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by Ilana Sobo
December 01, 2017
The tropical climbing legume Mucuna pruriens is an ancient healing ally known for its wide range of tonifying, strengthening, and long lasting mood and health balancing gifts. The seed of Mucuna, commonly known in the west as velvet beans or cowhage, is an important herb in the ancient Indian Ayurvedic system of medicine and Unani Tibb (Greco-Arabic) medicine, and has been worked with medicinally for at least 2000 years. Its usage is recorded in the renowned Sanskrit medical text The Charaka Samhita, where it is noted to have broad applications for helping restore overall wellness, and to benefit the nervous, endocrine and reproductive systems. Both traditional use and modern research and applications share of its multi-diversified functions in the management of Parkinson’s disease, increasing dopamine levels in the body naturally, aiding in addiction issues, promoting fertility in both men and women, increasing strength, endurance and energy, and as a nootropic (an herb that gives broad cognitive benefits to the human brain. )
Some direct applications for Mucuna are to help protect humans from free radical mediated diseases, atherosclerosis, nervous system disorders, rheumatoid arthritis, depression and much more. Mucuna has been successfully worked with as a companion and cover crop and a nitrogen fixing soil builder across the globe. There is also some mystery to this velvety bean as it contains both DMT and 5-MeoDMT. It has a long tradition as an amulet herb and of ceremonial and ritual usage in several different indigenous cultures. There is a modern day resurgence of interest in Mucuna for helping people with chronic disease, dopamine deficiency depression, infertility and addiction issues. It’s important to note that Mucuna is big medicine, containing l-dopa (the precursor to dopamine) and has a potent effect on our entire physiology. Mucunapruriens is also an antioxidant and contains serotonin which supports digestivewellness and a healthy mood.
So, let’s find out some more specifics about the extraordinary Mucuna pruriens. Knowledge is power and falling in love with the plants that love us humans is an endless amount of fascination and joy. Mucuna, the magical bean will soon enchant you.
The Mucuna pruriens plant is a fast growing climbing vine and member of the Fabaceae legume family. This plant likes to grow tall and can reach up to 50ft! It has slender branches, alternate, lanceolate leaves on hairy petioles (3 – 12) inches long, with large white to purple flowers, growing in clusters of two or three. The seeds or beans can be beige, brown or black in color. The seeds grow inside a long curved velvety pod that is known to cause irritation to the skin when touched. The pods have barbed hairs, also called trichomes, that cause an intense stinging irritation to the skin. Hairs, in a low dose, are worked with to help remedy parasites in the body (antithilmentic).
The word mucuna comes from the Tupi Amazonian tribe and Portuguese word "mucunán" and the Latin word prurire (pruriens), which references the itchy substance in the pod hairs. Mucuna has two Sanskrit names: Kapikacchu, which means "one starts itching like a monkey," and Atmagupta, which means "secret self," hinting at the therapeutic value of the seed concealed within the allergenic seedpod.
According to anthropologist Christian Ratsch, little is known about the exact origin of Velvet Beans, but it may be indigenous to tropical Asia. Presently, it can be found in Asia, Africa, The United States, South America, the Pacific Islands and West Indies. It is cultivated in some parts of the world for its legumes, which are cooked and eaten in very small amounts. Different tribes in the Amazon are said to combine Mucuna with Cacao ceremonially to help balance the effects of the theobromine in cacao, and to provide an energizing tonic without overstimulating the nervous system. Ratsch also shares that the large seeds have been made into health giving and protective amulets “wherever they are found including Mexico, Guatamala, the Caribbean, tropical Africa and India.”
The oily, sweet, warming, and heavy qualities of the Mucuna seed are well known in Ayurveda for nervous system disorders, working specifically to tonify the nervous system and strengthen weakness. Its energizing restorative nature is traditionally used with other adaptogens and rasayana (rejuvenative) herbs like Ashwghanda, Brahmi, Shatavari, Bacopa and Amalaki. In Ayurveda the anupan (activator/ catalyst) is a very important component to a medicinal plant having full benefits and efficacy. Thus Mucuna is taken in the anupana of warmed milk with honey. Mucuna also is known as a nootropic herb. Nootropic substances are truly extraordinary and can enhance memory and our ability to learn, help the brain function under disruptive conditions, protect the brain from chemical and physical assaults, and increase the efficacy of neuronal firing control mechanisms in cortical and sub-cortical regions of the brain.
