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Could This Bean Give Your Brain a Boost and Help Battle Parkinson's?

mucuna pruriens

Story at-a-glance -

  • Mucuna pruriens (M. pruriens), also known as velvet bean, kapikacchu and cowhage seed, is a vigorous climbing legume best known as a natural source of L-dopa, a dopamine precursor that affects your energy, motivation and well-being
  • Long recognized as a natural source of L-dopa, M. pruriens has been used to treat Parkinson’s disease, effectively reducing adverse events and impairment in voluntary movements as well as synthetic L-dopa drugs
  • The use of M. pruriens can be traced back thousands of years within the practice of Ayurvedic medicine, where it has been used as an aphrodisiac and nerve tonic, among other uses
  • Consult with your doctor or an Ayurvedic medicine practitioner before taking M. pruriens, especially if you are currently taking prescription medication for Parkinson’s disease, to ensure this natural remedy is right for you

By Dr. Mercola

In tropical areas of the world, M. pruriens is not only a well-known protein source, but it is also used as a medicine. This unique-looking bean has long been used in Ayurvedic medicine as an aphrodisiac and nerve tonic, among other applications.

Given the fact M. pruriens contains Levodopa, or L-dopa, a dopamine precursor that affects your energy, motivation and sense of well-being, it has long been used in the treatment of Parkinson's disease in developing countries worldwide. Before you decide to supplement with M. pruriens, let's take a closer look at the research around this ancient legume.

A Short History of M. Pruriens

M. pruriens, also known as velvet bean, kapikacchu and cowhage seed, is a vigorous, annual climbing legume that boasts about 100 varieties. The following information about this unique bean was presented in the Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine:1

It originated in southern China and eastern India, where it is said to have once been cultivated as a green vegetable crop — if you eat M. pruriens as a legume, be mindful of its high lectin content

M. pruriens now grows in tropical areas worldwide, with its pods and seeds used for human consumption and its young leaves as animal fodder

M. pruriens plants have long slender branches characterized by alternate, lanceolate leaves

They boast white flowers with a bluish-purple, butterfly-shaped corolla

M. pruriens' dark-brown or speckled seed pods are about 4 inches long and contain four to six seeds each

The pods themselves are thick and leathery and are often covered with stiff hairs

Although the bean itself is highly beneficial, contact with the pod can result in severe skin irritation and itching

M. pruriens is known for its ability to tolerate conditions such as drought, low soil fertility and high soil acidity. It is sensitive to frost and grows poorly in cold, wet soil. Ideal growing conditions for M. pruriens are found in warm, moist areas below 155 meters above sea level that receive lots of rain. Similar to other legumes, M. pruriens shares a symbiotic relationship with soil microorganisms that give it the potential to fix nitrogen into a form that is usable by plants and animals.2

Given its high protein content (ranging from 20 to 35 percent), M. pruriens is considered a viable source of dietary protein, comparable to lima beans and soybeans. When used as a food source, M. pruriens beans are usually soaked until they sprout and then boiled and ground into a paste that is used in cooking.

When used medicinally, M. pruriens beans are boiled to remove the enzyme coat, strained and dried. Dried kernels are then ground into a fine powder that can be mixed with water and taken orally. In developed countries, M. pruriens supplements are presented as a capsule or powder.

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How Does M. Pruriens Work?

Most notably, M. pruriens has long been recognized as a natural source of Levodopa (L-dopa), a substance used to treat Parkinson's disease symptoms. Medicinal uses of M. pruriens can be traced back thousands of years within the practice of Ayurvedic medicine. Due to the fact M. pruriens seeds contain roughly 4 to 7 percent L-dopa, coupled with L-dopa's ability to cross your body's blood-brain barrier, the interest in this bean has increased among people seeking natural treatments for Parkinson's.

About M. pruriens, the Bulletproof Blog states, "Known as the dopa bean, this natural herbal supplement is an adaptogen used in Ayurvedic medicine that lowers stress, improves focus, boosts the libido and elevates mood. M. pruriens contains high levels of naturally occurring L-dopa, which is the precursor to dopamine."3,4 Dopamine, a neurotransmitter known as the "feel-good hormone," is a chemical in your brain involved in your body's emotions, motivation and pleasure, as well as its reward system.

