A small pheromone study made a big splash in the media this week, announcing that male sweat contains a chemical that causes arousal in females.
The media’s sensationalization of the study made me feel dubious about the science behind it. I thought to myself, here we go again – some shoddy research and a lot of hand waving… I was determined enough to get the story straight, that I paid my $15 to the Journal of Neuroscience to get my hands on the original data. And I’m glad I did because my suspicions were NOT confirmed.
Claire Wyart et al. at UC Berkeley designed this study well. They took great pains to control the variables, account for confounders, and provide the appropriate environment for the study. “All testing was performed in a temperature and humidity controlled, stainless-steel-coated, 5 x 8 foot room equipped with HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) and carbon filtration.” Wyart’s team also made meticulous note of previous research on the subject. They also repeated the study just to make sure that their findings were reproduceable. A total of 48 women participated.
In this double blind, placebo-control study they found that exposure to one of the chemicals in male sweat, androstadienone (AND), produced increased cortisol levels, elevated mood, and increased sexual arousal (when combined with provocative videos) up to an hour after the AND was inhaled.
Now, instead of focusing on the enhanced sexual arousal observation (that triggered the media blitz), Wyart suggested an interesting twist: what if AND could be used as a therapy for those suffering from cortisol deficiency (Addison’s disease)? Current standard therapy requires cortisol replacement which may cause peptic ulcers, osteoporosis, weight gain, mood disorders, and other pathologies. But AND is a potential “natural” solution.
Of course, I’m somewhat skeptical of this alternative since Addison’s is generally caused by an autoimmune attack on the adrenal gland cells – and I’m not sure that stimulating what’s left of them (with AND) would result in enhanced cortisol production. Still, Wyart raises an interesting point: what if we could learn how to positively influence the endocrine system with scent stimulation? Could this be a new method of treatment for women with anxiety, depression, or low libido but with far fewer side effects than our current methods?
Well, it’s too early to tell, but I think Wyart’s on to something. As she notes in her research article, AND is only one of hundreds of chemicals found in human sweat, and it is unclear if it is the most potent chemical in the arousal arena. It will be interesting to see if AND is eventually added to perfumes, cosmetic products, and the like as a means of tricking the body into feeling happier, sexier, and more balanced. Science meets aromatherapy? What do you think?
This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at RevolutionHealth.com.