Catuaba is beginning to become a popular herbal medicine for a wide range of conditions related to memory, ageing, and sexual health. The bark of the Catuaba tree is used to correct impotence, memory decline, low energy levels, and to improve male infertility.
We know through copious amounts of scientific testing and analysis that the herb works... and has been shown to possess antidepressant, anxiolytic, and dopaminergic actions within the body. There is just one problem with Catuaba however…
...There are actually over seven different, completely unrelated species of plants with the common name Catuaba…
This is a huge problem when you consider the fact that the majority of people rely on the common names of plants when recommending, selling, or buying plants for medicinal purposes. Choosing a Catuaba product that has been suggested for one condition, but them buying another species altogether under the same common name can bring a lot of trouble and ineffective products. This not only discredits the place you bought the product, but also herbal medicine in general.
To make matters even worse, most of these Catuaba's are even used in the same way traditionally and are considered to be interchangeable in the traditional Amazonian medical systems where they originate. This is confusing and dangerous because these plants have absolutely no relation to each other, and each one has a totally different chemical makeup. Some of the actions overlap, but many of them are actually completely different and are useful for different conditions altogether.
Catuaba In The Marketplace
Catuaba products purchased today are often simply labelled as “Catuaba” and have no indication of the actual species being used in the preparation.
Other companies do list a species but have gotten it wrong. Testing the chemical makeup of herbal products is not yet common in North America, which makes it very easy for a company to buy generic “Catuaba” from South American suppliers, make it into a herbal extract, and label it as “Catuaba: Trichilia catigua”, even though the actual species in the bottle might be completely different.
Places like Australia require regular testing of the chemicals within a herbal extract. Looking at the results of an HPLC test and comparing it to the chemical makeup we know each species to have means we can identify when the wrong Catuaba species is being used.
Problems With The Catuaba Confusion
As the popularity of Catuaba increases, more scientific research is released each year to the scientific community on its efficacy. Some of this research has discovered possible mechanisms of action for Catuaba against depression and low libido through dopamine pathways .
The problem with this research is that many of the older studies didn’t list the species they were testing. This actually makes the study completely void because we have no idea which plant is being used. Most people will immediately find ways to discredit the outcomes of these studies after realising this, however, these studies are still being used by marketers throughout the world as evidence for the efficacy of their catuaba product.
Even credible studies that report the species name and dosages of the plants being used can be interpreted or sourced incorrectly. Someone may see an article outlining the effectiveness for a particular catuaba species against something like depression. They then go out and purchase some catuaba, which may contain a totally different species inside the bottle.
Many of the catuaba products on the market today don’t actually list the species and therefore should NOT be used. This is just bad practice in general and can have negative side effects. In the best case, the herbal extract will simply be ineffective. In the worst scenario, the wrong dosage, or a drug interaction from misidentification can cause serious side effects.
Why The Names With Catuaba Are So Confusing
When it comes to common names, there is often confusion because the name tends to be different by different groups of people. One circle of people will refer to a plant as one thing, which has no relation to the name given to it by another group of people.
I have had entire conversations with people where we are talking about 2 different plants which seem to have very similar characteristics only to find that they were indeed the exact same plant. This is why common names are confusing and why scientists prefer using the botanical names of plants. These names not only offer some indication as to what characteristics the plant has, but is also a universal system of naming. Trichilia catigua can only refer to one species of plant no matter where you are in the world. This effectively eliminates any degree of confusion.
With catuabas case, the confusion goes much deeper. The word catuaba is a Guarani term meaning “something that gives the native strength”. (The Guarani are a local Amazonian tribe who frequently use catuaba bark as medicine). For this reason, other herbs in the rainforest that were used to give them strength often adopted this name. This accounts for the reason why so many different species have been given the common name catuaba in the region.
The Common Names Of Catuaba Even Vary!
There are numerous other names for catuaba species, which of themselves tend to overlap. These can include Chuchuhuasha, Tatuaba, Pau de Reposta, Piratancara and Caramuru, and more. This would be a whole article in itself to name all of the separate common names that overlap with catuaba species, and other Amazonian medicinal species.
There are also preparations that include catuaba with similar names that have made people confused on the herb as well. For example the popular South American herbal formula “Catuama ®”. This is a combination of catuaba (Trichilia catigua), Muira puama (Ptychopetalum olacoides), Ginger (Zingiber officinalis), and Guarana (Paullinia cupana).
Some people have gotten confused by this product and suggested that a synonym for catuaba is Catuama on their website or book. This is false and again misleading. Catuama is a combination of herbs, and will have a different effect on the body than a simple catuaba preparation.
There is also commonly made into an alcoholic beverage to promote sexual activity in Brazil.
The Different Kinds Of Catuaba:
1. Trichilia catigua
This species is the most commonly used in the Amazon, and is the favourite for conditions involving pain, depression, and other neurological disorders for its well-known dopaminergic actions.
Trichilia catigua is contained within the Meilicaceae family of plants, which include the mahogany trees. There are about 80 different species in the Trichilia genus, which stretch all the way from Mexico to Argentina.
This species is known locally as “big catuaba” for its large size (common in the mahogany family). One issue with this species is the ease in which other species of the mahogany family can be used to adulterate the catuaba bark. The barks of these trees are all very similar in color, and easily passed off as one or the other. This is another reason why it’s important to purchase catuaba from a reputable herb dealer who actually lists the species used on the bottle, and even more preferably, someone who provides the testing results of the batch.
