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By Serge Kreutz (2010)
I have been writing about tongkat ali a long time before it was popular, for around a decade, and I do feel like I have some responsibility for the reputation of this wonderful herb.
In the previous few years, many distributors of dietary supplements have jumped on the tongkat ali bandwagon, and competition between distributors has become fierce.
Tongkat ali (Eurycoma longifolia Jack by its Latin, scientific name) is, of course, one of the most expensive herbals around, and that for good reason. Tongkat ali roots take about 20 years to reach a stage of full potency. Because the shrub is particularly difficult to grow, there is no tongkat ali plantation anywhere in the planet. The tree can only be found on well-drained jungle slopes, partially protected by a canopy. There may be other, undiscovered requirements for the habitat, which explains why all attempts to grow the plant for commercial reasons have so far been unsuccessful. All genuine tongkat ali is collected in the wild.
The plant can only be found in the rainforests of Southeast Asia. It once flourished in all countries of Southeast Asia, from Vietnam to Indonesia, and in all of them, it is valued, and therefore was heavily harvested, for the medicinal attributes of its roots. It's rare, in fact, that, wherever humans go through parts of rainforests, tongkat ali shrubs will be left alone.
The only country where it still grows now, where there are areas with a natural prevalence of tongkat ali, is Indonesia. Not that tongkat ali is common in Indonesia. But Indonesia indeed still is one of a very few countries with considerable stretches of untouched rainforests, and only here will tongkat ali grow naturally. Although the existence of these virgin rainforests isn't guaranteed. They are being burned down at an alarming pace.
Indonesia smoke blankets region
Forest fires rage across Indonesia and Brazil
Entire Rainforests Set to Disappear in Next Decade
Indonesia has been under heavy international pressure to not only control the forest fires that are the cause of haze problems even thousands of kilometers away, but also to add to their protection to the country's rainforests which are of important value to the global environment. And indeed, the Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), who has heeded international advice on the civil war in Aceh and other topics before, has implied that the preservation of rainforests is one of his political concerns.
SBY Orders Arrest of Illegal Logging Bosses
It is not impossible that, if the tongkat ali supply from Indonesia dries up due to rainforest protection measures, or if at least there are supply bottlenecks, the price for tongkat ali root and extract may increase considerably.
Substantial price increases are also a distinct possibility because China is becoming rich very fast. And no other people on earth are as passionate a user of natural medicines as are the Chinese. In China, herbal medicine is not just a small branch of health care; it is on par with Western medicine.
Traditional Chinese medicine
Because China is so large, whatever is in demand in China is sure to become scarce. And the rarer an ingredient used in traditional medicine, the more expensive it is sure to become. This actually already happened with another Indonesia-exported natural product, the price for which (even though its efficacy is questionable) has already skyrocketed because it is strongly desired in the nouveau-riche China. The sought after product are bird's nests, of which one can now earn thousands of US dollars per kg.
Swifts and Trade
Bird nests at around 2000 US dollars per kg
Bird nests at around 3000 US dollars per kg
In comparison, tongkat ali root (not extract) still can be bought at less than 50 dollars per kg.
However, unlike bird's nests, tongkat ali is not made for direct consumption. It should either be boiled as a tea, with the roots discarded, or consumed as an extract.
It is no surprise that, when a expensive and rare substance, such as tongkat ali, is traded in a highly competitive market, there will be swindlers and frauds. An amount of products sold as tongkat ali have been found spiked with bootleg pharmaceuticals. They are all from Malaysia.
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Tongkat ali extract, opposite to tongkat ali root powder, is especially expensive (more expensive than bootleg sildenafil citrate) because the active components are present only in small quantities.
Characterization of the Water Soluble Fraction from the Root Extract of Eurycoma Longifolia
In addition, there is a large multitude of active components that all contribute to the unique testosterone-raising capability of this herbal. The best neutral scientific source for checking the active components of tongkat ali (Eurycoma longifolia Jack) is:
Global Information Hub for Integrated Medicine
While the chemical range of Eurycoma longifolia Jack (tongkat ali) is well documented in the scientific literature, the scientific studies into the sexuality-enhancing and testosterone-raising effects of the roots of this plant haven't been conducted with specific active components (such as eurycomanone or eurycomalactone) but with whole tongkat ali extract, that was not standardized for any single specific active componenent.
