This interview was originally published in the December 2001 issue of HIGH TIMES.

Is ecstasy a frame of mind or a prescription? Do chemicals in the brain tantalize the sex drive? How can you improve the sexual experience? Dr. Cynthia Watson has some answers. She has explored the planet’s cornucopia of natural aphrodisiacs and joined modern medical discoveries with ancient lore. In Love Potions: A Guide to Aphrodisiacs and Sexual Pleasures [Tarcher/Putnam], she lays out an authoritative map for enhancing sexuality, stimulating desire and prolonging pleasure. Dr. Watson is board certified in family medicine and is nationally recognized as an authority in several areas including sexual dysfunction, hormonal problems, menopause, PMS, immune disorders and chemical toxicity.

What led you to write Love Potions:  A Guide to Aphrodisiacs and Sexual Pleasures?
In my practice, I noticed I was seeing many people were young and healthy – vital people in their thirties and forties – who were complaining of low sex drive, especially women after childbirth. Even young women on birth-control pills. Because of the life stress that many people experience, I found that people were having libido problems when they really shouldn’t have.
Because my practice is holistic in nature – which is how I approach health in general, helping people to increase their well-being and vitality – I began to realize that the sexual issue was much more than just the fact that their sex drive was gone. It usually had to do with their whole person being overstressed, not eating right, being vitamin-deficient or mineral-deficient. In order to help them get well again, I saw it as a matter of designing a holistic program to help them.

Did the medical community scoff at this book?
Probably a little bit. It was published in 1993 and people didn’t talk about aphrodisiacs much. I couldn’t even get on half the radio and TV shows I’m on now. But now it’s much more something people are talking about, something that they’re aware of. They understand these herbs really can help you. I think people used to feel that if it goes, it goes, and there is nothing you can do about it. Well, there is something you can do about your sexual drive.

What led you into the world of herbal medicine?
I dropped out of college and didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I really wanted to travel. At that time in my life I was free – no husband, no children and so forth. I just decided to take off. I ended up on a farm in Norway. The people on this farm were naturopathic in their orientation toward health. They weren’t healers. They were farmers, but because they were so far from hospitals – and also because of their spiritual nature – they grew their own wild flowers and herbs and made their own tinctures, which they used as medicine. They were students of Rudolph Steiner.  [Steiner (1861-1925) was a respected and well-published scientific, literary and philosophical scholar.  His multifaceted genius led to innovative and holistic approaches in medicine, science and education.]
This concept of using herbs for healing and homeopathy was foreign to me, having grown up being treated with penicillin for mostly everything. After studying there a year and a half, they arranged for me to spend a year studying in a hospital in the Black Forest in Germany, where I actually worked with doctors who practiced what we call integrated medicine today. All of the patients were treated with organic foods, mostly vegetarian. I was responsible for doing daily massages on my patients, giving them herbs and herbal teas and homeopathic remedies. I was introduced to this whole different concept of healing, and I decided I wanted to do naturopathy. When it came time to go back to school, I realized I could go to medical school and do both.

Did it ever cross your mind not to become an MD?
It did. But I saw my role as someone who was a bridge. I recognized that I had the ability to go to medical school and still maintain my orientation.  In many ways I’m very mainstream in my doctoring. I give antibiotics and such, because you want to make sure each patient is OK before you start them on herbal regimens.  I work with each patient individually. Some need prescription medications, while others can be treated with herbs. I try to do medicine first.
Now I help many people interface with the medical community in an effort to get them the right kind of medical care.  It’s a great ability to have, because I feel I can really treat people. 

Do you find people resistant to herbs in our society?
More and more people are interested in herbal medicine. In some parts of the country, like here in California, you find a lot of people using herbs – less so in New York. Other parts of the country probably use them even less. If anything, some people are overusing herbs a little bit. You do have to be careful, because herbs are medicine. You should be careful about what you’re taking, especially if you have certain health issues. Some of these herbs in combination with one another can cause problems.  People should become a little more educated before they just start taking large amounts.

What can people do to make sex better?
People say they want to make sex better. But to me, it’s a matter of making your whole vitality better. Because if your vitality is good, sex is going to be good on its own. You’re keeping your hormones going, you’re keeping your adrenals and your glands producing. Herbs are the best way to do that.  You can take drugs if you need to when the organ stops producing and secreting those hormones, bur herbs are good simply to maintain functioning organs.

How would you define an aphrodisiac?
Anything that will enhance libido, desire and the sexual pleasure drive.  It’s not something that will make you do something you wouldn’t normally do. 

Can you name some?
Aromatherapy is a wonderful way to enhance sensuality. Or using essential oils as massage oil. Some oils are considered specifically as aphrodisiacs, like sandalwood, ylang-ylang and jasmine. Sometimes they can be used in combination to make massage oil. It’s quite lovely and sensual. There is also color, light, sound and basic relaxation.
Deep breathing is s a concept used in tantric exercises. You can do deep-breathing exercises with your partner and get all warm and tingly and get into altered states that way.
There are herbs that help increase circulation and increase blood flow into the organ – herbs like ginseng. Some of the ginseng, especially the Siberian and American ginseng, will make you very warm, which will then increase circulation. It can be an aphrodisiac.
You can look for certain herbs to help with sexual drive. There is a cocktail of chocolate, vanilla, hot peppers and damiana that I cite in my book. The chocolate has the phenylethylamines in it, one of the body’s natural aphrodisiacs. Hot peppers and anything spicy stimulate circulation and can make one turned on.
In my book, there’s a formula for a product you can make with milk, honey, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves mixed together with vanilla. Vanilla is an aphrodisiac as well. Some of these things just may make you feel a little more turned on than you might normally be. It’s subtle.
Another is muira puma, which works very well when it’s mixed together with other herbs like ginseng or damiana. The Latin name for damiana is trenera aphrodisiac, so it has long been considered an aphrodisiac. It contains certain hormone-like chemicals, which are probably responsible for stimulating the sex drive. 

