Click image above to watch “Natural Remedy May Dramatically Transform Sexual Enhancement Market” on ABC Nightline
ABC News Nightline sent reporter Gloria Riviera and producer Nick Capote to Malaysia with Medicine Hunter Chris Kilham to explore the world of Tongkat Ali, a potent natural remedy backed by excellent science. Sometimes known as "nature's Viagra," Tongkat Ali is a powerful adaptogen and sex enhancer. On the trail, Chris and his team journeyed to markets, and to the Malaysian rainforest, to see the world of this remarkable plant.
Chris Kilham believes the herb tongkat ali could blow the sexual enhancement market wide open.
From testosterone replacement to drugs like Viagra, sexual enhancement is a multibillion-dollar business in the United States.
But Chris Kilham, who refers to himself professionally as the medicine hunter, is hoping to introduce a natural, safer alternative that also works for women and could blow the market wide open.
“You take people who have low libido, you give them tongkat ali,” Kilham, 62, of Leverett, Massachusetts, told ABC News Nightline of the herb. “It’s Chinese New Year’s fireworks in their pants. It works.”
Kilham works for the French company Naturex, the largest botanical extract manufacturer in North America, which sells processed herbs to most major brands. He scours the globe investigating natural remedies to make people younger, stronger and sexier, such as tongkat ali.
The herb tongkat ali is a rare, ancient remedy that is already successful in Malaysia. With items such as tongkat ali-infused chocolate, Kilham said, it is the single most highly prized plant in Malaysia. He wants to make the herb a household name in the United States.
“Every bit is highly scientific research,” Kilham said. “This is primary research. Native people won’t take an herb for hundreds of years if it doesn’t work.”
California mom Alisa Roberts, 34, is one of the few Americans who actually managed to get her hands on tongkat ali.
“After having my first child, I just noticed that I didn’t want to have sex,” Roberts told “Nightline.” “Even just the thought of it made me feel exhausted.”
Roberts scoured the Internet in search of exotic remedies, and came across tongkat ali. “It was coined the herbal Viagra, so it kind of piqued my interest,” she said.
Within five days of ingesting the pill form of tongkat ali, Roberts said her husband noticed something was different about her.
“I just felt like I had more desire for him,” Roberts said.
Kilham has convinced Naturex that it’ll make millions off tongkat ali, but finding a reliable source that can sustain the U.S. appetite could be a challenge. The root of the tongkat kali tree, not the bark or leaves, is what has the medicinal component, but no one has actually figured out how to successfully farm it. In addition, the Malaysian forest, which is home to the tongkat ali tree, is protected by law. Only indigenous people are allowed to harvest its natural resources.
“Are we damaging the wild’s supply? Are we harvesting just enough that it’s sustainable? This is the one remaining unanswered question for me,” Kilham said.
Tongkati ali does not treat erectile dysfunction, so it is not a replacement for Viagra, which can increase blood flow.
But Ong Boon Kean, a senior researcher at the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia, has studied the effects of tongkat ali and said it can actually boost low testosterone and sperm count.
“There are lots of different ways to get a sexual function, but certainly boosting testosterone is one of them,” Kean told “Nightline.”
Kilham said restoring that vital hormone is key to the herb’s success in both men and women. The science is shaky, but there are several studies, some of them industry-sponsored, that support the claims.
While it is not a substitute for Viagra, Kilham said tongkat ali is a safe, long-term alternative to attaining a healthier sex drive.
“People are disillusioned with pharmaceuticals. The safety part is just so startlingly evident,” Kilham said.
Over 100,000 people die every year from the proper use of prescription medications. But herbs do have their own set of risks.
Critics complain that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration oversight of the industry is far too lenient, relying on manufacturers to self-police.
“Herbal supplements are not drugs so they should not be regulated like drugs,” Naturex sales director David Yvergniaux told “Nightline.”
Yvergniaux said applying pharmaceutical standards to herbal medicine would make supplements unaffordable.
“Those products have been used for hundreds of years,” he said. “Traditional use is the best proof for safety, but what we do on top of this is make sure it has no contaminants.”
Yvergniaux sees a huge market for tongkat ali. “It’s a natural easy and affordable way to, you know, to regain your manhood in a way,” he said.
Naturex’s taking a chance on tongkat ali means Roberts, the California mom who’s now a libido blogger, won’t have to search far for a natural remedy.
“For every ailment,” she said, “there is a herb, and people are starting to pay attention.”