyceps) as “a faultless treasure of an ocean of good qualities,” including increased semen and sharpened five senses. This use of cordyceps for its vitality-boosting health benefits emerged from Himalayan farmers, who initially observed their animals’ increased energy and strength after consuming the mushroom while grazing (1).
But what does science have to say about this? According to a research review published by scientists from Mahidol University in Bangkok, Thailand, there is strong evidence that Cordyceps “can enhance libido and sexual performance, and can restore impaired reproductive functions, such as impotency or infertility, in both sexes” (2).
The comprehensive report analyzed various clinical studies and biological research to determine the mechanisms through which Cordyceps may influence sexual health. They found that certain bioactive compounds within the fungus could help modulate hormones and enhance circulatory health, which is critical for maintaining sexual function.
The review also recognized the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects of Cordyceps as a contributing factor to their sexual health benefits. By combatting oxidative stress and inflammation, Cordyceps may help protect reproductive organs and improve overall reproductive health.
Additionally, the review included evidence from several clinical trials that documented significant improvements in sexual desire, erectile function, and overall sexual satisfaction amongst the participants who supplemented with Cordyceps compared to those who did not.
Reishi is another mushroom that has been used throughout history for its aphrodisiac properties. It is associated with improving both male and female fertility, increasing overall vitality and energy, and has even been known by the nickname “Magic Mushroom of the Bedroom.”
A 2018 study investigated the aphrodisiac potential of Reishi by testing an extract of the fungus on male rats. Compared to rats treated with Viagra and a control group, the rats treated with Reishi extract exhibited significantly higher sexual desire and function, with higher levels of testosterone (3). The mechanism behind these results has not yet been fully studied, however, and more research is required to determine how reishi impacts human sexual health.
While direct scientific references to its use in enhancing sexual health are less common, the stress-reducing properties of Reishi could contribute to improved sexual function. In studies, Reishi has demonstrated adaptogenic capabilities, combatting anxiety and helping the body manage stress. Stress, depression, and anxiety can significantly impact sexual health, lead to a decrease in sexual desire, and disrupt the balance of sex hormones. Supplementing with Reishi may help regulate mood, thereby reducing these adverse effects.
TCM also regards Reishi as a potent treatment for regulating mood and enhancing overall well-being. Reishi is considered to possess calming properties that can promote mental clarity, reduce stress, and balance emotions, allowing the body to resist stressors and maintain equilibrium.
Chaga, another well-known functional mushroom, has been associated with increased testosterone levels and stamina. Chaga has been traditionally used to cure ailments and improve the nervous system’s health, dating back to as early as 1100 A.D.
Chaga has been studied for its potential to help with erectile dysfunction through the nitric oxide synthase (NOS) pathway, which is crucial for normal erectile function. A study comparing two Chaga extracts found that both increased levels of NOS. The extract with a higher polysaccharide content also significantly impacted the levels of cGMP, a substance that relaxes blood vessels and allows increased blood flow to certain areas of the body. It was also found to decrease PDE5, an enzyme responsible for breaking down cGMP and stopping erections (4). Most medicines for ED often work by blocking PDE5 to increase cGMP levels and improve erections, making Chaga a promising natural alternative for improving erectile function.
The Ancient Romans associated truffles with Jupiter, a god known for his impressive sexual drive. They were not only considered a delicacy by Romans but also believed to enhance desire and fertility. Italian and French cultures have also historically revered truffles for their aphrodisiac qualities. Folklore within these traditions has linked truffles with themes of fertility and sensuality, possibly due to their rare nature.
Although truffles do not have any scientific studies to prove their sexual benefits, many believe them to be an aphrodisiac for women. Their sexual allure comes from compounds that replicate human sex pheromones. The primary compound responsible for this is androstenone, which presents itself in the unique aroma of truffles. This compound is also a pheromone found in the sweat of men. Some evidence suggests that androstadienone can promote attractiveness ratings of potential mates and increase sexual desire in women (5).
Of course, we should always take broad claims for cure-all superfoods with a grain of salt. While over time, taken in partnership with a health-supporting diet, some supplements can improve aspects of your health; there aren’t always controlled studies to back up these claims.
It’s also worth mentioning that the absence of lab-approved studies on traditional medicine doesn’t necessarily mean these claims are false. Indigenous cultures thrived on remedies they created through a complex and rich relationship with the land they lived on. While there are many benefits to studying the effects of these remedies in a controlled, measurable environment, those studies can also miss out on the more complex reality of our body’s relationship to nutrition and our environment.
We recommend assessing these supplements’ potential benefits and risks based on your own personal wellness. If you have an ongoing health issue like diabetes or if this is your first time trying out functional mushroom supplements, be sure to factor in potential side effects before starting a new supplement, and consult your doctor or nutritionist as needed. Otherwise, try supplements alongside a balanced diet and see the results for yourself.