The Herb Report: Noni


The noni tree grows wild in much of the tropical world, including the South Pacific, Australia, New Zealand, and India The seeds of this Southeast Asian native float so could have been transported by the ocean, but more likely they were important enough to be carried by travelers. It not only provides medicine, but also dyes cloth and tapu cloth yellow or red. In India it is known as bartundi and the English name is Indian mulberry.

The distinctive pale yellow fruit is several inches long, elongated and warty. It is not considered very attractive, and neither is its rancid-like taste or smell. Even so, the US government described it as an edible fruit in a 1943 survival manual and Hawaiian did eat it in times of famine. The seeds can be roasted and eaten. Smithsonian botanist Warren Wagner, who wrote an encyclopedia of Hawaiian plants and did field work around Noni for nine years commented "I tried not to step on it" when he was interviewed by the Washington Post.( 1) It is dined on in Fiji, Samoa and by Australian aborigines. The Burmese prepare a curry from the green fruit.

Throughout the tropics, the fruit is considered a pain and germ killer that is juiced or grated to soothe sore throat, rough voice, bad breath, sore gums, and mouth ulcers. It also is applied to hemorrhoids and vaginal infection. The Vietnamese use it to increase menstruation. Hawaiians have long rubbed the smelly fruit on their hair to deter insects.

A combination of unripe and ripe helps digestive problems and dysentery, but not surprisingly, it can cause vomiting and have a laxative effect. As a result, it is normally taken with small amounts of food. The traditional preparation is to pound and strain the fruit, then mix it with raw sugar cane juice and mashed kukui nut. Today noni fruit products are promoted through network marketing in the US as a cure for migraines, congested sinuses, wounds, eczema, and menstrual name it. But the biggest selling point is the claim that it suppresses cancer and diabetes. Hawaiian companies sell the bottled juice both fermented the traditional way and diluted in juice.

Other parts of the plant also provide medicine. In many areas of the tropics, the leaves -- which contain several alkaloids( 2) -- are chewed or pounded into a poultice to relieve inflammation from hemorrhoids and boils. In Tonga, a leaf poultice relieves arthritic stiffness, while other areas use a steam bath. It is also used to draw out splinters, and poisonous fish sting toxins. Noni leaves are ingested to treat stomach ulcers and sinus infection. In Tonga, they are given to infants who have diarrhea or sore gums. In India, the leaves are considered a tonic that reduces fever and used as a poultice for gout pain.

The roots are widely used as an antiseptic. Gilbert Islanders make a dressing for skin ulcers and large coral cuts. In Figi, the young shoots prepared in coconut milk treat ringworm, scabies, and rheumatic pains. The bark, heartwood, and roots contain a number of anthraquinones( 3) -- which are thought responsible for its antimicrobial, and possible its anticancer actions.( 4) The root bark does show strong action against many microorganisms, including strep, E. coli, typhoid, and dysentery. Its antifungal activity fights candida and ringworm.( 5) An alcohol extract of the root reduces spasms in uterine and intestinal muscle tissue. It also lowers high blood pressure and slows heart beat.( 6) A commercial product made from noni roots is available in Germany to lower blood pressure.( 7)

No clinical studies back noni's reputation, but preliminary laboratory studies do show that the fruit juice enhances the immune system, and this could contribute to its anticancer action.( 8) However, most research is based on studies on mice. It found that the juice is a painkiller and sedative.( 9) Components in noni also slow the growth of cancer cells.( 10) Relatives of noni also show promise. Five anthraquinones in noni's Chinese relative hong chu teng (M. parvifolia) display antileukemic properties( 11) and the root of the ba ji tian vine (M. officinalis) is traditionally used in China as a cancer treatment.( 12)

MAJOR NONI CHEMISTRY: Fruit: asperulocide, glucose, acapronic and caprylic acids.( 13) Leaves: ursolic acid, B-sitosterol, asperuloside.( 14) Wood/bark: anthrapuinones (morindin, mhenoethoxyrubiadin, a-methoxyalizarin).( 3)

(1.) Rosenfeld, M. 1997. Tropical Noni, A Tonic Boom. Wash Post, Aug.7, p.C1.

(2.) Singh, A. 1981. Medicinal plants in Fiji and other So. Pacific Islands (unpublished). School of Natural Resources, U. of So. Pacific.

(3.) Petard, J. 1972. Journal of the Chemical Society 766; also Balakrishna, et al. 1961. Heartwood of M.c. Journal of Science of Indian Research 20B:331.

(4.) Acharya, T.K. & I.B. Chatterjee. 1974. Science and Culture 30:316.

(5.) Bhatnagar, S.S. et al. 1961. Biological activity of Indian medicinal plants. Indian Journal of Medical Research 49:799.

(6.) Agarwal, K.K. & N.K. Krishnamoorthy. 1962. New preliminary pharmacological studies of alcoholic extract of M.c. Indian Journal of Physiological Pharmacology 6:23.

(7.) Hegnauer, R. Chemotaxonomie der Pflanzen vol. 6, Basel; Germany; Birkhauser Veralg, 1973, p. 882.

(8.) Hirazumi, A., et al. 1996. Immunomodulation contributes to the anticancer activity of M.c. fruit juice. Proceedings of the Western Pharmacology Society 39:7-9.

(9.) Younos, C. et al. 1990. Analgesic and behavioral effects of M.c. Planta Med 56.

(10.) Tomonori, H. 1993. Induction of normal phenotypes in ras-transformed cells by damnacanthal from M.c. Cancer Letters 23.11.Hirazumi, E., et al. 1994. Anticancer activity of M.c. on intraperitoneally implanted lewis lung carcinoma. Proceedings of West Pharmacology Society 37.

(11.) Chang, P. and K.H. Lee. 1985. Journal of Natural Products 48(23):1733-36.

(12.) Hartwell, J. Plants Used Against Cancer, Lawrence, MA; Quarterman Pub., 1982.

(13.) Levand, O. & H.O. Larsen. 1979. Planta Medica 36:186.

(14.) Inouye, H. et al. 1988. Phytochemistry 27:2591.

Cambie, R.C. & J. Ash. Fijian Medicinal Plants. CSIRO, Australia, 1994.

Dittmar, A. 1993. M.c. use in indigenous Samoan medicine. Journal of Herbs, Spices and Medicinal Plants 1( 3).

Holmes, P. Jade Remedies, Boulder, CO; Snow Lion Press, 1996.

Indian Council of Med. Res. Medicinal Plants of India, New Delhi, India, 1987.

Krauss, Beatrice H. Plants in Hawaiian Culture, Hawaii; U of H Press, 1993.

Morton, J. 1992. The ocean-going noni, Indian mulberry....Economic Botany 46( 3).

Lassa, E.V. & T. McCarthy. Australian Medicinal Plants, Australia; Mandarin, 1990.

The American Herb Association.

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