Several years ago, I was researching material for a book on the medicinal plants of India, and became interested in a family of plants known as Rubiaceae. Of particular interest was a plant known in Sanskrit as ach which was attributed special properties by ancient physicians. The fruit of this ach plant or Morinda citrafolia has a rich history in India where it has been used for tens of centuries in the system of medicine known as ayurveda. This holistic medical tradition was established in the north western part of India by a people called aryans who were reputed to be a rather cosmic civilization. Morinda citrifolia was especially esteemed by the ancient aryan physicians because it protected the skin from becoming dry and cracked from the sun. My investigation of the published scientific literature on Morinda citrifolia yielded more than 100 articles pertaining to this medicinal plant. I soon discovered that the original home of the plant was not India at all, but rather Polynesia, Micronesia and the Hawaiian Islands where it is known as noni.

I first investigated what was known about the compounds in the noni fruit. Not surprisingly I found that several important active constituents were already identified which had beneficial effects in human physiology. Among the most intriguing were the carotenoids, bioflavonoids and anthraquinones as well as several other unknown substances which according to their chemical structures appeared to be accessory activating factors.

At this point, I decided to take noni as a medicine on a regular basis myself. I had taken this direct experiential approach to learning about a plant medicine many times, as I had been taught to do in my training as an ayurvedic physician. It was late autumn, and although I was healthy, I was all too familiar with the pattern my physiology follows every year around this time. It always began with feelings of increasing stress, then bothersome skin eruptions, fatigue, mental irritability, bloating, constipation, and finally inevitably an upper respiratory infection, and it happened the same way every year. I reasoned that noni juice might confer some protective action against disease through its significant anti-oxidant components. In the past, I had consumed medicinal preparations hundreds of times with many of these same constituents without any appreciable effects. As it turned out, there was a marked difference in my health that autumn. I was distinctly more alert, more energetic, more balanced, my skin was glowing more than I could ever recall and my digestion was improved immeasurably. I attributed the benefits of noni to the interaction of the known components with the hitherto unknown components which perhaps work synergistically with all the other nutrients.

The second part of my research is known as ethnobotony, where we seek out physicians or native healers who may have extensive experience in using a particular medicinal herb, and ask them what they use it for, how they prepare it, how successful it is and obtain direct information about its medical usefulness from people who have used it over many many years. The third aspect of my research process involves a thorough search of the current scientific and medical literature to determine whether any of the constituents of the plant in question are known to possess biological activity that may help shed some light on its effectiveness for the treatment of a certain disease or diseases.

With regard to Morinda citrifolia, an interesting thing started to happen the more my research progressed. It seemed that the list of ailments for which noni was used medically just grew and grew longer than almost any other medicinal plant that I have ever encountered. I was initially overwhelmed at how many medical indications this single plant has had in the Pacific Islands and south east Asian literature.

A few of the medicinal uses are for digestive problems such as diarrhea, intestinal worms, nausea, food poisoning; respiratory problems such as congestive cough, dry cough, tuberculosis, cholera, infant chest colds and sore throat; cardiovascular problems, hypertension; inflammatory conditions such as arthritis, abscesses, mastitis, gout and other inflammatory joint conditions. It is a noted analgesic or pain reliever. One of the most common uses of noni has been in the area of skin conditions, being utilized for wounds, ulcers, abscesses, ring worm, boils, cellulitis, swellings, scalp conditions and sores. It has been used in the treatment of tumours and broken bones, jaundice and other forms of liver disease. It has been used to treat asthma and dysentery, hypercholesterolemia, menstrual cramps, gastric ulcers and diabetes.

Faced with such a diverse list of physiologically distinct conditions, the conventionally oriented physician might be tempted to completely dismiss these reports as unsubstantiated folk tales. We are conditioned to believe that any important medicinal substance should have one or at most two applications. How could one plant be used to treat so many pathological conditions?

To answer these questions, it was time to turn to the scientific research involving Morinda citrafolia. Research at the University of Hawaii's Biomedical Sciences Department showed that extracts of noni contained a naturally occurring component which activates serotonin receptors in the brain and throughout the body. Serotonin is a neuroendocrine compound which along with its receptors is found in high levels in the brain, the blood platelets and the lining of the digestive tract. It is well established that serotonin is an important brain neurotransmitter, and plays a significant role in temperature regulation, sleep, hunger and sexual behaviour. Serotonin deficiency has been implicated in a number of pathological conditions including migraine headaches, obesity, depression and Alzheimer's disease. Modern pharmaceutical medicine has had some success with the use of serotonin analogues in the treatment of certain diseases. I am sure many of you are familiar with the drug Prozac which is used to treat depression; another is used to treat acute migraine headaches. Both of these synthetic drugs specifically target and bind to serotonin receptors. The problem with both of these substances and with all synthetically manufactured pharmaceuticals which isolate one active ingredient is the great incidents of adverse side effects. Natural products like Morinda citrafolia in its unprocessed complete form do not generally have adverse effects. The presence of a wide range of other naturally occurring substances which are present in some way regulates and modifies its effects.

Research at the University of Metz in France, demonstrated the central analgesic activity of noni to alleviate pain of many types. Moderate doses of noni was measured to be about 75% as effective as an equivalent dose of morphine sulphate.

Since 1961, we have known that various parts of the Morinda citrafolia tree contains several different varieties of bitter plant compounds known as anthraquinones. Plants containing anthraquinones have literally been used for millennia due to their medicinal properties. Most noted are significant antiseptic (antibacterial) effect to disease causing bacteria in the intestinal tract. This compound is especially toxic to the pathogens Shigela and Salmonella. Anthraquinones are also particularly effective against many forms of Staphylococcus, a major cause of many skin infections which sometimes infect the valves of the heart. Furthermore anthraquinones in noni prompt the digestive secretions of the stomach and small intestines, stimulate bile flow and promote the activity of the entire digestive process. However, it is the activity of one specific anthraquinone, damnacanthal which has been shown in vitro to actually reverse cancer cell proliferation at the gene level. The research has demonstrated that one isolated component found in noni fruit turned off the signal for tumour cells to proliferate. The study was reported in 1993 from a very reputable laboratory in Kao University in Yokohama, Japan.

It was originally believed that one compound which had been isolated was responsible for all the many biological effects. The compound which has a chemical formula of C(10)H(8)0(4) is known as scopoletin. Both noni and scopoletin are known to reduce blood pressure, have anti-inflammatory activity, exhibit antibiotic activity, antifungal activity and possess antitumour effects. Yet when researchers at the University of Hawaii tried to purify and isolate scopoletin from the rest of the noni extract, much of its activity was lost. In fact, both the biological effects and the serotonin receptor binding effects of the crude noni extract was lost upon purification of this presumed active ingredient. This leaves us the conclusion that other substances in noni must be present in order to produce its biological effects.

Noni has not been found to be harmful at any level, nor for any health condition.

Consumer Health Organization of Canada.


By Scott Gerson

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