What Is Catuaba?

This Brazilian rainforest tree bark may enhance mood and libido

Catuaba capsules, powder, and tincture

Verywell / Anastasia Tretiak 

Catuaba is a natural remedy derived from the bark of trees found in the Brazilian rainforest. Formulations vary depending on the type of tree selected; Erythroxylum caatingae, Trichilia catigua, Anemopaegma arvense, and Micropholis caudata are some possibilities. But all of them are said to stimulate the nervous system and offer aphrodisiac properties.

The active ingredient in catuaba is believed to be alkaloids dubbed catuabines. Alkaloids are organic compounds from plants, some of which have psychoactive effects. Examples include caffeine, morphine, strychnine, and nicotine.

In the United States, catuaba is mainly sold as a dietary supplement in capsule, extract, and powder forms.

Also Known As

Catuaba is a tribal word meaning "what gives strength to the Indian." In South America, it is known by a variety of regional nicknames, including:

  • Caramuru
  • Chuchuhuasha
  • Pau de Reposta
  • Piratancara
  • Tatuaba

What Is Catuaba Used For?

Catuaba is mainly known for its aphrodisiac properties but is also believed by some to treat or prevent a wide range of unrelated medical conditions, including:

  • Anxiety 
  • Asthma
  • Bacterial infections
  • Bronchitis
  • Depression
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Low libido
  • Obesity
  • Memory problems
  • Skin cancer

To date, there has been only limited research investigating the effectiveness of catuaba in treating any of these conditions. Although some forms of catuaba appear to have psychoactive properties, other purported benefits (such antitumor or aphrodisiac effects of the bark) are largely exaggerated.

Here is a review of some of the most relevant research.

Anxiety and Depression

Catuaba may help treat anxiety and depression, suggests a 2011 study published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology.

According to the research, lab mice fed varying doses of either a crude or refined extract of Trinchilia catigua experienced altered behaviors consistent with mood elevation as well as improved memory. Higher doses of the crude extract were needed to achieve this effect, but both formulations appeared safe and well-tolerated.

Despite the promising findings, the study provides what might be best considered a sketch for future research. Based on the results, it's difficult to determine whether the action of the drug was stimulatory (like caffeine) or if it somehow altered dopamine and serotonin levels (like antidepressants). Furthermore, as with all animal studies, results cannot automatically be assumed to apply to humans.

Brain Health

In an animal-based study published in Neurochemical Research in 2012, researchers reported that catuaba may aid in the prevention of a condition known as brain ischemia. Ischemia is a term used to describe the insufficient flow of blood, which in the brain can lead to cerebral hypoxia (lack of oxygen) and stroke.

According to the researchers, brain tissue was obtained from lab rats that were exposed to an extract of Trinchilia catigua and then subjected to oxygen deprivation. Compared to untreated tissue, the treated samples were protected from the deleterious effects of oxygen deprivation, the protective benefit of which was attributed to T. catigua's antioxidant properties.

At present, it is too early to suggest that catuaba can protect against stroke, given that an oral dose is unlikely to achieve anywhere near the same concentration in the brain as seen in a lab study.

Further research is needed to determine the specific mechanism of action of T. catigua. Those findings could potentially open the door to novel drug development.

Bacterial and Fungal Infections

Numerous studies have suggested that catuaba extract exerts potent antimicrobial properties. One lab study published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences reported that catuabines isolated from Erythroxylum caatingae were able to neutralize every gram-positive bacteria and fungus tested.

Moreover, the extract appeared able to trigger apoptosis (programmed cell death) in certain leukemia cells; cancer cells are essentially "immortal" and do not undergo this natural process on their own. While this action is not entirely unique—many agents can trigger apoptosis in malignant cells—the E. caatingae isolates appeared to be non-toxic to normal cells.

As promising as the findings are, it has yet to be established how effective or safe catuaba may be in treating active infections. A present, it should not be considered a viable candidate for the treatment of any cancer. Further research is needed.

Possible Side Effects

Due to a lack of quality research, little is known about the safety of catuaba in any form. However, catuaba has been known to trigger side effects in some, including:

  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Excessive sweating

Also, certain catuaba formulations have been known to be laced with yohimbine, a herbal supplement used to treat erectile dysfunction. Side effects of yohimbine include anxiety, irritability, nausea, rapid heart rate, and priapism (prolonged or painful erections).