2. Erythroxylum catuaba
Outside of South America, it appears this species is the most commonly used. This is based off the frequency of this species being listed on catuaba products rather than from any real quantitative research.
Erythroxylum catuaba is contained within the Erythroxylaceae family of plants. Otherwise known as “small catuaba”, this species of catuaba are related to the more commonly known Erythroxylum coca, which is the plant that gives us the street drug “cocaine”.
Although none of the alkaloids responsible for cocaine's inebriating effects are found in the catuaba species, a lot of the overall chemistry is similar.
This species of catuaba is preferred for its stronger effect as an antibacterial agent, yet does contain some measurable CNS modulating effects and can still be used as an antidepressant and anxiolytic.
3. Juniperus braziliensis
This species is related to the evergreen juniper trees of North America. This species is not frequently used, and is considered one of the weaker Catuaba’s available. There really isn’t much research on this species, which means the chemical composition, and effectiveness for the conditions traditionally treated with this herb are not well understood.
It is recommended to avoid using this species unless administered by someone familiar with the actions of this species of Catuaba.
4. Anemopaegma mirandum and A. arvense
Listed in the Brazilian pharmacopoeia as the recommended species. This doesn’t reflect what recent studies have indicated as the most commonly used species in the region, which suggest that Trichilia catigua  is the most commonly used species in South America.
The effectiveness of Anemopaegma arvense has been not been thoroughly investigated, however, its close relative, Anemopaegma mirandum has been shown in at least one study to provide protective effects the neurological systems of mice. In this study, mice were protected from neurological dysfunction after being administered rotenone, which is a well known neurotoxin. Researchers in this study suggested this species of catuaba to be beneficial against conditions such as Parkinson’s disease. .
5. Eriotheca candolleana
Also known as white catuaba, this species of catuaba is actually contained in the marshmallow family. This family has a wide range of phenotypes, from small herby plant, to large trees as is the case with the white catuiaba.
This species is commonly used for landscaping. Although considered an attractive tree overall, it has little medicinal significance despite being included in the catuaba collection of plants.
6. Micropholis spp.
Micropholis is a genus contained in the Sapotaceae family which includes plants like Vitellaria paradoxa which is the source for shae butter.
Micropholis contans about 38 species of plants, may of which are commonly referred to as catuaba. Other names for these plants include “cafetos”, which means “coffee plants”.
Traditionally the bark of Micropholis species of plants were used as an aphrodisiac and stimulant, which remains true to the catuaba class. A with many of the South American herbal medicines, this species is facing overexploitation and deforestation pretty much across the board. It is recommended to only purchase this plant from a reputable dealer who maintains high moral standards when sourcing the herbs for sale from the Amazon rainforest.
7. Phyllanthus nobilis
Phyllanthus is a genus of flowering plants with incredible diversity, which has the widest range of pollen forms on earth. Also contained in this genus is the medicinal species Phyllanthus niruri or Chanca De Piedra, which is a popular antidiabetic species also originating from the Amazon rainforest.
Very little information could be found on the Phyllanthus nobilis species in reference to its uses as a catuaba species. It is possible this species simply shares the common name of catuaba yet lacks any traditional use for similar conditions.
8. Tetragastris catuaba
This large tree species of Brazil is mysterious and unexplored. It tends to grow high up in the mountains of the Amazon rainforest far from human contact. This is particularly strange and has provoked a series of ethnobotanical debates on its inclusion in the species. This is because the majority of the Tetragastris species prefer the coastal dune regions of Bahia which is significantly different than the high, humid, and cold regions of the Amazonian mountains.
This particular species of the tetragastris species is considered endangered and is unlikely to find its way into a consumer catuaba preparation... at least outside of South America that is. .
The Best Catuaba Products To Use
With all the various catuabas found in the wild, there are really only a small handful used commonly in medicinal preparations. The preferred species overall is Trichilia catigua, which also appears to have the best activity on the dopaminergic system and therefore memory, and concentration.
Erythroxylum catuaba is a close second in popularity, and appears to be better as an antibacterial agent, though still provides some modest dopaminergic activity.
When shopping for catuaba, it’s recommended to use The trichilia catigua species, and to purchase only from reputable herb dealers to avoid using adulterated or poor quality catuaba.
We recommend this catuaba extract. This is because of the companies good track record, clear labelling, and chosen species.
The Sunlight Experiment
Recent Blog Posts:
- Maria M. Campos, Elizabeth S. Fernandes, Juliano Ferriera, Adair R. S. Santos, Joao B. Calixto. (2005). Antidepressant-like effects of Trichillia catigua (Catuaba) extract: evidence for dopaminergic-mediated mechanisms. Phytopharmacology. 182. 45-53. Retrieved from the web.
- Christina Daolio, Flavio L. Beltrame, Antonio G. Ferriera, Quezia B. Cass, Diogenes Aparicio Garcia Cortez, and Marcia M. C. Ferriera. (2007). Classification of Commercial Catuaba Samples by NMR, HPLC and Chemometrics. Phytochemical Analysis. 19. 218-228. DOI: 10.1002/pca.1019
- Daly, D. C. (1990). The Genus Tetragastris and the Forests of Eastern Brazil: Studies in Neotropical Burseraceae III. Kew Bulletin, 179-194.
- De Andrade, D. V. G., de Oliveria, D. M., Barreto, G., Bertolino, L. A., Saraceno, E., Capani, F., & Giraldez, L. D. (2008). Effects of the extract of Anemopaegma mirandum (Catuaba) on Rotenone-induced apoptosis in human neuroblastomas SH-SY5Y cells. Brain research, 1198, 188-196.