Treating Parkinson’s Disease with Velvet Beans (Mucuna pruriens)

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Since Parkinson’s is caused by a dopamine deficiency in the brain, what if you ate foods rich in the dopamine precursor levodopa?

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Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

Intro: I have several videos on foods that may trigger Parkinson’s disease, but how can diet be used in treatment? This video and the next look at beans for treating this disease.

Two centuries have passed since James Parkinson’s Essay on the Shaking Palsy described a disease characterized by tremor and problems with movement. Today, treatment options include surgically implanting electrodes into the brain. There has to be a better way.

We’ve known since the 1950s that Parkinson’s disease is manifested by a dopamine deficiency in the brain. Well, then why not eat a dopamine diet? A variety of fruits and vegetables contain the same dopamine made by our brain. Unfortunately, dopamine can’t cross the blood-brain barrier, and hence is ineffective as therapy. However, the dopamine precursor, known as L-dopa or levodopa, can get from the blood up into the brain, where it can then be converted to dopamine within the brain by an enzyme called decarboxylase. We don’t want the levodopa to be converted to dopamine outside the brain, because then it can’t get in. So, we give people a decarboxylase inhibitor, which itself can’t get into the brain; so, that keeps levodopa from prematurely turning into dopamine before it gets into the brain where we need it.

So, eating dopamine-rich foods doesn’t help, but what if we ate levodopa-rich foods? More than 1,500 years before Dr. Parkinson came on the scene, an Indian physician seems to have nailed it, and even suggested a treatment—velvet beans, the plant with the highest amount of L-dopa. Hmm; so, might there be a way to forestall the epidemic of Parkinson’s disease through plant-based remedies after all?

Levodopa is the gold standard therapy for Parkinson’s patients, but most Parkinson’s patients in low-income areas cannot afford long-term daily levodopa therapy. In rural Africa, for example, it is estimated that only 15 percent of patients are treated with levodopa, because the daily cost of levodopa treatment is about a dollar a day, which may be half of what people make in a day. It’s the same with other regions of the Global South. L-dopa is mostly unavailable or unaffordable. So, patients frequently use powdered velvet beans as a replacement or supplement to the drug.

But does it work? You never know, until you put it to the test. Velvet beans in Parkinson’s disease: a randomized, double blind clinical study. And…a dose of 30g (which is about three tablespoons) led to reliable and sustained antiparkinsonian effects in all patients, working significantly quicker than the drug; working significantly longer than the drug; and working significantly better than the drug in another double-blind, randomized, head-to-head crossover study.

The levodopa in velvet beans appears to be two to three times more potent as compared to the same dose of pill-form levodopa––suspected to be because there may be some intrinsic decarboxylase inhibitor compound in the plant as well.

Okay, but those were single dose studies. What about the chronic use of velvet beans for Parkinson’s? Fourteen patients with advanced Parkinson’s received roasted velvet bean powder or the standard drug, switching back and forth for months, looking at changes in quality of life, activities of daily living, movement and non-movement symptoms, and time with good mobility without troublesome involuntary writhing movements. The velvet beans seemed to work as well as the drug in all measures of efficacy, including quality of life. Here’s a video you can see someone with Parkinson’s solely treated with velvet bean powder for 14 years, before and after treatment.

Despite the efficacy, the chances of this cheap herbal remedy ever being licensed seems unlikely—and for good reason. First of all, the stuff evidently tastes nasty. And we don’t really have good data going out more than a few months. While velvet beans may potentially be part of the answer to Parkinson’s disease management in low-income countries, in high-income countries, one may be tempted to prefer them to drugs just because it is a “more natural therapy,” but researchers discourage patients and physicians to consider its use when the drugs are available. So, levodopa in pill form should remain the first-line treatment for Parkinson’s. However, velvet bean powder may be better tolerated in certain patients. Psychologically, some patients just have a thing against taking pills and so, if they refuse, then certainly the beans can step in. But otherwise, velvet bean supplements suffer from the same issues common to all supplements, specifically lack of sufficient regulation and quality control. There are all sorts of brands out there, but there are no head-to-head comparisons as to which is best, and the quality of the products likely vary. But you don’t know, until you put it to the test. 

Six brands of velvet bean products were ordered through the internet and most of them, four out of six, showed a large discrepancy between the claim on their label and the actual L-Dopa content, and only two even came close. The remaining products contained considerably less—less than 10 percent in two cases. Too bad there isn’t a food source of L-dopa that you could just eat instead of taking in a supplement. Well, wait a second. L-dopa was originally discovered more than a century ago in faba beans. Might eating faba beans help with Parkinson’s? I’ll explore just that question next.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Motion graphics by Avo Media

Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

Intro: I have several videos on foods that may trigger Parkinson’s disease, but how can diet be used in treatment? This video and the next look at beans for treating this disease.