Even though catuaba is marketed as a sexual enhancement supplement, a 2015 study in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology reported that a Trinchilia catigua extract caused impaired fertility in female rats.

Due to the risk of impaired fertility, catuaba should not be used in women who are pregnant or intend to get pregnant. Furthermore, the safety of catuaba in children and nursing mothers has not been established.

It is also unknown whether catuaba can interact with other drugs, including alcohol.

Catuaba powder
Verywell / Anastasia Tretiak 

Dosage and Preparation

Available for purchase online, catuaba can also be found in some natural foods shops and stores specializing in dietary supplements. In addition to the aforementioned capsules, extracts, and powders, catuaba is sometimes sold in wildcrafted bark chips and cuttings (for use in making teas and decoctions).

There are no guidelines for the appropriate use of catuaba. Most capsule supplements are formulated in doses ranging from 375 to 475 milligrams (mg), but this shouldn't suggest that doses in this range are either safe or effective. In the end, all dosages listed on the product label are according to the drug manufacturer only.

As a rule of thumb, never exceed the dose listed on the product label. It is far better to start at a lower dose and gradually increase until the desired effect, if any, is achieved. In fact, given what little is known about the safety of catuaba, the less you take, the better.

Taking increasingly larger doses to "feel the effects" of catuaba is unadvised. In the end, catuaba may not work and end up causing more harm than good.

Catuaba capsules are by far the easiest to use since the dose is relatively consistent. Other forms, like powders and extracts, require accurate measurements.

What to Look For

The greatest challenge in buying catuaba is that it is not one thing. Catuaba can be made from any number of tree barks, and it would be unreasonable to assume that all act in the same way.

To this end, you need to do your homework so that you can make a fully informed choice. This can be challenging since dietary supplements are not strictly regulated in the United States. Here are some tips that can help:

  • Read the product label. The label should always contain the species name of the tree (such as Trinchilia catigua) as well as the breakdown of any other active or inactive ingredients. If you don't recognize an ingredient, ask your pharmacist.
  • Buy organic. Opt for brands that are certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). In this way, you can are less likely to be exposed to unwanted chemicals, including pesticides.
  • Be wary of imported wildcrafted bark. This includes unprocessed bark chips, shavings, or powders. Because producers of these products almost never submit their products for voluntary quality testing, you have no idea if a product has been tainted or if it is what it says it is. Even imported supplements and extracts should be regarded as suspicious.
  • Avoid products that make medical claims. As a general rule, any product that says it can treat multiple unrelated medical conditions is suspect. Not only is making such claims illegal, it brings into doubt the authenticity of the product.
4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Chassot JM, Longhini R, Gazarini L, Mello JC, De oliveira RM. Preclinical evaluation of Trichilia catigua extracts on the central nervous system of mice. J Ethnopharmacol. 2011;137(3):1143-8. doi:10.1016/j.jep.2011.07.032

  2. Kamdem JP, Waczuk EP, Kade IJ, et al. Catuaba (Trichilia catigua) prevents against oxidative damage induced by in vitro ischemia-reperfusion in rat hippocampal slices. Neurochem Res. 2012;37(12):2826-35. doi:10.1007/s11064-012-0876-0

  3. Aguiar JS, Araújo RO, Rodrigues Mdo D, et al. Antimicrobial, antiproliferative and proapoptotic activities of extract, fractions and isolated compounds from the stem of Erythroxylum caatingae plowman. Int J Mol Sci. 2012;13(4):4124-40. doi:10.3390/ijms13044124

  4. Dos santos AH, Ramos AC, Silveira KM, et al. The exposure to Trichilia catigua (catuaba) crude extract impairs fertility of adult female rats but does not cause reproductive damage to male offspring. J Ethnopharmacol. 2015;166:86-91. doi:10.1016/j.jep.2015.03.018

By Cathy Wong
Cathy Wong is a nutritionist and wellness expert. Her work is regularly featured in media such as First For Women, Woman's World, and Natural Health.