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Malaysia’s herbal Viagra takes off

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A worker collects oil palm fruits at a plantation in Sepang outside Kuala Lumpur November 3, 2009. (REUTERS/Bazuki Muhammad)

On a recent trip to Malaysia, guided by Lakim, an aboriginal of the Malay Peninsula, a small group of us made our way to a road that winds its way through vast oil palm plantations. Oil palm, a highly productive agricultural crop, has been the basis of Malaysia’s rise from southeast Asian backwater nation to a titan of economic growth. The crop has also been the driver for the vast deforestation of ancient rain forests, and loss of wildlife – notably, wild orangutans.

We travel to the base of a mountain too steep for palm cultivation, and Lakim points up far into the hills. He scrambles up the mountain at lightning speed, his small and compact body disappearing into the greenery in less than a minute, as we toil behind him. We are soaked in sweat in minutes; the hike has just begun.

After more than an hour of steep uphill hiking on slippery scree and tripper vines, ever mindful of the abundant poisonous snakes in the region, we arrive at the object of our quest. The treasure we seek: A tall tree, about eight-inches in diameter, with a characteristic fan-shaped upper leaf structure. The tree, known as Tongkat Ali, yields a root traditionally used to treat fevers and malaria, ease lower back pain, enhance energy and greatly boost sexual prowess. Backed by a large and expanding body of science, Tongkat Ali root is now found in dozens of consumer beverages in a Malaysia, from canned beverages to chocolates.

Digging the root proves a two-hour, back-breaking labor. In the end, five of us yank the root out of the ground. Lakim, diminutive in size, slings the 70-pound root over his shoulder, and carries it down the mountain to his motor bike. He does this every day. The root on his shoulder will net him the equivalent of $25, a handsome sum by Malaysian standards.

From Lakim’s simple bamboo hut, where he lives with his wife and five of his nine children, Lakim will transport the heavy tree root to a processing facility operated by a company called LJACK. There, the root will be pressure washed, cut, crushed, dried in a solar dryer and eventually chipped into tiny pieces. Those pieces will be conveyed to Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, where they will undergo high-tech processing at a facility owned by LJACK to yield a concentrated extract that is as close to Viagra as any herb on earth. Like the popular erectile drug, Tongkat Ali increases the concentration of nitric oxide in the blood.

Once only a remedy of the Orang Asli aboriginals in Malaysia, Tongkat Ali is now border-hopping to Japan, Korea, China, and the U.S., where it is mainly consumed in capsules. Part of the secret of the herb’s success is that it not only boosts libido and improves erectile function in men, but it is an extraordinary sex-enhancer for women. And while the pharmaceutical industry has been bedeviled by a fruitless quest for a so-called “female Viagra,” Tongkat Ali appears to be exactly that, boosting all parameters of female sexual function, from improved libido to enhanced pleasure.

In the U.S. herbal market, Tongkat Ali has been around marginally for years, but now the herb appears to be rising in popularity, largely due to the increase in supportive science. Part of its appeal is that is causes the body to naturally produce more testosterone, thereby improving libido, lean muscle mass, skin tone and overall vitality. This is something that the various erectile drugs do not do. And in an era of “low T” awareness, Tongkat Ali appears to be gaining recognition at just the right time. Even researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have studied Tongkat Ali, finding in the root numerous beneficial compounds.

It’s a long way from hiking in the steep and verdant Malaysian rainforest to the shelves of natural food stores and pharmacies, but Tongkat Ali is making that journey. And as users experience greater satisfaction in their sex lives and improved vitality overall, this once obscure native remedy appears posed for stardom.

Chris Kilham is a medicine hunter who researches natural remedies all over the world, from the Amazon to Siberia. He teaches ethnobotany at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he is Explorer In Residence. Chris advises herbal, cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies and is a regular guest on radio and TV programs worldwide. His field research is largely sponsored by Naturex of Avignon, France. Read more at MedicineHunter.com.