Los Angeles-based conscious love and sex coach Nicole Ambrosia enjoys smoking the leaves of a plant called damiana. The small bush grows in warmer parts of the Americas. It’s been used as a medicine for centuries in Mexico. More recently, it’s popular among herbalists and plant medicine enthusiasts abroad. Ambrosia likes to roll damiana in a joint with marijuana or in a spliff with organic tobacco. “One time, I went to the desert with a lover, and we smoked it and made a damiana tea with a bunch of other aphrodisiacs,” she says. “That was a lit time. It made me feel free, juicy, and sexy.”
Damiana Loves, a sensuality and embodiment coach in LA, has gotten so much out of working with damiana that she re-named herself after the plant. She not only smokes damiana and drinks tea made from it herself but also serves it in ceremonies to help clients get in touch with their bodies and emotions. To Loves, “damiana is a heart opener and sensual awakener,” she says.
Damiana is legal to purchase in many places and in many different forms, but not everyone has heard of the plant. To date, there’s little formal scientific research on the herb. But humans have been using damiana since the time of the ancient Mayans. Today, some people swear by its relaxing, uplifting, and arousing properties.
What Is Damiana?
Damiana, or turnera diffusa, is a small drought-deciduous shrub—that is, it sheds its leaves during dry seasons, according to Ross Vail, who sells damiana products through his company Flor de Amor. It grows in several parts of the Americas, including the Mexican state of Baja California Sur, where Vail began growing damiana himself after learning about it from the locals. The most potent damiana subspecies is the Turnera aphrodisiaca, named after its aphrodisiac properties—likely stemming from its effects on sex hormones—he says. The damiana plant is distinctive due to its yellow flowers.
“The main legend around damiana is as an aphrodisiac, fertility enhancer, and sexual vitalizer,” says Vail. But, he thinks the plant has more to offer. “Smoking damiana subtly relaxes frenetic energy states and allows a sense of connection to those around you and your own true self. It’s a helpful ally to help get through life’s stress and unwind.”
Damiana is legal in all US states except Louisiana, according to C.L. Mike Schmidt, a lawyer at Schmidt & Clark LLP. You can get it on Amazon and various other sites in many forms, including as a tea, extract, and capsules. Damiana is also sold as a liqueur; margaritas are sometimes made with it.
Is Damiana Psychoactive? An Introduction to the Psychoactive Properties of Damiana
Damiana contains apigenin, a substance that works similarly to benzodiazepines like Xanax—just much more subtly—creating a calming and mood-boosting effect, says Anton Gomez-Escolar, a psychopharmacologist and psychedelics expert at Drogopedia. Some people consider it a safer substitute for cannabis or tobacco due to its mild psychoactive properties and lack of nicotine. “Users often report a subtle, relaxing effect” as well as “a pleasant aroma and taste,” says Gomez-Escolar.
“The high is not this huge high; you sort of feel a little euphoric,” says James Giordano, professor of neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center. “Most people tend to feel they get a buzz off of it. It’s not like this is a potent hallucinogen. Anecdotally, it’s also thought that it might improve people’s sexual experiences.”
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These effects may stem from terpenes in damiana that stimulate release of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain, Giordano explains. Damiana also contains aromatase, which breaks testosterone down into estrogen. “It changes the metabolism of both testosterone and estrogen in both males and females,” he says. “The anecdotal evidence that it has aphrodisiac capabilities is perhaps partly due to those two mechanisms.”
When you smoke damiana, you feel these effects more quickly than when you ingest it, Giordano adds. “If you eat it or if you drink it, it has to be absorbed through the gut,” he explains. Damiana will also likely fade more quickly when you smoke it than when you eat or drink it.
What Does Smoking Damiana Do?
Kirah Tabourn, a 32-year-old writer and astrologer in LA, describes damiana as a “sensual” substance, elaborating that it “gets me in my body” and makes it easier to tap into states of “pleasure, relaxation, [and] receiving.” Loves says that damiana helps her and her clients “come into our hearts and open the senses,” “release any layers of protection around our hearts,” and “come more fully into deeper connection with the Earth.”
“It’s pretty light, mellow, and mild,” she elaborates. “It’s not a high like taking molly or something. But some people do have stronger effects, where they feel really strong heart-opening or aphrodisiac effects.”
The view of damiana as an aphrodisiac may not be merely folk wisdom; there’s some research to support its benefits in the sexual realm. One study in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology, for instance, found that damiana extract “recovers sexual behavior in sexually exhausted male rats.” Or, to put it more bluntly, the rats were able to do it again and again after they’d taken damiana. Another study found that male mice given damiana mounted females more often, though it did not appear to have an effect on females.
