On Thursday, 19 August 1993, the Christchurch Press carried a full-page advertisement for the initial New Zealand opening of the “Matrol Opportunity”.

The product, Matrol-Km, was described as “a unique nutritional supplement comprised of a synergistic combination of 13 botanical ingredients that produces an unusually powerful bond at the molecular level”. It was developed over 60 years ago by Dr Karl Jurak (PhD, University of Vienna, 1922), originally for his own use.

We were told that the product “has been tested in the most demanding laboratory in the world — the human body — for over 70 years”. The goal of the company “is not to see how many distributors we can sign up. Our goal is to impact world health. [italics original] Matrol is unique in that its distributors are emotionally tied to its product. They are unwavering in their commitment to use the product daily and reap its health benefits on an ongoing basis. Which means that each distributor is his or her own best testimonial!”

In case the rather vaguely described health advantages of the product weren’t enough, the ad pointed out that Matrol offers “one of the most generous compensation plan[s] in the network marketing industry“. This seems to be 25-40% profits, plus additional 5% commissions on sales made by “supervisors”> under you.

I was intrigued enough by the claims of an unusually powerful molecular bond to attend the evening meeting. Unfortunately the nature of this bond was not mentioned at the meeting, although the herbal ingredients were.

Matrol-Km consists of a dark-coloured, admittedly unpleasant-tasting liquid, which you are supposed to take daily for at least a month to be assured of achieving health effects (although some persons respond inside a day), and which you can then expect to take for the rest of your life. This costs $NZ90 per month per person, unless in self-defense you become a Matrol reseller to obtain wholesale discounts.

The health benefits were not much specified at the meeting. Phrases used included “extra energy”, “better sleep”, “look younger, feel younger”, “clarity of mind”, “an insurance for good health”. I was impressed by the frequency with which speakers talked of having encountered Matrol-Km at financial and/or emotional low-points in their life. We were reminded that the product is for both physical and financial health, and there was to my mind considerable intermingling of the two concepts.

The bottles themselves (one month’s supply, 946 ml), give an admirably thorough list of ingredients, presumably in order of diminishing concentration: water, caramel, potassium citrate, glycerophosphate, calcium glycerophosphate, magnesium glycerophosphate, potassium hydroxide, potassium glycerophosphate, iron glycerophosphate, followed by 13 herbs, plus traces of clove and peppermint oil as flavourings. The mixture, which is non-alcoholic, is preserved by paraben and methyl paraben. Below, I’ve summarised the Matrol claims for each herb as given on a sales pamphlet, and the descriptions given by S. Talalaj and A.S. Czechowicz in their book Herbal Remedies: Harmful and Beneficial Effects.

(1) Chamomile flowers (Matricaria chamomilla).

Matrol: consecrated to the Egyptian Gods; used by Romans for nutritional properties; used to make a tea; high in calcium, magnesium, iron and trace minerals.

T&C: active ingredients are matricine, a volatile oil (1%) containing bisabolols and chamazulene… Also glycosides apigenin, apigetrin, rutin, coumarins, and flavonoids. Pharmacological action: anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic (“cramps”), carminative (anti-farting), sedative, antiseptic, vulnerary (promotes wound healing). A “therapeutically valuable remedy” with mild calming effect useful in treatment of nervous conditions, excitement, and restlessness… Harmless even if taken over a prolonged period.

(2) Saw palmetto berry (sabal, Serenoa repens).

Matrol: N American Indians made tea from berry, which contains many primary nutrients and elemental minerals.

T&C: Active constituents are oestrogen-like steroidal glycosides. Low-toxicity plant, but its use should be discussed with a medical practitioner because of the oestrogen-like effects. Has been used to treat chronic cystitis, might show beneficial effect in treatment of benign enlargement of prostate.

(3) Angelica root (Archangelica officinalis).

Matrol: regarded as holy plant, chewed regularly by Laplanders, rich in essential oils, calcium, vitamin E and vitamin B-12, which is rare in vegetation.

