Warm shudders along the spine

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In many ways, human sexuality is unique among primates. Here are a few of the reasons:

Human males have larger testes, produce more ejaculate and have a higher sperm count than most primates.

Humans spend more time copulating and copulate more often than most primates.

Because the signs of the human female oestrous – time of ovulation – are hidden, humans copulate throughout the reproductive cycle.

And – here’s the killer – after a human male has ejaculated, a hormone is released that has a sedative effect. Not so with human females. After orgasm, they can want more. And more.

Is this at the base of male feelings of insecurity? Is this one of the main reasons why men have sought for some substance, plant or chemical that will allow them to last longer stay harder since first they began to think.

Reflect on what a joy the sexual act would have been for early humans. Their lives consisted of being chased by wild animals who wanted to eat them or – for the men – chasing wild animals so they could eat them They had little shelter, little pleasure and no leisure, the one release, the one joy maybe even the one thing that kept them going was sexual pleasure.

Any survey of the history of aphrodisiacs will show that almost without exception (and we’ll get to that one exception) all aphrodisiacs, from ambergris to Viagra are to be used to increase the sexual pleasure and potency of men.

The one exception produces, according to Adam Gottlieb, in Plants of Love (among other pleasant effects ‘warm shudders along the spine backbone which are especially pleasurable during coitus and orgasm.’

If there is an aphrodisiac that works for both men and women, could it be yohimbe? The evidence points to a cautious maybe—if, indeed, aphrodisiacs do exist outside the realms of speculation, mythology and yearning.

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Yohimbe bark contains the active alkaloids yohimbine and yohimbiline, and is taken, mostly as inner shavings, from Pausinystalia yohimbe (previously Corynanthe yohimbe), a tree of 9–15 metres (30–50 feet) that grows in tropical west Africa, especially Nigeria, Cameroon and the Congo.

Although the scientists have, as usual, spent more time on testing its effect on male erectile function, one reports says ‘Yohimbine hydrochloride (a refined powder processed from the bark) has been proposed to increase female libido (sexual interest). There is only limited poor quality research in this area, and more study is needed before a recommendation can be made’.

That’s no pill pusher talking—that’s Medline, the website of the US National Library of Medicine. Evidence or no, the experience of the users of the drug in its place of origin would suggest it might work for both men and women.

Yohimbe is used by the Bantu-speaking tribes of the regions where P. yohimbe grows during their traditional wedding ceremonies, which have been described as ‘orgy rituals’ that can last up to 15 days. It has long been known to the tribespeople, bushmen and pygmies of the region, and beverages containing it are dispensed by magicians and fetish priests, especially to tribal chiefs who have to exhibit public potency (which would make them, literally, potentates).

The yohimbe story became known to the wider world in the late nineteenth century, when colonists living in German southwestern Africa (now Namibia) began experimenting with it and gave P. yohimbe the title of ‘the love tree’. German merchant seamen took it home, where a researcher named Spiegel isolated the active alkaloids in 1896. It was tested on the male inmates of an insane asylum, all of whom, it was reported at the time, ‘exhibited hard and long lasting erections’.

But it was not until the 1950s that the pure alkaloid was first synthesised, and not until the 1960s that it was studied scientifically. Laboratory research at the time confirmed that it was a demonstrably effective aphrodisiac and erectile function agent for men (no experimentation was done with women), but this was coupled with strongly psychoactive effects. It became very popular in the drug culture of the 1960s and 70s, and Richard Alan Miller, author of The Magical & Ritual Use of Aphrodisiacs records one user saying ‘it makes you high and horny—they’ll have to ban it’. Curiously, they didn’t: yohimbine hydrochloride is approved by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) in the United States, although yohimbe, the bark itself, is not.

A trawl through the internet for scientific papers will reveal scores of tests on yohimbine, most agreeing that it does work on erectile dysfunction. The scientists, however, differ from the pleasure seekers in their opinions of the drug. Dr Julian Davidson of Stanford University, where the drug was trialled, said ‘yohimbine does help men get an erection but they don’t know what to do with it because they feel so lousy’.

Then there is the first hand report from Adam Gottlieb in Legal Highs: ‘First effects after 30 minutes … warm, pleasant spinal shivers, followed by psychic stimulation, heightening of emotional and sexual feelings, mild perceptual changes without hallucinations, sometimes spontaneous erections. Sexual activity is especially pleasurable. Feelings of bodies melting into one another. Total experience last 2-4 hours. After effects: pleasant, relaxed feeling with no hangover’. Gottlieb reported similar but not quite so intense reactions with yohimbine hydrochloride pills.

Yohimbe—or yohimbine—is also used in bodybuilding and weight-loss supplements, to sexually arouse animals for breeding, and in treating depression. In 2004, the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute released the findings of a study demonstrating that mice treated with yohimbine overcame their fear four times faster than those given a standard anxiety medication. The result of all this is that the market in Cameroon and Nigeria is booming—and there is now a black market in ‘fake’ yohimbe bark, because, as the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation has warned, ‘the destructive harvesting methods employed and the rapidly-growing market for aphrodisiac remedies’ are endangering the resource. The FAO, in cooperation with the Centre for Research in Agro Forestry (ICRAF), has reportedly begun a research programme in Cameroon to investigate the potential of the tree for domestication.

But is it the long-sought aphrodisiac for men and women? The problem is that all the serious research on the drug has concerned erectile function or dysfunction; erotic pleasure has not been on the research agenda. And there is one big hurdle to any further research being carried out.

Dr Alvaro Morales is a distinguished urologist at Queen’s university in Ontario, Canada, who has done extensive research into yohimbine’s effectiveness with erectile function. In 2000, he wrote in the International Journal of Impotence Research that yohimbine ‘has been used for over a century in the treatment of erectile dysfunction. In-depth, systematic studies in animals have shown that the drug has a remarkable positive effect on sexual performance. Meta-analyses of the few controlled, randomized human studies have consistently shown an advantage of yohimbine over placebo’.

The problem, as he points out later in the same article, is that because yohimbine is an ‘old’ drug, it does not enjoy patent protection or commercial viability. ‘Until molecular/formulation changes can be brought about (as recently happened with two other agents: phentolamine and apomorphine)’ he writes, ‘serious investigations of yohimbine will remain in limbo. It could be that the nay-sayers are right and yohimbine, indeed, lacks clinical activity as a treatment for men with erectile dysfunction. As long as it remains an orphan drug, we will never know’.

This is a modern twist on our relationship with the plant world. Unless someone can own a potentially useful naturally occurring substance, we will never know the extent of its usefulness—so science becomes the handmaiden of commerce. And the possibility of pleasure is left waiting, panting, in the wings. I have only one question.

Why did I not discover this when I was in my twenties?

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