While you might not have heard of it, ‘tongkat ali’ searches are on the rise. Nutritionist Rob Hobson explains what it is and whether you should use it.

Tongkat ali is a herbal remedy that has been a part of traditional Southeast Asian medicine for centuries. It’s often used to treat a variety of ailments, including fevers, erectile dysfunction, and bacterial infections. Studies suggest that it may boost male fertility, relieve stress, and improve sports performance. However, research is limited, and more studies are needed before we can say with certainty that it’s one of the best supplements for muscle growth.

What is tongkat ali?

Often referred to as ‘Malaysian ginseng’, it’s a shrub plant native to Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand. Traditionally, its roots were boiled and eaten for their health-promoting properties. It was seen as a potent aphrodisiac, used to treat male infertility and erectile dysfunction. It was also used as a treatment for malaria, infections and fevers.

What does it do?

Most of the alleged health benefits are not well researched, but some studies suggest that it may help with male infertility, improve mood, and increase muscle mass. Tongkat ali also contains flavonoids, alkaloids, and other compounds that act as antioxidants, which can help to promote good health in other ways. 

Can tongkat ali boost testosterone levels?

Much of the interest surrounding tongkat ali relates to its potential to boost testosterone levels. Studies have shown that it may help to increase testosterone levels, with one study highlighting that 200mg daily significantly normalised testosterone in over 90% of older men with low levels.

Additionally, it has been found to stimulate sexual arousal and might improve erectile dysfunction, as well as enhance sperm quality, potentially improving male fertility. Research includes a study where daily supplementation with 200mg improved sperm parameters in infertile couples, resulting in pregnancies. 

While these results suggest tongkat ali may be a promising treatment for low testosterone and related fertility issues, the studies are small and further research is needed to fully understand its effects. 

Does tongkat ali enhance physical performance?

It’s been touted for its potential to enhance athletic performance and muscle mass, attributed to compounds thought to make energy usage more efficient, fight fatigue, and boost endurance. These reasons are why this supplement is often positioned as an ergogenic aid that could improve physical performance and body composition.

In a small five-week study involving men undergoing strength training, those consuming 100mg tongkat ali on a daily basis had more significant gains in lean body mass and fat loss compared to a placebo group. However, a study in cyclists found no performance improvement from tongkat ali over plain water.

Study results in this area are mixed, indicating that more research is needed to establish tongkat ali as a useful ergogenic aid. 

Can tongkat ali reduce stress?

Tongkat ali has been associated with reducing stress hormones and anxiety, and enhancing mood. Initial studies highlighted this supplement’s potential to regulate mood, showing that its extract could reduce anxiety symptoms in mice similarly to common anti-anxiety medication. However, human studies in this area are limited.

One study (involving just 63 adults) under moderate stress showed that daily supplementation with 200mg of tongkat ali extract led to a 16% reduction in the stress hormone cortisol compared to a placebo group.

But despite these initial findings, more human studies are needed to fully understand this supplement’s impact on mood and stress.

How much should you take and is it safe?

For most healthy adults, tongkat ali appears to be safe at daily dosages ranging between 200 and 400mg. However, consuming it in high quantities could pose risks to health. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) reported in 2021 that ingesting large doses (2,000mg/kg bodyweight) of tongkat ali’s water-based extract, derived from its dried and ground form, may potentially cause DNA damage to the stomach and duodenum.

Is it worth taking? 

Although tongkat ali shows potential in reducing anxiety, improving body composition, and boosting testosterone levels, the evidence supporting its effectiveness remains inconclusive, with research primarily focusing on short-term use. The long-term benefits and safety of this supplement are still uncertain, warranting further research.