The Questionable Effects of Tongkat Ali on Exercise-Induced Stress

Traditional herbs: some people swear by them, others are skeptics. A recent study on the effects of tongkat ali shows it might not be a dependable aid for stress relief.

Of all the supplements out there, traditional herbs may get the most skeptical eye from modern athletes. There’s always a question in the back of the mind as to how effective they are, or if they are effective at all. The little Southeast Asian evergreen tree most commonly called tongkat ali is no exception.

Tongkat ali has numerous traditional uses like removing microbes, helping with diabetes, and fighting fevers. In its home region of Southeast Asia, another common use is for preventing malaria. The most common traditional use of this herbal remedy, however, and possibly why you’ve heard its name before, is because of its sexual benefits. Thought to be an aphrodisiac, performance enhancer in bed, and enhancer of male virility, this little tree symbolizes pure manliness in Malaysia.

Perhaps these uses aren’t as farfetched as they may seem on the surface. It seems that tongkat ali may actually improve spermatogenesis (the creation of new sperm in men) as well as circulating testosterone levels. One way it does this is by reducing the harmful impact of estrogen on testosterone production in men.

So it seems as though tongka ali’s historical uses do have some scientific backing, based on its effects on hormones. In a recent study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, researchers wanted to learn of its ability to mitigate stress. They speculated that the potential effects on hormones would also help to alleviate stress, including physical stress that can occur after exercise.

The researchers tested stress hormones in 63 participants, both men and women. They chose this group in particular because their hormone profiles and reported moods showed that they were chronically a little stressed out. Some of them took tongkat ali, and some of them took a placebo for four weeks. When the study period was over the researchers measured the participants’ moods and tested their hormones.

The tongkat ali was quite effective, according to the researchers. Participants reported reduction of confusion, anger, and tension. Between 11-15% of the participants reported an overall improvement in mood. They also reported a decrease in cortisol (a stress hormone), and an increase in testosterone.

However, there’s another factor at work here. This study was funded by a company that produces tongkat ali, and the researchers work for that or other companies that make the stuff in supplement form. Upon further examination, the results weren’t as cut and dry as they liked to make it sound.

While testosterone was highest at the end for the tongkat ali group, it was higher for that group at the start too, and actually increased for both groups during the trial. The same sort of weirdness happened for cortisol. For some reason, while cortisol levels were lower for the tongkat ali group than placebo at the end – get this – the researchers didn’t report in the abstract that cortisol actually shot up for both groups.

So while the researchers propose a benefit to stress, including the kind that you get from exercise, the results were dubious at best. I won’t be rushing out to buy this stuff any time soon.


1. Shawn M Talbott, et. al., “Effect of Tongkat Ali on stress hormones and psychological mood state in moderately stressed subjects,” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 2013, 10:28

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.