There are a handful of adaptogens that most people in the supplements world have heard of. Ginseng, rhodiola, and ashwagandha are all household names, for example.
These are all staples and have certainly earned their reputation as world-class herbal tonics for a good reason, but mother nature has provided us with countless botanical tools to maintain physiological homeostasis, and there are dozens of well-researched adaptogenic herbs aside from the “big three”.
Unfortunately, many of these plants are still in the categories of “best-kept secret” or “known only by professionals” and thus remain obscure to the public at large. Gynostemma pentaphyllum and Salvia miltiorrhiza are two excellent examples of these “hidden treasure” sorts of herbs.
Eurycoma longifolia is yet another one of these little-known yet incredibly powerful adaptogenic plants that’s steadily gaining notoriety among westerners due to its wide range of effects on multiple systems in the body.
In Malaysia, where it grows wildly in the rainforest, it’s called Tongkat ali, which translates to “Ali’s walking stick”. Although it’s commonly said that this is a reference to its pro-erectile and aphrodisiac effects, its roots typically grow straight down into the soil, so it’s possible that some Malaysians may have likened them to canes.
In Indonesia, it’s also called pasak bumi, and in Vietnam bach benh. Some also refer to it simply as “Long Jack”. Of these various monikers, Tongkat ali has prevailed as the most common designation in the western world.
Classically, various parts of the plant have been used for a variety of medicinal purposes. The bark, for example, has been used as a vermifuge (to expel parasites), while the root bark has been used to treat diarrhea and fever, and the leaves for itchy skin and dysentery.
The root is the most utilized part of the plant, however, because it seems to have the most wide-ranging effects on the body and greatest concentration of phytochemicals such as eurypeptides, glycosaponins, and eurycomanone that give the root its anti-fatigue, stress-reducing, immune-boosting, and hormone-regulating properties.
Tongkat and Testosterone
Among those familiar with tongkat, it’s often pigeonholed as a testosterone booster.
While it is arguably one of the most potent herbs available for this purpose, it’s a bit of an oversimplification to simply call it a “T-booster”. In reality, herbs are pharmacologically dynamic and thus don’t typically don’t have a single mechanism of action, but rather affect multiple targets.
Being an endocrine adaptogen, tongkat interacts with a variety of hormones and hormone precursors, such as:
- Testosterone (increases)
- Estrogen (decreases)
- IGF-1 (increases)
- Cortisol (decreases)
- DHEA (increases)
- Pregnenolone (increases)
In countries where it has a long history of traditional use, tongkat is used by both men and women to maintain healthy hormones while reducing stress and fatigue.
As I’ve written about in my article on the physiology of testosterone, both men and women need T for normal functionality. The same is true of estrogen.
Men of course have much less estrogen than women, and women have much less testosterone than men, but there is a normal range for both. In fact, women can suffer from testosterone deficiency and men can even suffer from estrogen deficiency (which is rare but possible under certain conditions).
Typically, because of the estrogenic effects of pervasive compounds like pesticides and plastics, excessive estrogen and deficient testosterone are far more common problems for both men and women than the other way around (see my article on endocrine disruptors to learn more).
In essence, xenoestrogens are throwing us all out of balance, and so it’s important to support testosterone and reduce estrogen for most people, regardless of gender (however, one notable exception is PCOS, which tends to increase women’s testosterone far beyond normal levels).
Tongkat root exerts its hormonal effects via a variety of mechanisms. It’s been demonstrated in research to activate enzymes such as CYP17A1 that are responsible for converting hormone precursors like pregnenolone and DHEA into hormones like testosterone and progesterone.
Multiple studies on tongkat have observed significant increases in both total and free testosterone. One 5-week study on male seniors showed a 15% increase in total and a 61% increase in free testosterone.
In a 4-week study of 76 men, the percentage of participants with normal testosterone levels went from only 36% pre-treatment to 91% post-treatment. The volunteers also completed an inventory called the Aging Males Symptoms (AMS) Scale.