Two centuries have passed since James Parkinson’s Essay on the Shaking Palsy described a disease characterized by tremor and problems with movement. Today, treatment options include surgically implanting electrodes into the brain. There has to be a better way.

We’ve known since the 1950s that Parkinson’s disease is manifested by a dopamine deficiency in the brain. Well, then why not eat a dopamine diet? A variety of fruits and vegetables contain the same dopamine made by our brain. Unfortunately, dopamine can’t cross the blood-brain barrier, and hence is ineffective as therapy. However, the dopamine precursor, known as L-dopa or levodopa, can get from the blood up into the brain, where it can then be converted to dopamine within the brain by an enzyme called decarboxylase. We don’t want the levodopa to be converted to dopamine outside the brain, because then it can’t get in. So, we give people a decarboxylase inhibitor, which itself can’t get into the brain; so, that keeps levodopa from prematurely turning into dopamine before it gets into the brain where we need it.

So, eating dopamine-rich foods doesn’t help, but what if we ate levodopa-rich foods? More than 1,500 years before Dr. Parkinson came on the scene, an Indian physician seems to have nailed it, and even suggested a treatment—velvet beans, the plant with the highest amount of L-dopa. Hmm; so, might there be a way to forestall the epidemic of Parkinson’s disease through plant-based remedies after all?

Levodopa is the gold standard therapy for Parkinson’s patients, but most Parkinson’s patients in low-income areas cannot afford long-term daily levodopa therapy. In rural Africa, for example, it is estimated that only 15 percent of patients are treated with levodopa, because the daily cost of levodopa treatment is about a dollar a day, which may be half of what people make in a day. It’s the same with other regions of the Global South. L-dopa is mostly unavailable or unaffordable. So, patients frequently use powdered velvet beans as a replacement or supplement to the drug.

But does it work? You never know, until you put it to the test. Velvet beans in Parkinson’s disease: a randomized, double blind clinical study. And…a dose of 30g (which is about three tablespoons) led to reliable and sustained antiparkinsonian effects in all patients, working significantly quicker than the drug; working significantly longer than the drug; and working significantly better than the drug in another double-blind, randomized, head-to-head crossover study.

The levodopa in velvet beans appears to be two to three times more potent as compared to the same dose of pill-form levodopa––suspected to be because there may be some intrinsic decarboxylase inhibitor compound in the plant as well.

Okay, but those were single dose studies. What about the chronic use of velvet beans for Parkinson’s? Fourteen patients with advanced Parkinson’s received roasted velvet bean powder or the standard drug, switching back and forth for months, looking at changes in quality of life, activities of daily living, movement and non-movement symptoms, and time with good mobility without troublesome involuntary writhing movements. The velvet beans seemed to work as well as the drug in all measures of efficacy, including quality of life. Here’s a video you can see someone with Parkinson’s solely treated with velvet bean powder for 14 years, before and after treatment.

Despite the efficacy, the chances of this cheap herbal remedy ever being licensed seems unlikely—and for good reason. First of all, the stuff evidently tastes nasty. And we don’t really have good data going out more than a few months. While velvet beans may potentially be part of the answer to Parkinson’s disease management in low-income countries, in high-income countries, one may be tempted to prefer them to drugs just because it is a “more natural therapy,” but researchers discourage patients and physicians to consider its use when the drugs are available. So, levodopa in pill form should remain the first-line treatment for Parkinson’s. However, velvet bean powder may be better tolerated in certain patients. Psychologically, some patients just have a thing against taking pills and so, if they refuse, then certainly the beans can step in. But otherwise, velvet bean supplements suffer from the same issues common to all supplements, specifically lack of sufficient regulation and quality control. There are all sorts of brands out there, but there are no head-to-head comparisons as to which is best, and the quality of the products likely vary. But you don’t know, until you put it to the test. 

Six brands of velvet bean products were ordered through the internet and most of them, four out of six, showed a large discrepancy between the claim on their label and the actual L-Dopa content, and only two even came close. The remaining products contained considerably less—less than 10 percent in two cases. Too bad there isn’t a food source of L-dopa that you could just eat instead of taking in a supplement. Well, wait a second. L-dopa was originally discovered more than a century ago in faba beans. Might eating faba beans help with Parkinson’s? I’ll explore just that question next.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Motion graphics by Avo Media

Doctor's Note

Stay tuned for the next video, where we look at fava beans: Treating Parkinson’s Disease with Fava Beans (Faba or Broad Beans).

I have plenty more on Parkinson’s disease in videos such as:

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