Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Mucuna Pruriens (Velvet Bean) And its Uses in Herbal Medicine

Mucuna pruriens is a flowering annual shrub native to tropical and sub-tropical regions of South Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. The plant – which can grow vines of over 15 metres in length – produces small black seeds that have several alternative medicinal uses. The plant is also widely used in agriculture as a fallow crop, as it is leguminous (IE has nitrogen-fixing bacteria living on its roots that help to re-fertilise the soil).

Mucuna pruriens has many common names in many different languages. In English it is called Velvet Bean, Cowhage or Cowitch. Many of the plant’s names refer to the small rash-inducing hairs that grow on the seed pods. These hairs, which contain a compound called mucanain, can produce a severe and painful itch if they are allowed to come in contact with the skin. Others of the plant’s names refer to its psychoactive properties – in Portuguese, for example, it is known as ‘Mad Bean’.

The seeds of Mucuna pruriens contain a high concentration of the dopamine precursor levodopa. Dopamine is of course a neuro-transmitter associated with mood, and its concentration is known to have a direct effect on such physical processes as sexual desire, libido and function. For this reason, Mucuna pruriens extract has been used for centuries in traditional Ayurvedic medicine as an effective aphrodisiac. More recently, its extracts have received attention as a possible solution to treat the symptoms of nervous system disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, and in some parts of the world (notably India) it has already been used to treat this condition for some time.

The seeds also contain small amounts of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is also responsible for affecting mood. It is therefore thought that Mucuna pruriens has mild anti-depressant properties.

Whilst the plant grows wild in many tropical and subtropical regions, and its seeds are therefore quite widely available, it is very important that people only take Mucana pruriens extract that has been produced by skilled herbalists or approved pharmaceutical and naturaceutical laboratories, made to the correct dosage and concentration. The active ingredient levodopa can be toxic in large quantities, and it is therefore not recommended that people self-medicate using its extract.

M. pruriens extract is not commonly sold on its own, but normally forms part of a blend of herbal extracts and is used in many different areas of herbal medicine. Its chief uses are as an aphrodisiac, male libido enhancer and male fertility enhancer, though due to its effect on dopamine levels, it is also commonly found in products designed to help people relax and products designed to help naturally promote healthy eye-sight

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