Mucuna pruriens, or velvet bean, is a tropical legume that can naturally boost dopamine levels. This “magical bean” has been used for thousands of years in Ayurvedic medicine. Recent studies suggest it can help reduce symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease and infertility in men. It may also improve depression, sleep, and protect against snake venom poisoning. Read on to learn what the research says about this curious bean.
What is Mucuna pruriens?
Mucuna pruriens is a tropical legume also known as velvet bean. In herbal medicine and Ayurveda, Mucuna has been used for thousands of years as a remedy for male infertility, nervous disorders, Parkinson’s disease, and as an aphrodisiac .
Like Jack’s magic beans in the fairytale, mucuna beans are sometimes called “magical velvet beans”. For researchers, this magic refers to mucuna’s potential to improve a wide range of serious brain diseases. For some users, this bean’s magical properties span from its aphrodisiac effects, while others yet allude to their mild, simultaneous relaxant and stimulating effects on the brain .
Mucuna is also known as the “dopamine bean” since it is a good source of L-Dopa (4 – 7%), from which dopamine is made in the body. The high L-dopa content offers additional benefits to the plant itself: it protects the seeds from insects and pests. Mucuna seeds are also a major source for commercially extracting pure L-dopa, which is used in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease .
L-dopa from Mucuna pruriens may have advantages over synthetic L-dopa when given to Parkinson’s patients, as synthetic L-dopa has more side effects in the long term .
Recent research uncovered that mucuna also boosts antioxidants and scavenges free radicals in the whole body .
Mucuna pruriens is originally from southern China and eastern India but is now cultivated throughout the tropics. In the Himalayas and Mauritius, both the green pods and the mature beans from Mucuna pruriens are traditionally boiled and eaten. In Guatemala and Mexico, it is roasted and ground to make a coffee substitute widely known in the region as “Nescafé” .
The taste of Velvet bean powder is bitter and somewhat similar to coffee.
Note: The term “mucuna” refers to a plant family of about 150 different tropical legumes, of which Mucuna pruriens has the highest medicinal value. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll use “mucuna” to refer only to Mucuna pruriens in this article .
The Good: Nutritional Value & Active Compounds
Aside from its L-dopa content (~5%), the velvet bean has a good nutritional value. Although a legume, it is easily digestible and rich in the following nutrients :
- Dietary proteins (25 – 30% proteins) and essential amino acids
- Fatty acids such as linoleic acid
- Mildly-hallucinogenic tryptamines
- Psychoactive serotonin (5-hydroxytryptamine)
- D-chiro-inositol, a rare plant component that may help fight diabetes and PCOS
- Newly discovered antioxidants and neuroprotective substances (of still unknown structure)
The Bad: Antinutrients in Mucuna pruriens
Like most legumes, Mucuna pruriens also contains various antinutrients that limit its benefits and nutritional quality, including the following :
- Tannins, which may bind to proteins and reduce their digestion
- Trypsin inhibitors, which reduce the activity of trypsin that helps digest proteins and other digestive enzymes
- Phytates, which can bind to minerals and block their absorption in the gut
- Cyanogenic glycosides, plant toxins that form a small amount of cyanide in the body
- Lectins, one of the most significant sources of food sensitivities
- Oligosaccharides (FODMAPS), which can cause flatulence
- Alkaloids (such as mucunine) and saponins
The tannins in mucuna, being polyphenols, are not just “bad”. Although they can reduce the absorption of proteins and cause digestive problems in sensitive people, they may be beneficial in people without gut problems and autoimmune issues. Tannins from mucuna may help fight cancer, viruses and other microbes, inflammation, and high blood pressure .
- Natural source of L-dopa for boosting dopamine in the brain
- Protects the brain and reduces stress
- May boost fertility in men
- Mild aphrodisiac
- Contains many anti-nutrients, including lectins
- Excessively increasing dopamine with mucuna can be harmful
- Possible drug interactions and not suitable for everyone
Health Benefits of Mucuna pruriens
1) Reduces Parkinson’s Disease Symptoms
L-Dopa in Mucuna pruriens is the main active component that can reduce the symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease .
People with Parkinson’s have low dopamine content in parts of the brain due to impaired conversion of tyrosine to L-dopa. L-Dopa from Mucuna can cross the blood-brain barrier and be used to make dopamine, restoring its brain levels and neurotransmission. Other antioxidants in this plant’s seeds may enhance brain protection [5, 2].
In a clinical trial of 60 subjects, a powder derived from Mucuna pruriens (HP-200) decreased the symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease better than standard levodopa treatment after 12 weeks. In another study, Mucuna pruriens was just as effective as levodopa treatment but was absorbed and reached peak levels faster [6, 5].
Similarly, a single lower dose of Mucuna powder worked just as well as the standard drugs (levodopa + benserazide) in 18 advanced Parkinson’s patients but caused fewer adverse effects. Higher Mucuna doses were even more effective and longer-lasting than the standard drugs .