T&C: Active constituents are volatile oil, furanocoumarins, resin, bitter principles, and triterpenoids. Relatively safe in moderate curative doses. (“Fresh root is extremely toxic and is used as a homicidal poison among Canadian Indians.”) Pharmacological action is to increase gastric secretions, antispasmodic, diuretic, sedative. Has mainly been used in treatment of indigestion and flatulent colic… stimulates the appetite in anorexia nervosa, also used for treatment of cystitis and urinary inflammations. Decreases muscular tension and exhibits a mild sedative action….

(4) Thyme (Thymus vulgaris).

Matrol: Signifies graceful elegance in Greece, bravery in European chivalry. Abundant in thiamine, also B-complex, vitamins C and D, and trace minerals.

T&C: Active constituents volatile oil (2-3%)… Also tannins (10%), saponins, flavonoids. Harmless when used in a low dose (oil highly toxic when digested in ml quantities). Pharmacological actions are antiseptic, anthelmintic (intestinal worms), astringent, expectorant, carminative. Has been used in treatment of cough, whooping cough, bronchitis, dyspepsia and stomach disorders, occasionally as anthelmintic.

(5) Passion flower (Passiflora incarnata).

Matrol: cultivated and used by Indians of Virginia (US). Plentiful in nutrient complexes, especially calcium and magnesium.

T&C: Active ingredients indole alkaloids (0.1%) including harmine, harmaline and harman. Also flavonoids, steroidal substances, cyanogenic glycosides and saponins. Harmless if used in a low curative dose, but should only be used under medical supervision. Reputation of being an effective sedative.

(6) Gentian root (Gentiana lutea).

Matrol: popular in Europe as mid-day tea. Rich in B-complex nutrients, vitamin F, niacin, inositol and many trace elements.

T&C: Active constituents are bitter glycosides, also alkaloids, flavonoids, tannins and mucilage. Harmless in low therapeutic doses, but should be avoided in cases of acute gastritis, stomach ulcer, and haemorrhages in gastro-intestinal tract, also by patients with excessive number of red blood cells. Not advisable in breast-feeding women because breast milk may become bitter. Popular bitter gastric stimulant, used as appetizer, to increase gastric secretion in dyspepsia, and to relieve flatulence, also useful for gall-bladder dysfunction and liver problems.

(7) Licorice root (Glycyrrhzia glabra).

Matrol: used anciently in China, Greece. Contains vitamin E, B-complex, biotin, niacin, pantothenic acid, lecithin, manganese and other trace minerals.

T&C: Active constituents are triterpenoid saponins… also flavonoids, oestrogen-like steroids, coumarins, tannins and volatile oil. No adverse effects in low curative doses. Pharmacological action as anti-inflammatory, expectorant (loosens phlegm), anti-spasmodic (cramps), demulcent (eases irritation of skin and lining of digestive tract). Popular remedy mainly for gastric ulcer. Shows beneficial anti-inflammatory effects, reduces gastric acid secretion and promotes ulcer healing. Also used for cough, bronchitis and allergic skin disease.

(8) Senega root (milkwort, Polygala senega).

Matrol: valued by N American Indians for its refreshing mint-like flavour and for many nutrients. Rich in magnesium, iron and other trace minerals.

T&C: Active constituents are triterpenoid saponins (up to 10%) including senegin… Also sterols, resin, and methyl salicylate (oil of wintergreen). Toxic when used in an excessive dose, may cause vomiting diarrhoea, vertigo, visual disturbances, and inflammation of the oesophagus. Should be avoided during pregnancy and G-I inflammation or stomach bleeding. Mainly used to treat cough and chronic bronchitis, often in combination with ipecac, or in combination with other plants as an asthma remedy.

(9) Horehound root (Ballota nigra).

Matrol: member of mint family, praised 4 centuries ago by Gerard for its usefulness. Rich in Vitamins A, E, C, F and B-complex, also contains iron and potassium.

T&C: Active ingredients are flavonoids, “bitter principle” and volatile oil. No adverse effects reported. Used for dyspepsia, flatulence and anti-emetic in pregnancy.

10) Celery seed (Apium graveolens).

