Mucuna pruriens (cowhage; velvet bean) is a tropical plant used by Ayurvedic healers and Native Americans for hundreds or thousands of years for various medicinal purposes. The seeds are also used to make jewelry, necklaces, pendants, charms, and amulets to, for example, ward off illness, headaches, and the evil eye. And its roasted beans have been used for decades as coffee substitute in Central and South America.
Nowadays, Mucuna pruriens is used mainly as a source for the amino acid L-DOPA, which, as I explain below, significantly influences sleep and dreaming.
As a dream herb, Mucuna pruriens greatly increases control over dreams.
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Mucuna pruriens is one of the most concentrated plant (and also one of the few known natural) sources of the amino acid L-DOPA (levodopa). It contains as much as 7% L-DOPA.
What’s so special about L-DOPA?
Dopamine is the “pleasure chemical” which acts as a neurotransmitter and hormone in the the brain, playing a role in many processes including motor control and motivation. For example, low dopamine levels are associated with the loss of motor control in Parkinson’s disease.
Unfortunately, supplementation of dopamine is useless since ingested dopamine cannot reach the brain.
L-DOPA, on the other hand, is able to cross the blood brain barrier, reaching the brain where it is metabolized into dopamine. The result therefore of ingesting L-DOPA is increased dopamine levels in the brain. Functioning as a sort of fountain of youth, L-DOPA supplementation may help keep you active as you age as well as induce a psychological state of confidence and motivation.
A synthetic form of L-DOPA is normally prescribed by physicians, which must be taken with another drug, carbidopa (Lodosyn), to prevent L-DOPA from being synthesized into dopamine before it reaches the brain, which creates adverse side effects. Using Mucuna pruriens as a source of L-DOPA, on the other hand, does not require carbidopa and allows all the L-DOPA to reach the brain, minimizing the occurrence of side effects.
In addition to L-DOPA, Mucuna pruriens contains beta-carbolines (e.g., 6-methoxyharmane), serotonin and 5-HTP, nicotine, bufotenine (an aphrodisiac and possible psychoactive alkaloid which also occurs in the skin of some psychoactive toads, specifically of the Bufo genus), and other alkaloids.
The hairs on the seedpods contain substances which cause skin irritation and itching when touched.
The medicinal uses of Mucuna pruriens include:
- Parkinson’s disease – The amino acid L-DOPA found in Mucuna pruriens is used to treat motor dysfunction.
- in India, Brazil, and Mexico Mucuna pruriens seeds are used as an aphrodisiac and to increase semen production. The Cuna Indians also use them for this purpose. To use, simply powder 15 grams of the seeds (about two seeds) and ingest with some water. (Traditionally, in India cow’s milk is used instead of water.) Alternatively, smoking 1-2 cigarettes containing Mucuna pruriens dried leaves is an effective dosage and method of consumption.
- a decoction can also be made by boiling the fruits. In Mexico the decoction is used externally to wash the eyes of newborns in order to prevent inflammation. The decoction is also drunk as an anthelmintic. (To treat intestinal worms, it is also effective to ingest the crushed seeds with liquid; in Trinidad, they are ingested with sugarcane juice. In India 4-5 hairs from the seedpod are taken with milk.) The decoction of the root and the hulls are used as a diuretic and to alleviate inflammations of the nasal cavities.
- applying topically may help with joint and muscle pain, stimulate surface blood flow in conditions that involve paralysis, and treat snakebites/scorpion stings. In Southeast Asia it is believed that the seeds can suck out scorpion’s venom by placing them on the wound.
- tonic – in Brazil Mucuna pruriens is used as a nerve tonic. In Nepal it is used for nervous disorders.
- Mucuna pruriens is also sometimes used for treating anxiety, arthritis, and hyperprolactinemia (higher-than-normal levels of prolactin). It can also be used to relieve pain and fever and to induce vomiting.
As a Nootropic
Mucuna pruriens is purported to be an adaptogenic plant, which helps the body deal with stress. It is also said to lower stress, reduce anxiety, improve focus and motivation, and elevate the mood, increasing well-being and energy along with decreasing the tendency to overeat.
This makes sense especially for people with low dopamine levels, which may manifest as lethargy, inability to focus, even depression.
On the other hand, too much dopamine is associated with impulsive, thrill-seeking behavior, and even psychosis.
One person reported significant improvement in confidence among other benefits with doses of 120-240 mg:
For me the most suitable situation for taking l-dopa is with breakfast the morning before meetings or job interviews. I am generally shy in meeting type situations, but I find l-dopa provides me with the confidence and motivation to say what I want to say. It gives me confidence without stress (unlike caffeine), and it doesn’t slow me down (like downers) […] I take it with carbs because it is said to increase absorption […] have also found it reduces feeling of pleasure, including from alcohol and caffeine, so I don’t use it in social situations, although I have noticed a slight increase in pleasure from some drugs the day after dosing!
As a Sleep Herb
As a sleep herb, