A guide to pheromones

What are pheromones? Can they really help you attract the opposite sex? Do they work? Are humans affected by pheromones?

Pheromones, pronounced ‘fair-uh-moans’, have been a much talked-about topic. We often come across a lively debate on the subject…but many are still unsure about what pheromones really are. If you’ve never heard of pheromones it’s about time you educated yourself, because they could play a significant role in your life, sexual and otherwise.

Pheromones are hormonal substances or chemicals released by animals and even humans, which supposedly have the power to sexually stimulate members of the opposite sex of the same species. They can be likened to airborne messages that trigger off a response. They were first defined in 1959 as chemical substances excreted by animals to trigger reproductive behavioral responses from a recipient of the same species. Later, by 1999, pheromones came to be known as chemicals secreted by animals promoting behaviors that aid in the reproduction and survival of a particular species.

In fact, in a varied group of creatures right from bugs to dogs, a pheromone works much like a hormone or a specialized chemical and prompts either physiological or behavioral changes or relays life-and-death messages.

In mammals, there is a sensory area inside the nose called the vomeronasal organ (VNO), that can sniff out the pheromones, thus acting as signals that can indicate sexual attraction, ultimately aiding mating and reproduction. Take the example of sea urchins. When they release pheromones into the water, it is the equivalent of a chemical message triggering other urchins to eject their sex cells as well.

Enough said about animals. What about the human quotient?

While there has been considerable research on the subject recently, scientists are still unsure to what extent humans are able to perceive pheromones. But they are certain that pheromones do exert an influence on human behavior. Earlier research indicated an absence of the VNO in humans but recent discoveries have indicated pits in the nostril that could be VNOs, the stimulation of which could cause a release of ‘gonadotrophins’ (sex hormones that could affect mood and behavior). Research has also identified the VNO in humans as two small, sensory organs located in the nose that operate separately from the part of our nose that detects normal smells. So it appears that humans could use the VNO to detect pheromones.

Presumably, human pheromones are individualized, and may not always be noticeable. Dr. Winifred Cutler, a biologist and behavioral endocrinologist, indicated in the 70s that women who have sex regularly with a man (at least once a week), have regular menstrual cycles, fewer infertility issues and an easier menopause as compared to women who have sex infrequently or are celibate. It seems that aside from sex itself, the exposure (either by smell or skin absorption) of a woman to certain aromatic chemicals exuded in a man's normal body odors, help to enhance her physiological functioning. Dr. Cutler and her research team also discovered that once odor bearing underarm sweat was removed, what remained were the odorless materials containing the pheromones.

It has also been discovered that women who live together or work in close proximity have menstrual cycles that get synchronized. Studies conducted by Martha McClintock further proved the menstrual synchronicity theory and indelibly linked it with the production and response to pheromones.

The practical uses of the pheromone theory are now being widely applied in the areas of fertility, to aid sexual problems, enhance moods, alleviate depression and stress. In fact, the attraction of an infant to the mother’s breast is also being attributed to the mother’s pheromones. But on the whole, while there has been extensive research carried out, and while the possibility of human pheromones is mind-boggling, conclusive evidence is still awaited about the effect of human pheromones.

Some research though has classified pheromones into four classes, namely, territorial markers, mother-infant, menstrual synchrony and human sex-attractant. So the question is, can pheromones influence attraction between a man and a woman and can they in fact be credited for the ‘chemistry’ that couples often say they experience in the first flush of love?

There is a distinct possibility that they do. According to "Psychology Today," whether the perception of our body odors by another is mildly pleasant or outright sexy is a selective process and could even be influenced by factors like immunity, i.e. we usually smell best to a person whose genetically-based immunity to disease differs most from our own.

Various businesses are now flourishing by creating scents by artificially producing pheromones in lab-tested conditions. These scents have received a favorable response, with customers swearing by the positive effect experienced by them in terms of their attractiveness to the opposite sex. There are individual products for men and women too.

Irrespective of what research indicates, one thing is undeniable, that pheromones work in subtler and less obvious ways in humans, compared to animals. But we could always take a leaf out of the animal kingdom and keep our senses (especially that of smell!) on red alert to sniff out potential mates!