The Health Benefits of Catuaba

This Brazilian rainforest tree bark may enhance mood and libido

Catuaba bark herb in a mortar with pestle

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In This Article

Catuaba is a natural remedy derived from the bark of trees of the Brazilian rainforest. Formulations vary depending on the type of tree selected but are nevertheless said to stimulate the nervous system and offer aphrodisiac properties. Among the trees used for catuaba (a tribal word meaning "what gives strength to the Indian") are Erythroxylum caatingae, Trichilia catigua, Anemopaegma arvense, and Micropholis caudata.

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 South America, catuaba is known by a variety of regional nicknames. In the United States, it is mainly sold as a dietary supplement in capsule, extract, and powder forms.

Also Known As

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

Health Benefits

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, others (such as the bark's antitumor or aphrodisiac effects) are largely exaggerated.

Here is what some of the current research says:

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).

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 from obtained from lab rats 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 catuaga can protect against stroke, given that an oral dose is unlikely to achieve anywhere near the same concentration in the brain. Further research is needed to determine the specific mechanism of action of T. catigua, the findings of which may 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 effectively "immortal"' and do not undergo apoptosis like normal cells do.) 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 catuaga 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, and 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.

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 milligrams (mg) to 475 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.

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

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.

Given what little we know about the safety of catuaba, the less you take, the better.

What to Look For

The greatest challenge in buying catuaba is that catuaba 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 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 suspiciously.
  • 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 are making such claims illegal, it also brings into doubt the authenticity of the product. In the end, if you can't trust the manufacturer, can you really trust the manufacturer's product?
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