The men in the study were asked to rate themselves in areas like:
- Feelings of being “passed your peak”
- Beard growth
- General wellbeing
After 4 weeks of taking tongkat, the overall AMS scores of men in the study improved by over 60%. The decreases in anxiety and irritability seen in the tongkat group are likely due as much to tongkat’s effects on testosterone as they are to its ability to reduce cortisol levels.
Tongkat, Stress Hormones, and the Power Pose
In a 2013 study of 63 people (32 men and 31 women), tongkat increased salivary testosterone by 37% while decreasing salivary cortisol by 16%.
Testosterone-cortisol ratio is an important concept in the world of behavioral endocrinology. A higher ratio (meaning more T and less cortisol), can be predictive for higher levels of athletic performance, for example.
In a 2010 study published in Psychological Science, men and women were told to hold bodily poses that either express power (open, expansive postures) or powerlessness (closed, contractive postures). Saliva testosterone and cortisol levels were measured before and after.
The results were startling. After only two minutes of assuming these poses, testosterone-cortisol ratios changed dramatically in much the same way that users of tongkat experienced in clinical trials.
The high power group experienced on average 20% higher testosterone and 25% lower cortisol, while the low power group showed the exact opposite: 10% lower testosterone and 15% higher cortisol.
Those in the power pose group were also more willing to take more risks and were less dominated by fear in their decision making.
If you’d like to learn more, here’s a fascinating TED talk by Amy Cuddy, one of the paper’s authors:
Tongkat and Immunity
Chronically high stress hormones are known to sabotage immunity and contribute to chronic inflammation, so it’s not surprising that tongkat is beneficial for the immune system.
A 2016 study that looked at tongkat’s effect on the immune systems of people in their 40s and 50s showed dramatic effects.
The researchers used a metric called Scoring of Immunological Vigor (SIV), which factors in the number of T cells, natural killer (NK) cells, and B cells—as well as important ratios between different kinds of immune cells—to determine the overall health of a person’s immune system.
Here’s a summary of the effects tongkat had on immune cell populations:
- Significantly greater number of total T cells
- Improved ratio of CD4+ to CD8+ cells (a marker often used in AIDS patients to assess immune function)
- An improvement in immunological age, an estimate of age-versus-immune function
- Overall greater SIV score (a measurement of all immune cell parameters)
The authors also noted that tongkat’s ability to increase the critical hormone precursor DHEA may be in part responsible for the effects on immunity, as DHEA is known to oppose cortisol and can thus shift the immune system in a positive manner by increasing T helper cells.
Correcting Modern Woes with Adaptogens
If you’re one of the people who’s awake to the unfortunate trajectories of technological “progress”, you likely feel the same way I do: that the world is an increasingly imbalanced, unnatural, and biologically hostile place.
We’re living in a synthetic soup of manmade endocrine-disrupting chemicals like plastics, pesticides, and solvents, working jobs that don’t allow us to express our human needs for connection, play, and higher fulfillment.
We’re frighteningly comfortable with replacing true human connection with social media platforms that deliberately produce a kind of emotional slavery in order to extract more of our most precious resource: our attention.
If things continue along this trajectory, the modern human will be anything but.
But there is a renaissance afoot. People like you, people who believe in the power of nature to help restore balance within our bodies and minds, are using her bountiful treasures to get back to homeostasis.
In a world that’s increasingly out of balance, adaptogens like tongkat are a godsend. They remind us that we are still supported by Gaia, and that the way to evolve and become better versions of ourselves is not by merging with machines, eschewing that which makes us human, or “hacking” our biology.
No, the way forward is the way backward: by retrieving the best of how our ancestors lived and keeping only the parts of modernity that are in alignment with our global connectivity to each other and to the biosphere.
Matt Dorsey, BSc, MAcOM, LAc
CHOQ Chief Scientific Officer
Matt Dorsey is a licensed acupunturist, medical herbalist, clinical nutritionist, and doctoral candidate. He describes himself as ‘medically bilingual’, blending the best of both classical Eastern medicine and Western scientific approaches in his holistic medical practice.
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