Mucuna is an aphrodisiac that promotes fertility in both men and women. It helps regulate ovulation cycles in women and increases sperm count and testosterone levels in men. One of the primary reasons for this effect is because of the natural l-dopa present in Mucuna.
The seeds in the pod of velvet bean extract contain 3.6-4.3 percent L-dopa, which is a natural precursor to the neurotransmitter dopamine. The l-dopa in Mucuna helps synthesize dopamine naturally within the brain. Once the L-dopa crosses the blood-brain barrier, it is converted into dopamine, increasing overall levels. Dopamine is widespread in the brain as well and the rest of the nervous system. This neurotransmitter plays a critical role in the control of movement. It has a stimulating effect on the heart, circulation, the rate of metabolism, and is able to mobilize many of the body's energy reserves. It helps to modulate mood, brain activity, control coordination and movement, and regulate the flow of information to different areas of the brain. It also helps to stimulate the pituitary gland to produce human growth hormone (which promotes muscle growth and increased strength), and has been proven to raise levels of testosterone.
Mucuna also helps lowers levels of prolactin, which can help regulate the menses, and reduce menstrual discomfort and associated weight gain in women. Very high prolactin levels in women may be a huge factor in infertility. Women who are not pregnant and are not breastfeeding should have low levels of prolactin. If a non-pregnant woman has abnormally high levels of prolactin, it may make it difficult for her to become pregnant. Mucuna is contraindicated in pregnant and breastfeeding women and lower levels of Prolactin could decrease milk supply and affect pregnancy in unknown ways. For men, Mucuna fosters and increases sperm motility, and hence fertility. L-dopa also naturally enhances the production of other hormones including testosterone.
For these reasons and more Mucuna has burst onto the supplement market and has also become very popular as a natural HGH (human growth hormone) bodybuilding supplement. But as an herbalist, I will say that I have concerns about the long term effects of this for bodybuilders and those who use Mucuna long term without proper supervision. Healing plants must be worked with mindfully and when, like Mucuna, a plant can have a powerful affect on our nervous, reproductive and endocrine systems, long term usage should be monitored. I mention this not to detract or scare you as Mucuna is amazing and has broad medicinal applications. But it is necessary to have pertinent information in hand so you can make empowered health decisions and figure out what is right for you and your unique being through all seasons.
As noted above, Mucuna can help restore reduced levels of Dopamine, especially when dopamine concentrations are low due to issues converting the amino acid tyrosine to L-dopa. Dopamine levels can become very depleted by stress, and overuse of stimulants including coffee, legal and illegal drug abuse, and excessive alcohol use. When our dopamine is drained we can get overly restless, irritable and jittery, which can cause emotional duress and damage to the neurotransmitter production in the brain. L-dopa helps to replenish dopamine that is deficient in those recovering from these addictive substances, and can have a very positive effect on mood in addiction recovery. The l-dopa in Mucuna pruriens can be helpful in dopamine deficiency and for restoring healthy neuron synapses. It certainly could be included in an adrenal rejuvenation protocol after prolonged stimulant use. Adaptogenic herbs would also be very complimentary in these cases, as well as nervine herbs that relax and heal frayed nerves emotionally and physiologically.
Mucuna pruriens has gained much attention in the management of Parkinson's disease. Parkinson’s is a condition characterized by a gradual reduction of dopamine-producing neurons in the brain. Because dopamine is necessary for healthy motor skills and proper nerve functioning, lack of dopamine-secreting neurons can cause the muscles to tense up and tremble rather than relax, leading to involuntary muscle movements and classic Parkinson's symptoms. Because L-dopa can be effectively converted to dopamine in the brain, Mucuna has become one of the most widely used natural supplements for those who struggle with Parkinson's.