When you lack sufficient dopamine, you may feel lethargic, unfocused and maybe even depressed. Karen Kurtak, traditional Chinese medicine practitioner and head of the Longevity Nutrition Department at Grossman Wellness Institute in Denver, says, "M. pruriens has an almost magical ability to improve motivation, well-being, energy and sex drive, along with decreasing the tendency to overeat."5 It's well-known those who suffer from Parkinson's disease lack sufficient dopamine.

Because the L-dopa in M. pruriens boosts dopamine levels in your brain, it continues to be used in Ayurvedic medicine as a treatment for Parkinson's disease. Even though clinical trials have shown M. pruriens to produce equivalent or better results,6 and no side effects, Western medicine continues to use and promote a synthetic form of L-dopa. Beyond Parkinson's treatment, in Ayurvedic medicine M. pruriens is known as an aphrodisiac, remedy for anxiety, depression and infertility and acts as an all-around nerve tonic.7,8

M. Pruriens and the Treatment of Parkinson's Disease

As highlighted in the video above, a small 2017 study published in the journal Neurology,9 sought to determine if M. pruriens could be used as an alternative source of L-dopa for the treatment of Parkinson's disease. Specifically, the researchers sought to determine if patients treated with non-pharmacologically processed M. pruriens powder from roasted seeds would fare as well as those taking commercially marketed levodopa preparations as a treatment for Parkinson's disease.

During the research, 18 patients with advanced Parkinson's received six treatments in a randomized sequence over six days. The treatment types included the standard marketed treatment of dispersible levodopa at 3.5 milligrams/kilogram (mg/kg) combined with the dopa-decarboxylase inhibitor benserazide (LD+DDCI), as well as both high-dose (17.5 mg/kg) and low-dose (12.5 mg/kg) M. pruriens from locally processed, roasted seeds.

The objective of the research was to observe changes in patient motor response at 90 and 180 minutes. With respect to the outcomes, the researchers observed both the low- and high-dose preparations of M. pruriens performed as well or better than the marketed treatment of LD+DDCI.

The low-dose M. pruriens showed similar motor response with fewer dyskinesias (impairments in voluntary movement) and adverse events, while the high-dose M. pruriens resulted in greater motor improvement at 90 and 180 minutes and fewer dyskinesias.

As such, the study authors stated, "This study demonstrates the acute intake of M. pruriens powder at both high and low dose is noninferior to dispersible levodopa/benserazide in terms of all efficacy and safety outcome measures. M. pruriens could be a sustainable alternative to marketed levodopa … provided that it is tolerated in the long term."10

Using M. Pruriens to Soothe Anxiety and Depression

Because dopamine is an essential ingredient necessary to regulate your emotions, mental function and mood, it's no surprise M. pruriens, as a nervine tonic, has been shown to play a role with respect to the treatment of anxiety and depression. With respect to anxiety, a 2014 study published in the American Journal of PharmTech Research11 suggests M. pruriens has anxiety-reducing effects.

During a two-week period, five groups of lab rats (six rats per group) were administered M. pruriens in oral daily doses of 250, 500 or 750 mg/kg. M. pruriens' use was compared to 1 mg/kg of the standard anti-anxiety drug diazepam (Valium). Rat behavior was observed and analyzed using three pharmacologically validated models: an elevated maze, bright and dark arenas, and an open-field test.

The researchers noted any dose of M. pruriens resulted in the rats spending significantly less time in the closed arm of the maze and dark arena and more time in the open arm of the maze and open field. The study authors stated, "[T]he present study demonstrates the anxiolytic activity of chronic administration of M. pruriens in Wistar Albino rats."12

In terms of depression, M. pruriens also shows promise in research involving lab rats. A study published in the journal Ayu13 analyzed rats under the influence of 100 and 200 mg/kg doses of a hydroalcoholic extract of M. pruriens seeds. Three test models were applied to evaluate rat behavior: forced swimming test (FST), tail suspension test (TST) and chronic unpredictable mild stress (CUMS). About the outcomes, the study authors noted:14

"M. pruriens produced a significant reduction of the immobility time in the FST and TST. Twenty-one days of M. pruriens treatment produced protection in CUMS. Taken together, the findings … show M. pruriens displays a behavioral profile consistent with an antidepressant-like action.

… [I]ntermittent administration of M. pruriens as a dopamine agonist may merit clinical investigation as a novel strategy for the treatment of depression, particularly in patients with Parkinson's."