These three studies suggest that Mucuna pruriens, a natural source of L-Dopa, may have advantages over conventional L-Dopa (levodopa) in the management of Parkinson’s Disease.
In mice with Alzheimer’s, Mucuna reduced brain inflammation and prevented the death of dopamine neurons by blocking the master inflammation pathway, NF-kB. It could also increase the chief antioxidant, in the brain .
2) May Help with Depression
We talk about serotonin and norepinephrine much more often than about dopamine when it comes to depression. But scientists are starting to realize than dopamine, usually associated with motivation and feelings of reward, may play an equally important role.
It’s not so much that low dopamine, in general, can trigger low mood. Rather, its deficiency in specific parts of the brain is what can trigger symptoms. Low dopamine in the brain’s emotional (mesolimbic) centers can cause the inability to feel pleasure, which is common in depression. Low dopamine in cognitive (mesocortical) areas can trigger a lack of motivation that people with depression also often suffer from .
By its dopamine-boosting action, a Mucuna pruriens extract improved mood and symptoms of depression in mice. It also reduced their stress levels, showing all the desired characteristics of a good antidepressant .
Although promising, these results are still preliminary. Clinical studies would be needed to confirm mucuna’s antidepressant effects in humans.
3) Improves Male Infertility
Dopamine is one of the most important neurotransmitters for sexual behavior and libido in men. Its effects are pretty straightforward: an increase in brain dopamine levels increases the libido, while a decrease in dopamine and similar neurotransmitters (catecholamines) reduces the libido and sexual function in men .
Mucuna pruriens is commonly used as a supplement for male infertility thanks to its dopamine-boosting and antioxidant effects. In clinical studies, it increased sperm motility, sperm quality, and sperm count.
In one study of 60 infertile men, Mucuna powder (5 g/day) improved sperm count, motility, and overall quality. In two other studies of over 250 infertile men, Mucuna also increased testosterone levels, aside from improving sperm quality. What’s more, it could also boost antioxidants and balance other sex and stress hormones linked to infertility in men [11, 12, 13].
The effects of Mucuna on enhancing fertility in already healthy, fertile men is unknown. All of the above studies administered Mucuna only to infertile men.
4) May Reduces Stress
In one trial, Mucuna pruriens seed powder reduced psychological stress and cortisol levels in 60 infertile men after 3 months. This plant may help better manage stress, but this is limited to infertile men and may be linked to its fertility-enhancing benefits .
5) Lowers High Prolactin Levels
High Follicle-stimulating Hormone (FSH) and prolactin levels signal that the pituitary gland is not functioning properly and can impair the function of the testes and reduce fertility in men. Mucuna pruriens decreased prolactin and FSH levels in two clinical trials of over 250 infertile men. Mucuna probably balances these hormones by boosting dopamine levels, which reduces the production of prolactin and FSH [12, 13].
High levels of Prolactin may also be a result of low thyroid hormones, pituitary tumors, psychiatric drugs (such as antipsychotics), or other causes. Whether mucuna can help reduce slightly increased levels in conditions other than male infertility hasn’t been tested .
6) Protects Against Snake Venom Poisoning
Mucuna pruriens extracts are used by Nigerians to prevent snake poisoning. The powder is prescribed by traditional healers as a pretreatment (prophylactic) for snakebites. The healers claim that a person who swallows the intact the seeds will be protected for one full year against the effects of any snake bite .
No clinical studies back this up but some studies in tissues and animals shed some light on it.
In one study on rat hearts, Mucuna powder protected from the heart-damaging effects of cobra venom. In another study, mice pretreated with a Mucuna extract secreted more antibodies against a viper venom [16, 17].
Mucuna contains a sugar-bound protein similar to snake venom proteins, which stimulates the production of antibodies. These antibodies stay in the body for long periods of time and prime the immune system, similar to vaccines. They will be able to “cross-react” with the actual snake venom once they come into contact with it, potentially protecting against serious poisoning .
7) May Help with ADHD
It’s well-known that dopamine is important for focus. In one study of 85 children and teenagers with ADHD, a combination of Mucuna pruriens with vitamins, minerals, and other supplements (vitamin C, calcium citrate, vitamin B6, folate, L-lysine, L-cysteine, and selenium) improved symptoms in 77% of the cases, which is better than conventional drugs .
The protocol and supplement combination used in this study was envisioned to naturally increase serotonin and dopamine in the brain. The contribution of Mucuna to the beneficial effects is unknown.
8) May Improve Sleep
In a study of 18 people, a combination of Mucuna pruriens with another tropical herb (Chlorophytum borivilianum) improved sleep quality by 50% after about 4 weeks .
Despite various traditional anecdotes about the ability of these herbs to improve sleep quality, this was the first human study to investigate their effects. It’s still unknown what effect Mucuna alone might have on sleep quality.
In mice, mucuna beans increased the sleep-inducing effects of the sedative diazepam.