In a randomized, controlled, double-blind, crossover study by Katzenschlager and colleagues, published in a 2004 issue of the "Journal of Personality Assessment," eight Parkinson's disease patients received 200 mg of standard levodopa and 15 and 30 mg of Mucuna supplements in a random order every other week. The results showed that subjects who received the herbal remedy experienced faster and longer relief from dyskinesia than participants given the standard L-dopa. Dyskinesia is the distortion of voluntary movement as in tic or spasm.
In a double blind study, included in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry, it states, "We have assessed the clinical effects and levodopa (L-dopa) pharmacokinetics following two different doses of mucuna preparation and compared them with standard L-dopa/carbidopa (LD/CD). The Mucuna seed powder formulation suggest that this natural source of L-dopa might possess advantages over conventional L-dopa preparations in the long term management of PD." This is awesome!
Mucuna extracts can also be used as a supportive Parkinson's preventative, nourishing healthy dopamine levels before they get diminished. This can be a valuable supplement if you have a family history prone to neurodegenerative diseases.
Being a leguminous nitrogen fixer, the plant is being worked with a great deal as a cover crop to help restore soil fertility to depleted lands. It is considered a Green manure, fallow and cover crop. It is also used as forage, silage, and hay, and the seeds for feed though raw Mucuna beans must be studied more on their effects on livestock. There is noted and successful cultivation in eastern and southern Africa (e.g. Uganda, Malawi and Zimbabwe), and usage is rapidly increasing. In Central America it is used in fallow rotations. One dramatic example can be drawn from the work of the Centro Maya in Guatemala's northern Peten region. In this humid forest area, farmers could only grow maize for one or two years and then the ground had to be left to regenerate. Now, hundreds of farmers are growing velvet bean intercropped with maize on the same fields year after year. Those who initially adopted this system have been growing maize on the same land for eleven consecutive years. Productivity has only improved over time.
It is important to note that the planet has very depleted soils across the globe from deforestation, monocropping and industrial agriculture practices. Leguminous plants in the fabaceae family like Mucuna can help reverse this trend by adding a valuable amount of nitrogen to the soil. These plants form a relationship with Rhizobium and Bradyrhizobium bacteria. The bacteria form nodules on the plant’s roots which “\turn nitrogen gas into nitrates to feed the plant, which then contributes the nitrogen to help feed other plants via its seeds, leaves and annual root replenishing cycles. How awesome is that?
The wonderful book Plants of the Gods (Hofmann & Shultes) reports that Mucuna contain stryptamine alkaloids - specifically 5MeoDMT, Dimethyltryptamine and related alkaloids - in all parts of the plant, and that indigenous Indian peoples “may have discovered and utilized some of the psychoactive properties” of Mucuna.
Other applications and studies on Mucuna have demonstrated that it may also be useful in paralysis, seizure disorders, insomnia and other sleep disorders. t is also an anti-spasmodic and carminative, alleviating gas, cramping and bloating. Mucuna can be useful in treating both diarrhea and constipation, as a Bronchial dilator, and may be useful for asthma, wheezing and shortness of breath. Studies have shown that Mucuna is helpful in lowering blood sugar and as part of a healthy weight loss protocol.
Dosing varies for Mucuna - it is best to consult your healing practitioner for specific guidelines depending on health challenge.
Mucuna is contraindicated for pregnant and lactating women. It is also contraindicated if you are taking SSRI drugs or current drugs for Parkinson’s disease. Mucuna may interact with blood thinning medications. Please consult a qualified practitioner if you are on any medications before working with Mucuna.
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The purpose of this article is for educational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.
Ilana Sobo is an educator, community herbalist, Ayurvedic Practitioner and yoga instructor in the Greater New York City area. She is an instructor at Twin Star Herbal Education and a visiting instructor at The Vermont Center for Integrative Herbalism. Her greatest passion is to help steward the plants of Gaia and do her part to share the love, magic and healing gifts the natural world brings forth to share. Please visit her at shaktibotanica.com to connect and learn more about her work or to book classes and consultations.
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