The Sexual Scent of Pheromones

Researchers have been studying pheromones, the hormones responsible for sexual arousal, for years and still aren't quite sure how they work in humans. In most animals, the mechanism is clear. Sea urchins, for instance, send their pheromones into surrounding waters, releasing a chemical message that causes other urchins to eject their sex cells at once.

Pheromones trigger mating in most animals as they are perceived by the vomeronasal organ (VNO), but anatomists are divided on whether or not humans have a VNO. Some researchers have found pits in the nostrils believed to be VNOs, though these supposed organs don't appear to work.

The workings of pheromones in humans depend on many variables. Research by Dr. Winifred Cutler, a biologist and behavioral endocrinologist, showed that women who indulge in regular sex have more regular menstrual cycles. Regular sex was shown to delay the decline of estrogen, making women more fertile. Researchers looked for the factor that caused this phenomenon and many years later realized that the missing element was pheromones.

However, if one thinks back to camp or to the women's dormitory at college, it's apparent that there must be more to the equation since we know that women who live together tend to adjust their menstrual cycles to each other, with or without sex.

Martha McClintock of the University of Chicago had women sniff the perspiration of other women and found that the participants' menstrual cycles slowed or hastened depending on whether the sweat they sniffed was gathered before, during, or after ovulation. This study contained the first proof that humans produce and respond to pheromones.

Aphrodisiac or Cancer Cure

The implications of such studies on pheromones and the menstrual cycle provide hope that these hormones could be used as fertility treatments, contraceptives, or even as aphrodisiacs. It's possible that pheromones could work as a mood enhancer for the treatment of depression or for stress reduction. Some even believe that pheromones may have applications that could control prostate activity in men, reducing their risk of cancer.

Take a Whiff

The old saying that opposites attract seem to be borne out by the fact that pheromones in our body scent seem to smell best to those whose inherited immunity to disease most differs from our own. The benefit may be stronger, healthier offspring. However they work, a commercial pheromone developed by Dr. Cutler known as Athena, caused 74% of those tested to experience an increase in hugging, kissing, and sexual intercourse. 

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