Matrol: in use for centuries from Central Europe to East Indies and South America. Seed contains a group of useful organic compounds called phthalides, also vitamins A, B, and C, and iron.

T&C: Active ingredients are volatile oil (3%) containing mainly limonene and selinen, also flavonoid glycoside apiin. A low toxicity plant, but excessive doses should not be used during pregnancy. Mainly used to treat inflammation of urinary tract and cystitis, regarded as an effective urinary antiseptic. Also used to treat arthritis, rheumatism, gout, asthma and bronchitis.

(11) Sarsaparilla root (Smilax officinalis).

Matrol: used by early Americans as “spring tea”. Spanish Conquistadors recorded its [unspecified] legendary qualities. Contains vitamin C and B-complex.

T&C: Active ingredients are steroidal saponins… and parillin. Also tannins, resin and sterols. A low toxicity plant, but excessive dose or prolonged internal use should be avoided. Should not be used in cases of kidney disorder. Pharmacological action is carminative, diuretic, diaphoretic (causing profuse perspiration), antirheumatic. Once had a great reputation in the treatment of rheumatism and skin disease, especially psoriasis.

(12) Alfalfa (Medicago sativa).

Matrol: revered by ancients as “King of Plants”, an excellent source of easily assimilated vitamins and minerals. Contains 14 of the 16 principal mineral elements and all known vitamins, but is especially rich in some amino acids and vitamins A, D and K, and iron.

T&C: Active constituents are oestrogen-like isoflavonoids, alkaloids, carotenoids (provitamin A), and vitamins B1, B2, K, C and D. Also coumarins and mineral salts of calcium, potassium, iron and phosphorus. Excessive doses taken internally can cause flatulence and diarrhoea. Long term application can produce reactivation of systemic lupus erythematosus and produce skin ulceration. Excessive doses can also produce an oestrogen-like response. Pharmacological action as anti-anaemic, nutritive. Mainly used as a nutrient for convalescent patients.

Note that this is just about the only case where the Matrol literature agrees with Talalaj and Czechowicz.

(13) Dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale).

Matrol: Rich in vitamin complexes, choline, a B-vitamin, and a main component of lecithin. Also contains vitamins A and C, and essential linolenic acid.

T&C: Active ingredients are taraxacin, inulin (a fructose polymer), potassium salts, and vitamin A. Harmless. Used for liver ailments and gallstones.

The remarkable thing about the Matrol descriptions is that they concentrate, rather boringly, on the mineral and vitamin contents of their herbal ingredients.

Minerals and vitamins are easily obtained, in relatively cheap multi-purpose vitamin pills, if not in our ordinary diet. In any case, Matrol-Km must contain more potassium, magnesium, calcium, and iron in the form of a glycerophosphate complex than would be contributed by the tinier amounts of herbs. What is special about herbs is their content of pharmacologically active ingredients. I would be flabbergasted if the grossly impure (oops, “complexly formulated”) mixture of chemicals in a given herb is optimal for a particular treatment.

Why doesn’t the Matrol literature mention the pharmacology of their herbal ingredients? Perhaps that would amount to making medical claims. Does Matrol-Km contain enough herbal content to have a pharmacological effect? If so, the foregoing list suggests there could be something beneficial for everyone, although the bitter stomach-stimulating actions of gentian would seem to be fighting the stomach-soothing actions of licorice.

One might be concerned at the oestrogen-like properties of a number of ingredients. Since oestrogens are used in hormone-replacement therapy for menopausal women, could this account for some of the beneficial effects of Matrol-Km? Is it safe for a man to take it? Where is the medical study that shows this mixture is safe for lifelong ingestion? (I’m not even asking for evidence about efficacy!)

After studying the list of ingredients, I’m personally convinced that the original mixture of Dr Jurak might have been useful. In fact I’m going to pick up most of the herbal remedies at the health-food section of the supermarket next week, just to have on hand as cheap try-it-and-see remedies in case mild episodes of the pertinent illnesses arise, say, on a weekend.

I dare say it will cost far less than $90, and I’ll use just the herbs that seem appropriate to a given requirement rather than a shot-gun mixture.

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