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By Robert G. Bell

Robert BellValentine’s Day has always been associated with giving gifts of chocolates and roses to your love. But why? Do the offerings produce the desired romantic response? Inquiring minds want to know.

It seems the Aztecs and Mayans made the first connection with the amorous attributes of chocolate as brewed cocoa beans (“bitter water“) over 4,000 years ago. Montezuma is said to have consumed some fifty “pitchers” of a chocolate drink each day to give him strength, courage, and wisdom, as well as aphrodisiacal powers. Perhaps to the Aztec women, this chocolate concoction may have been the real Montezuma’s revenge. Several components, including phenyl-ethylamine (PEA), anandamide, and tryptophan, have been associated with the potential aphrodisiac effects of chocolate. These compounds are known to trigger the release of neurotransmitters associated with feelings of giddiness, attraction, euphoria, and excitement. Often known as the pleasure chemicals, these endogenous compounds are biogenic amines that occur naturally in the human system.

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PEA is similar in some respects to amphetamine and may stimulate the release of opiate-like endorphins in the brain that result in an increase mesolimbic dopamine in the pleasure centers of the brain, which peaks during an orgasm (which may be why women report to prefer chocolate to sex). Unfortunately, PEA is broken down quickly in the human body by the monoamine oxidase system (MAO). If we assume one gram of PEA as the minimum aphrodisiac dose, you would need to rapidly consume approximately 33 pounds of chocolate (and afterwards, this may be the one instance where Montezuma’s revenge would be welcome).

Anandamide is similar in composition to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active ingredient in marijuana. As discussed previously, anandamide interacts with the cannabinol receptors to increase the release of dopamine from the nucleus accumbens and prefrontal cortex, resulting in the associated high and euphoria. The naturally occurring and essential amino acid tryptophan is needed for the biosynthesis of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and melotonin, which may be why chocolate has a soothing and tranquilizing effect. (The Mayan priests served it to their victims before sacrifice, and it’s still served to this day for one dating sacrifice or another.) So it appears the perfect comfort food can make you comfortable in any situation, amorous or otherwise.

But more comfort may be required, and you may need reinforcements. The rose through the ages has been a symbol of love and romance. Rose perfumes and rose water are made from rose oil (attar of rose), which is usually made by steam-distilling crushed rose petals. Some of the main fragrance constituents of rose oil are geraniol, l-citronellol, rose camphor, and β-damascenone. Both the color (red, associated with the heart and desire) and scent (rose perfume) of roses have been considered aphrodisiacs throughout time.

Lastly, perhaps the best known aphrodisiac is actually one of the first biotechnology processes harnessed and, in many cases, is the reason for so many marriages and children. Although the ancients didn’t call it biotechnology, the fermentation of sugars into alcohol such as wine, or the subsequent distillation into spirits, was known to break down barriers and bring many couples together, for better or worse. So when you wake up February 15 unaware of your surroundings, blame it on the pleasure chemicals you ate, smelled, or drank the evening before. And Happy Valentine’s Day!

Robert G. Bell, Ph.D., is president and owner of Drug and Biotechnology Development LLC, a consultancy to the pharmaceutical industry and academia for biological, drug, and device development.