There isn’t much research on humans as of yet. One 2001 study in the Journal of Marital and Sex Therapy did find that about three-quarters of women given a supplement containing damiana called ArginMax saw improvements in their sexual satisfaction after a month, compared to 37 percent who took a placebo. However, this supplement also contains other ingredients, so it’s hard to say if the damiana was responsible for these benefits. Another study found that a different supplement containing damiana, Libicare, improved sexual functioning in menopausal women — but again, that supplement has other ingredients.
Indigenous cultures have used damiana to treat many ailments, including headaches, chronic pain, hot flashes, constipation, and gastrointestinal problems, which Giordano sees as a sign that it probably does something: “If it didn’t work, they wouldn’t use it.” A few studies have also found that damiana could have benefits for treating anxiety, depression, ulcers, and even cancer. However, more research is still needed to draw firm conclusions about its benefits.
Risks and Precautions When Smoking Damiana
Because the effects of damiana can taper off quickly, people may end up smoking a lot of it. “It’s hard to overdose damiana, but the more you smoke it, the stronger the effect is going to be,” says Giordano. “And the stronger the effect is going to be, the more impaired you’re going to get.” On top of that, it’s very difficult to gauge exactly how much damiana you’re taking at a time.
If you’re new to damiana, Giordano suggests avoiding the urge to smoke more and more as the effects fade, since you can get a cumulative effect. He also cautions against doing anything potentially risky, like operating heavy machinery while using damiana, especially at higher doses. In addition, it’s not recommended to use damiana while pregnant, as it’s unclear how it might affect a developing fetus, says Giordano.
“Like any herb, consuming damiana might have side effects or interact with certain medications or prior conditions,” Gomez-Escolar adds. Lastly, smoking anything poses a risk to the lungs. “It’s a heated combustible; it has the same risk as anything you smoke,” says Giordano. However, damiana is not addictive like cigarettes, so people aren’t generally using it in dangerous quantities.
How Does Damiana Mix With Other Herbs and Substances?
Ambrosia finds that damiana by itself can be harsh on the lungs. “When you smoke it, it gets really smokey; it’s very dry,” she says. “So, I do a third damiana and two-thirds marijuana. Or sometimes, I do one-third tobacco, one-third marijuana, and one-third damiana.”
Damiana is often smoked with other herbs in order to make it less harsh, says Vail. Tabourn mixes it with lavender and mullein, an herb that’s used to alleviate various respiratory issues. Mullein is “a great herb to use as a base for blends,” she says. Loves likes to mix damiana with rose to increase its heart-opening effects or lavender to make it more calming.
Tabourn also mixes damiana with cannabis, saying it amplifies the effects. Indeed, people tend to report heightened relaxation, euphoria, and sexual arousal when they add cannabis to damiana, though it depends on what cannabis strain they’re using, says Giordano. “The cannabis will get you higher than the damiana,” he says. “Damiana tends to mix well with most things because it’s very gentle.”
Some people mix damiana with alcohol, too, Giordano adds. “If you go to Cabo and they make you a margarita, they’ll very often make you a damiana margarita. They make a local liqueur out of it in Mexico.”
Still, it’s best not to use damiana with other herbs or substances that can lower blood sugar or blood pressure, says Giordano. These include alpha-lipoic acid, chromium, devil’s claw, fenugreek, horse chestnut, Panax ginseng, psyllium, and Siberian ginseng.
Legal and Health Considerations
Damiana is legal to possess and use in all US states except Louisiana, where it’s a Schedule I substance. “This means that possessing, selling, or using damiana in Louisiana can result in severe criminal penalties, such as imprisonment and fines,” says Schmidt.
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Even if you live in a state where damiana is legal, you could get in trouble for transporting it across state or national borders for the purpose of selling it without a permit, says Schmidt. Anyone selling damiana across state lines is also legally required to accurately label it and avoid making claims about its benefits that are not approved by local health authorities.
The good news is that products containing damiana are regulated by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Schmidt explains, which means that they are generally safe and legal to consume.
It is wise, as with any substance, to use damiana in moderation and get used to its effects before you consume high amounts, says Giordano. Still, many people feel they benefit from damiana’s mood-boosting, libido-enhancing, and possibly healing properties.
“It has a cultural inheritance as being used as a medicinal herb,” Giordano says. “But I think what ends up happening is—as it so often is—unless they can actually make a drug from it, unless they can market it and/or patent it, you don’t see a lot of research being done because the profit share characteristically is not huge.” The research that has been done is promising, however, so hopefully, there will soon be more.
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