If you go online today and search herbal medicines and sex you will be bombarded with recommendations for a plethora of herbal products claiming to improve sexual function. In this environment, it is hard to differentiate what information is based on any kind of useful evidence (either traditional and/or modern) and what is simply a supplement companies attempt to encourage you to part with your money, for as we know, “sex sells”. A recent review of products sold in the USA as “aphrodisiacs” found that of the 53 plant species listed on product labels, most lacked both clinical and traditional evidence for being used in such a way.1 As such, this article is the first in a series where I hope to offer you a resource to help cut through the marketing and hype, so you can make informed choices about what herbal medicines can be used to help support your sexual well-being.
As a caveat, I will also acknowledge that sexuality and sexual function is complex, encompassing not only a persons physiology, but also their thoughts, emotions, beliefs, knowledge, previous experiences and expectations, relationships and their cultural/societal context. Sexual herbal medicines therefore, like any physical medicine, can only hope to address a small component of this, and for many folk experiencing difficulties in their sexual life, working with a qualified sex therapist is recommended to help to navigate this complex web.
Saffron (Crocus sativus)
Saffron (Crocus sativus) has got to be one of my favourite herbal medicines, particularly because of its diverse therapeutic uses. I especially love this plant as a reliable treatment for depression,2 and as a powerful antioxidant that supports heart and blood vessel health.3 Perhaps it is these effects that help to explain the traditional use of saffron as a medicine to stimulate sexual function, as modern understandings of sexual physiology consider good cardiovascular health and mental health as foundational.4 Most of the time, the stigma of the flowers are used as medicine, however some studies have demonstrated the therapeutic value of the petals too.5
Reference to saffron’s purported aphrodisiac qualities can be found in Avicenna’s classic Islamic medical text, The Canon of Medicine (completed in 1025) 6 where it is described as “a stimulant of sexual desire” (p256), 7 and the classic English herbal, The General History of Plants written by John Gerard in the 16th century, where it is described as being used to “stirreth fleshly lust”(p292).8 Nicholas Culpeper, writing in the 17th century, referred to saffron as a treatment for women who had “little desire of venery, and no pleasure therein” (pp59-60) in Culpeper’s Directory for Midwives.9 His description refers to saffron “helping the womb” by virtue of its heating qualities, 9 which could perhaps be interpreted today as referring to saffron’s effect upon improving circulation.
Modern research goes some way to support these traditional descriptions of saffron. In females who experienced a range of sexual difficulties, taking saffron for 8 weeks was able to improve physical arousal, desire, orgasm and sexual satisfaction when compared to a placebo.10 Vaginal lubrication and pain during sex was also improved when compared to the beginning of treatment.10 In males with erectile difficulties, high doses of saffron (200mg of stigma a day) for 10 days was able to improve erections, sexual desire and orgasms compared to the beginning of treatment, however this was not compared to a placebo.11 A later study comparing 60mg of saffron petal a day with on demand Viagra, did not show any improvement with the saffron treatment on any measure of sexual function. 12
Medications used to treat depression, in particular SSRI’s, are well known to cause sexual problems in many people, potentially impacting upon sexual desire, physical arousal, orgasm and ejaculation.13 Saffron has been shown to help females and males who experience sexual problems as a side effect of SSRI’s,14,15 with 30mg a day of a saffron petal extract for one month improving sexual arousal, vaginal lubrication and painful sex in females taking fluoxetine (Prozac) for depression.14 In males taking fluoxetine, 30mg a day of a saffron stigma extract for one month was also shown to improve erections and intercourse satisfaction.15 Whilst both of these studies did not report any problems with combining treatments, saffron’s antidepressant effects 2 mean that caution should taken if combining with SSRI’s due to the potential for drug/herb interactions.5 As such, I suggest you consult with a health professional knowledgeable in herb/drug interactions before using saffron for this purpose. On the topic of safety, saffron also has a reputation in helping to stimulate delayed menstruation in females, for which reason medicinal doses are not recommended for people who are pregnant, however amounts typically used to flavor food are unlikely to be a problem.5
So modern research provides some support for the long tradition of using saffron to treat sexual difficulties in males and females. Given its other related uses in improving mood and supporting cardiovascular health, it remains one of my favourite herbal medicines to help people experiencing problems with sexual function.