When I say "scientific studies", then I mean studies that have been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. I don't trust in alleged "unpublished" scientific studies that are mentioned on commercial websites, selling specific brand products.
If an alleged scientific study was in fact conducted in accordance to the accepted standards of the scientific community, and if it produced impressive results, then I wonder why it wasn't printed in an official scientific journal? That doesn't make any sense. So, if the study wasn't simply a fabrication, it must have been scientifically flawed.
In addition, neutral, genuine science would aim to study a generic chemical for its pharmaceutical value. Studies that instead use brand name extracts of an unknown competition and standardization are most likely bogus science. Apart from that, the idea of selling pharmaceuticals and dietary supplements of secret or undisclosed ingredients and standardization fully contradicts the established norms of consumer protection.
On the other hand, "standardized extract" is a catch phrase that many supplement buyers put together with higher quality.
True, yohimbe bark extract that is standardized for yohimbine is better than yohimbe bark extract that is not standardized for yohimbine. For yohimbine is the most potent of a very small range of active components that account for the effect of yohimbe.
Yohimbe standardized for 2 % yohimbine
Indeed, too, St. John's wort that is standardized for hypericin is superior to St. John's wort extract that is not standardized for hypericin.
St. John's wort recommended to be standardized to 0.3% hypericin
It would be a progress if any of the major tongkat ali extract distributing companies were to discover an extract standardized for what indeed is or are the active components. But so far, it is unsure which of the numerous active components listed on the above referred-to page of the Global Information Hub for Integrated Medicine is to what extend responsible for which effect.
But the lure is, for commercial purposes, to claim standardization for active ingredients.
For example for eurypeptides? At a whooping 22 %.
Peptides is what the word eurypeptides suggests, namely that we are dealing with the peptides of Eurycoma longifolia Jack here.
I have not found any scientific source that would refer to eurypeptides. So, the product that is claimed to be standardized to 22 % eurypeptides is standardized to something unknown in scientific literature.
It is also not explained at websites that sell tongkat ali extract, standardized to 22 % eurypeptides, what these peptides are supposed to be and do.
Naturally, I know what peptides are: short chains of amino acids, kept together by peptide bonds. When the chains of amino acids become longer (let us say: more than 50), then we no longer talk of peptides, but of proteins.
Now, if those websites that claim to sell standardized tongkat ali extract would give some kind of statement for which chemical substances they allegedly standardize their extract (if all that standardization talk is based on reality to begin with), then that would be an advance.
The Global Information Hub for Integrated Medicine, on the above-cited page states:
"Eurycoma longifolia is usually standardized to eurycomanone, 13alpha(21)-epoxyeurycomanone, eurycomalactone, and 14,15beta-dihydroxyklaineanone as reference markers for its organic extract whereas the more polar quassinoids and glycoproteins are used as standards for the aqueous extract."
I haven't seen a commercial product standardized to any of these chemical substances, ever. I wouldn't ignore the possibility that any of the large chemical suppliers, e.g. Sigma Aldrich, sells an eurycoma longifolia extract standardized for eurycomanone or eurycomalactone, but they would possibly only do so to chemical laboratories.
And I'm certain that in any country, no eurycoma longifolia extract standardized to any of the above-listed chemicals would be allowed to go on sale as a health supplement without going through the same kind of clinical trials that were required for apomorphine or sildenafil citrate first.
Whole tongkat ali root, or tongkat ali extract that has been made in the traditional way by soaking and boiling chipped root, discarding the roots, and evaporating the water, has a known risk profile. In this form, tongkat ali has been ingested for centuries.
But standardizing tongkat ali extract for certain chemicals, the effect of which on humans has not been scientifically researched, is something else. And if the standardization is for chemicals with fancy names which is not reflected in the scientific literature, then that is something else again. Something of which I wouldn't want to be part of.
Or could it be that the whole eurypeptices story, too, is just bogus science? (ma*r)
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Copyright Serge Kreutz