M. Pruriens May Be Useful to Address ADD; Also Promotes Learning

One small study15 suggests M. pruriens may be useful to help your mind stay focused. Similar to the attention deficit disorder (ADD) drug Adderall, a 200-mg dose of levodopa was shown to positively affect information processing in healthy humans, mainly because it is a precursor to dopamine. Specifically, levodopa absorption increases the concentration of dopamine in your nervous system.

Said the study authors, "These results show levodopa specifically affects the stimulus preprocessing stage, which suggests that the dopaminergic system plays a role in sensory processing, possibly by acting on the level of arousal."16 In another study,17 M. pruriens, again in the form of levodopa, was shown to enhance the learning of new words.

During the one-week test period, participants completed five learning sessions with either 100 mg of levodopa or a placebo administered at each session. The study authors stated, "The levodopa group showed superior recall accuracy for new words over five learning sessions compared with the placebo group, and better recognition accuracy at a one-month follow-up for words learned with a semantic description."18

M. Pruriens Shown to Promote Fertility, Protect Against Brain Damage From Stroke

In terms of addressing infertility, a study19 involving 120 infertile men demonstrated M. pruriens can be successfully used to reduce stress and improve semen quality. The research compared 60 men undergoing infertility screening, who were given an oral 5 g dose of M. pruriens powder daily, with a control group of 60 healthy men who had successfully initiated at least one pregnancy.

The research included tests for cortisol levels and psychological stress. Semen samples were collected prior to treatment and at the end of the three months of treatment. Notably, the men given M. pruriens showed a significant decrease in cortisol and increases in sperm count — with levels comparable to those of the fertile men. With respect to the impact of M. pruriens on fertility, the study authors said:20

"Treatment with M. pruriens significantly ameliorated psychological stress and seminal plasma lipid peroxide levels along with improved sperm count and motility. … M. pruriens not only reactivates the antioxidant defense system of infertile men, but it also helps in the management of stress and improves semen quality."

A study involving lab rats suggests M. pruriens may have therapeutic neuroprotective potential with respect to minimizing brain damage from stroke. After examining the brains of Wistar rats who received M. pruriens over a 10-day period, researchers concluded:21

"Cerebral ischemia resulted in significant neurological damage in the brains of the rats that were not treated by M. pruriens. The group subjected to treatment with the M. pruriens extract showed significant protection against brain damage compared with the negative control group, which indicates the therapeutic potential of this plant in ischemia."

Should You Supplement With M. Pruriens?

Given its potential beneficial uses, you may be tempted to begin supplementing with M. pruriens. Before you run out to buy a M. pruriens capsule or powder, it's important to remember that proper dosing is greatly influenced by your age, health and several other important factors.

For this reason, I advise you to first consult with your doctor or another qualified health care professional before you begin taking M. pruriens. If you suffer from Parkinson's disease and have been prescribed a synthetic form of L-dopa, be sure to consult your doctor before taking M. pruriens and don't stop taking your prescription medication without your doctor's approval.

Make These Lifestyle Changes Today to Help Prevent Parkinson's Disease

Parkinson's disease is still classified as idiopathic, meaning it has no identifiable cause. Research on the disease is ongoing and lapses in a few areas have been shown to increase your risk. As such, there are steps you can take to reduce your susceptibility to Parkinson's, including:

Avoid exposure to pesticides and insecticides as well as other environmental toxins like heavy metals and solvents

Exercise regularly because it's one of the best ways to maintain balance, mobility and the ability to perform your activities of daily living

Consider supplementing with coenzyme Q10 or its reduced form, ubiquinol

Get plenty of sunshine to optimize your vitamin D level; aim for a level between 60 and 80 nanograms per milliliter (ng/ml)

Eat more vegetables high in folate (vitamin B9) such as asparagus, avocado, beets, broccoli, cauliflower and dark leafy greens22

Make sure your body has healthy levels of iron and manganese (not too much and not too little)

While M. pruriens has the potential to be a beneficial alternative treatment for Parkinson's disease and a number of other medical conditions, prevention is always your best strategy. Choose at least one item from the table above and begin today to lower your risk of Parkinson's disease. Also, talk to your doctor or an Ayurvedic medicine practitioner before supplementing with M. pruriens to find out if it's right for you.