In your book you say marijuana can be used to enhance sexual pleasure, but that overuse tends to have a reverse effect.
There is a benefit to marijuana, because it affects sensation. People experience euphoric effects, which actually enhance the sexual experience. Marijuana will increase sensation in the short term if you’re an intermittent user. It may allow you to experience that key feeling of sensuality and being turned on. But chronic use tends to dull the nerves and create more problems in the long term.

What about people who can’t imagine having sex without marijuana?
If someone feels it’s the only way they can have sex, I wonder if there isn’t some other issue going on.

What mistakes do people make when they try to enhance their sexual performance or pleasure?
The quick-fix thing. Want a better erection? Take a Viagra.  Young guys may take Viagra for that, but that’s now what sex is really all about. If you’re having a problem – especially if you’re young – it’s time to start looking for the root of the problem, so you have a chance to solve it. If there is a problem, the goal is to try and to see what it is. My philosophy is not to put a Band-Ad on things. Try to fix the core issue if it can be fixed.
It’s not so much that if you use too much Viagra you’ll lose your ability to have an erection. No one has studied that yet. No one is really sure if that’s true or not. For people who are smoking cigarettes and eating a high-fat diet and creating clogged arteries – well – Viagra may help in the short term. But they’re still going to end up with lots of other health problems in the long term.  There are other ways to improve your sexual performance and pleasure by enhancing your vitality.

What would herbs would you recommend for good sexual health?
We know that the hormone testosterone is the primary hormone that helps both men and women with libido, though men certainly have a much larger amount of it. I see some vey young men with very low testosterone levels. I won’t just knee-jerk and put them on testosterone.  I’ll try to give them herbs and zinc, vitamin E and minerals, and try to get their body to produce it. Because once you give a man testosterone, you shut off his body’s production of it. Unless a patient is elderly, you don’t want to do that.
One of my favorite aphrodisiacs is maca root for both men and women. It raises testosterone levels in men and testosterone and estrogen levels in women. It’s very good for women in the premenopausal phase, or young women who happen to have low estrogen levels. There are many women who, even though they’re going through a normal menstrual period, can still have low levels of hormones – especially estrogen. They tend to be depressed and get fatigued a lot and have chronic vaginal dryness, which occurs in women who have low estrogen, even if they’re having normal menstrual cycles. You can give them herbs to bring these hormone levels up. That’s where I use the maca root quite a bit.  It’s like a ginseng, but the difference is that it’s an herb that grows in the mountains of Peru. It’s a very powerful herb in raising energy and providing a sense of well-being with lots of minerals:  zinc, calcium, magnesium, iodine. It’s one of those herbs I think you can give to nearly anyone and they’ll feel better.
Another herb, which I use myself, is deer-antler velvet. It’s another old Chinese remedy using the tips of the antler. The deer shed antlers every year, so there is no harm done. In New Zealand, thousands of deer are raised just to harvest the tips. They help the immune system and help raise hormone factors.  It’s another herb I use for men and women. If I see a woman in the phase before the ovaries really stop, I can sometimes help keep them going for a while longer. The deer antler is good for men in keeping testosterone producing without shutting down the body’s regular production.

How is zinc effective?
There is a large amount of zinc in semen, and men who are sexually active lose zinc.  In our society, most of us are eating processed foods. Few of us eat organic vegetables. Many fruits and vegetables are grown in mineral-depleted soil, so we’re a mineral-deficient country right now.
Zinc is very important for the prostate gland, for the immune system and general health. Most people should be on some sort of zinc supplement.  Zinc-rich foods are pumpkin seed, eggs and oysters. Some seafoods are very high in zinc.

What is the best basic advice for people who seek better sex lives?
Relax and have more fun – and create time for it. In our stressful lives, couples end up with lists of things to do: the kids, work, all the problems they have. By the time they head to the bedroom, too many things are in the way. Then you have the communication factor. When there are issues between couples, it’s going to have an effect on their sex lives because it’s the most intimate experience we have with another person. If there are feelings we have or uncommunicated concerns we have with that person, it’s going to interfere with that intimacy.
A better sex life is a matter of creating time to have that intimacy –to be together, to just enjoy each other, to do something together that turns you on, to put on a video you’ll enjoy together, to take a bath together, to give each other a foot massage, to do something that’s not part of the sex act necessarily.

What disturbs you about the way people treat sex?
It’s the disrespect for it. Some people don’t understand and respect sexuality as a spiritual thing. They don’t try to take it to the next step.
The sexual relationship is a spiritual relationship. It’s a way to connect with God. We are each gods within ourselves. So when we connect in a sexual relationship and allow that spiritual relationship to take place, it can really raise our consciousness to higher levels. To me, that’s the goal here – the body connecting with the spirit.
That’s why we’re here. We are spirit in a body. When you have that spiritual experience with another person and you connect on that level, it’s the highest experience you can have.

Visit watsonwellness.org.