Mucuna has a long history of use throughout different parts of the world, and its numerous abilities set it apart from other adaptogens. The most commonly used piece of the plant, the seed extract, contains numerous compounds that enhance its power to promote wellness, some of which are only newly researched.
Mucuna is a legume native to the tropics of Africa and Asia which now thrives in tropical regions around the world.¹ Although I can be found climbing up to 15 meters in height, it’s not the easiest plant to handle. In the wild, just coming into contact with the seed pods is known to produce extreme itchiness. In fact, it is colloquially known in some regions as the “itchy bean” or “cow itch”.² For this reason, a safe, pure extract of Mucuna is considered highly valuable.
Mucuna has been used in Ayurvedic medicine, and more, since at least 1500 BC. For example, Mucuna has been used as a fertilizer due to its ability to fix nitrogen to soil. And in the wellness space, it's the bean that has be extracted and harnessed across many different cultures due to its adaptogenic potential...²
In both Ayurvedic medicine and Western medicine, the Mucuna bean has been used to help patients dealing with Parkinson’s Disease, given the role of dopamine in the pathology of this disease². In Mexico and Guatemala, it is often roasted and ground to make a type of coffee substitute. And throughout the tropics, it is regularly turned into a paste for topical application to aid with scorpion stings and snake bites [it is even suggested that Mucuna can help decrease the toxicity of certain venoms for over a year after its initial consumption²]. Today, Mucuna isn’t commonly used for its anti-venom capabilities. Rather, it is used in everyday diets due to its wide scope of benefits.
The list of tested benefits it not short: Mucuna has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anxiolytic, mood-boosting, anti-microbial, anti-viral and neuro-protectant abilities.
The main constituents of Mucuna extract are phenols, polyphenols, tannins, and keratinocytes. These phenolic compounds have wide-ranging antioxidant applications in the body. For example, the molecules work intracellularly to target and remove free radicals [if unaccounted for, free radicals produced through excess metabolic stress cause damage to our cells and our bodies²].
Studies have outlined Mucuna's incredible antioxidant activity... Mucuna extract is implicated in scavenging metabolic products like nitric oxide and hydroxyl radicals, which can damage DNA if left alone³. This can assist with the body’s task of maintaining homeostasis, staying balanced, and avoiding chronic diseases.
One of the most remarkable constituent compounds within Mucuna is the amino acid Levodopa, commonly referred to as L-dopa. Mucuna contains unusually high, naturally occurring, levels of this precursor to Dopamine, a hugely important compound for brain health and mood².
L-dopa is able to cross the blood-brain barrier and be converted to dopamine, aiding in neurotransmission and dopamine availability. Dysregulation of dopamine neurotransmission is implicated in one theory of depression, known as the monoamine hypothesis. This theory posits that dysfunction in neurotransmitter systems - namely dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine - is a common root cause of depression⁴.
Given the role dopamine plays in such a prevalent mood disorder, researchers have begun to question whether L-dopa could play a role in combating major depression, and possibly less severe mood dysfunction.
An investigation into animal models of depression showed mitigation of depressive symptoms following administration of Mucuna extract. Further, Mucuna's ability to alleviate depressive symptoms was blocked when Mucuna was administered with a drug that blocks dopamine signaling, suggesting the Mucuna was able tp creating its positive effects via the dopamine system⁵. While more research needs to be done in humans to see if these impacts can be extrapolated, studies are underway.
A current clinical trial at the New York Psychiatric Institute is investigating the ability of L-dopa to improve symptoms of depression and motor dysfunction in elderly adults,⁶ making the potential for Mucuna and L-dopa to provide relief for people suffering from depression extremely promising.
Recent studies have shown that L-dopa supplementation can alter how people experience music. A 2019 study gave participants L-dopa and measured physical and subjective responses to pieces of music. The experimental group receiving L-dopa had significantly more positive physical responses than the control group. This group also had more reports of high pleasure and fewer reports of low pleasure relative to the control group.⁷ The mood and pleasure impacts of L-dopa supplementation make mucuna a naturally powerful source of an extremely important neurotransmitter.
Mucuna is an incredible plant. It is nearly endlessly useful - from being a source of food to being a potent adaptogen. And now, the once-itchy velvet bean that has been used across the world for centuries is beginning to have its adaptogenic uses verified by clinical studies.
Although it's unlikely you’re in the market for a natural anti-venom compound, if you’re looking to boost your mood, protect your brain, reduce anxiety and stress, or boost your antioxidant levels, Mucuna may be just what you’re looking for.
Pulikkalpura, Haridas, et al. “Levodopa in Mucuna Pruriens and Its Degradation.” Scientific Reports, vol. 5, no. 1, 9 June 2015, 10.1038/srep11078. Accessed 12 Oct. 2020.
Lampariello, Lucia Raffaella, et al. “The Magic Velvet Bean of Mucuna Pruriens.” Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine, vol. 2, no. 4, Oct. 2012, pp. 331–339, 10.1016/s2225-4110(16)30119-5. Accessed 11 Feb. 2021.
Rajeshwar, Yerra, et al. “STUDIES on in VITRO ANTIOXIDANT ACTIVITIES of METHANOL EXTRACT of MUCUNA PRURIENS (FABACEAE) SEEDS.” European Bulletin of Drug Research, vol. 13, no. 1, 2005. Accessed 16 Feb. 2021.
Shao, Xiaojun, and Gang Zhu. “Associations among Monoamine Neurotransmitter Pathways, Personality Traits, and Major Depressive Disorder.” Frontiers in Psychiatry, vol. 11, 13 May 2020, 10.3389/fpsyt.2020.00381. Accessed 5 June 2020.
Galani, VarshaJ, and DigvijayG Rana. “Dopamine Mediated Antidepressant Effect of Mucuna Pruriens Seeds in Various Experimental Models of Depression.” AYU (an International Quarterly Journal of Research in Ayurveda), vol. 35, no. 1, 2014, p. 90, 10.4103/0974-8520.141949. Accessed 16 Feb. 2021.
National Institutes of Health. “L-DOPA vs. Placebo for Depression and Psychomotor Slowing in Older Adults - Full Text View - ClinicalTrials.gov.” Clinicaltrials.gov, clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT03761030. Accessed 16 Feb. 2021.
Ferreri, Laura, et al. “Dopamine Modulates the Reward Experiences Elicited by Music.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 116, no. 9, 22 Jan. 2019, pp. 3793–3798, www.pnas.org/content/116/9/3793, 10.1073/pnas.1811878116.