9) May Fight Parasites
According to traditional claims and non-clinical studies, Mucuna pruriens may help fight parasitic infections. Mucuna is most likely a mild anti-parasitic: it’s not strong enough to eliminate the infection but may slightly reduce the number of parasites and could be used alongside other parasite cleanses/treatments.
In lambs, Mucuna seeds slightly reduced the number of parasites but didn’t clear the infection. In goats, it improved digestion but didn’t reduce the parasite infection. In cells, its seed oil could paralyze but not also kill parasites .
10) May Fight Microbes
The leaves of Mucuna pruriens are probably stronger natural antibiotics than the seeds. Mucuna pruriens leaf extracts could fight some bacteria in cells (probably due to their higher phenol and tannin content) .
11) May Reduce Seizures
In mice, a leaf extract from Mucuna pruriens reduced seizures. It also reduced a type of muscle rigidity called catalepsy that’s linked to seizures, schizophrenia, and Parkinson’s. Its anti-seizure benefits are probably due to the synergistic effect of its L-dopa, serotonin, and antioxidant components .
12) May Help Combat Diabetes
13) May Be Good for the Skin
Thanks to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity, Mucuna pruriens extracts protected skin cells. Scientists are hoping to see creams and gels with Mucuna for skin diseases such as psoriasis, dermatitis, and eczema, but more studies are needed before this becomes a reality .
14) Is Mucuna pruriens a Psychedelic?
Velvet “magical” beans do contain some tryptamine compounds, which are well-known psychedelics. Their concentration is probably very low in most available supplements, though. In some animal studies, mucuna had mild hallucinogenic and sedative activity.
It’s possible that mucuna beans have a very mild relaxing and psychedelic effect, although at least proper animal studies are needed to confirm this .
Some people report “dreamy” feelings from taking mucuna, but it’s unknown if mucuna actually has these properties, what its content of tryptamines and other psychoactive is, and what effects are possible, until more studies come out.
Side Effects & Safety
The following side effects were reported in clinical studies :
- Abdominal discomfort
- Vomiting (rare)
- Insomnia (rare)
Serious side effects or changes in blood test values were not reported.
Mucuna overdose can cause headaches, movement disorders, fatigue, tremors, fainting, and thirst. Synthetic levodopa and other drugs used in treating Parkinson’s disease cause similar and more severe adverse effects .
Mucuna has a high L-dopa content, which can raise dopamine levels in the brain and the whole body. Increasing dopamine levels or using L-dopa could be dangerous in some people, including those with the following conditions :
- Glaucoma (narrow-angle glaucoma), as L-dopa can increase eye blood pressure
- Heart arrhythmias
- Chronic nerve pain (neuropathy), as L-dopa may worsen it
- Stomach ulcers (now or in the past)
- Psychosis, as L-dopa may cause a worsening in people already diagnosed with schizophrenia (or a psychotic disorder)
If you have any of the conditions above, avoid Mucuna pruriens supplements or consult your doctor before taking them. Although the side effects of Mucuna pruriens are generally milder than those from synthetic L-dopa, complications are still possible. It’s unknown how much the antioxidants and other compounds in Mucuna may protect from them.
Due to their lectin content, mucuna beans may not be suitable for people with food sensitivities.
The following drug interactions are possible, based on the information about L-dopa :
- Some antidepressants and anti-Parkinson’s drugs (Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitors or MAOI) – people taking these drugs should avoid Mucuna pruriens supplements. The use of both may dangerously increase dopamine levels and cause very high blood pressure.
- Some antipsychotics (D2 antagonists) can reduce the effects of Mucuna
The safety of Mucuna pruriens has not been established in children, pregnant, or breastfeeding women.
People with low MAO enzyme activity will be more sensitive to the effects of Mucuna on raising dopamine levels in the brain. This also means that if you are a low MAO producer, you will be more likely to experience excessively high dopamine levels with this supplement.
If you’re a high MAO producer, on the other hand, you may require higher doses of Mucuna as you probably break down dopamine faster.
Dosage & Supplements
A typical dose of Mucuna pruriens is 5 g/day of the dried bean powder. Starting with a lower dose and potentially working your way up to a higher dose is generally safer.
For Parkinson’s Disease
In the two studies that showed a decrease in PD symptoms with MP supplementation, used dosages of 30 grams and 15 grams of a standardized dried extract (~33 mg L-dopa/g). Both dosages were effective and didn’t cause any major adverse effects. Most standardized extracts contain 3 – 5% L-dopa.
Other studies used lower doses, starting with 5 g/day.
For Infertility in Men
5 grams of Mucuna pruriens powder daily could increase sperm motility, count, and overall quality . Take with water (5 grams = 1 teaspoon).
Mucuna is available in many forms:
- Raw seeds/beans
- Seed Extracts
- Roasted beans
If you’re looking to buy and eat the raw beans, higher pressure and temperatures are recommended to reduce their antinutrients (including lectins).
On the other hand, be sure to look for a high-quality, standardized supplement if you’re seeking to take mucuna for improving Parkinson’s Disease symptoms.
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