1. Prescott H, Khan I. Medicinal plants/herbal supplements as female aphrodisiacs: Does any evidence exist to support their inclusion or potential in the treatment of FSD? J Ethnopharmacol. 2020 Apr;251:112464.
2. Lopresti AL, Drummond PD. Saffron ( Crocus sativus ) for depression: a systematic review of clinical studies and examination of underlying antidepressant mechanisms of action: Saffron ( Crocus sativus ) for depression. Hum Psychopharmacol Clin Exp. 2014 Nov;29(6):517–27.
3. Pourmasoumi M, Hadi A, Najafgholizadeh A, Kafeshani M, Sahebkar A. Clinical evidence on the effects of saffron (Crocus sativus L.) on cardiovascular risk factors: A systematic review meta-analysis. Pharmacol Res. 2019 Jan;139:348–59.
4. Roushias S, Ossei-Gerning N. Sexual function and cardiovascular disease: what the general cardiologist needs to know. Heart. 2019 Jan;105(2):160–8.
5. Braun L, Cohen M. Saffron. In: Herbs & natural supplements: an evidence-based guide volume 2 volume 2 [Internet]. 2015 [cited 2021 Apr 27]. p. 865–70. Available from: http://public.ebookcentral.proquest.com/choice/publicfullrecord.aspx?p=2068788
6. The canon of medicine. In: Wikipedia [Internet]. 2022 [cited 2022 Jun 24]. Available from: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Canon_of_Medicine&oldid=1092994026
7. Ibn-Sina H. Canon of medicine: book 2 materia medica. New Delhi, India: Jamia Hamdard; 1998. 486 p.
8. Gerard J, Johnson T. General history of plants [Internet]. Vol. Book 1. Ex Classics; 1633. Available from: https://www.exclassics.com/herbal/herbalintro.htm
9. Culpeper N. Culpeper’s directory for midwives: or, a guide for women. The second part [Internet]. London: Peter Cole; 1662. 270 p. Available from: http://name.umdl.umich.edu/A69832.0001.001
10. Rahmati M, Rahimikian F, Mirmohammadali M, Azimi K, Goodarzi S, Mehran A. The effect of saffron on sexual dysfunction in women of reproductive age. Nurs Pract Today. 2017;4(3):154–63.
11. Shamsa A, Hosseinzadeh H, Molaei M, Shakeri MT, Rajabi O. Evaluation of Crocus sativus L. (saffron) on male erectile dysfunction: A pilot study. Phytomedicine. 2009 Aug;16(8):690–3.
12. Safarinejad MR, Shafiei N, Safarinejad S. An open label, randomized, fixed-dose, crossover study comparing efficacy and safety of sildenafil citrate and saffron (Crocus sativus Linn.) for treating erectile dysfunction in men naïve to treatment. Int J Impot Res. 2010;22(4):240–50.
13. Reichenpfader U, Gartlehner G, Morgan LC, Greenblatt A, Nussbaumer B, Hansen RA, et al. Sexual dysfunction associated with second-generation antidepressants in patients with major depressive disorder: results from a systematic review with network meta-analysis. Drug Saf. 2014 Jan;37(1):19–31.
14. Kashani L, Raisi F, Saroukhani S, Sohrabi H, Modabbernia A, Nasehi AA, et al. Saffron for treatment of fluoxetine-induced sexual dysfunction in women: randomized double-blind placebo-controlled study. Hum Psychopharmacol Clin Exp. 2013 Jan;28(1):54–60.
15. Modabbernia A, Sohrabi H, Nasehi AA, Raisi F, Saroukhani S, Jamshidi A, et al. Effect of saffron on fluoxetine-induced sexual impairment in men: randomized double-blind placebo-controlled trial. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2012 Oct;223(4):381–8.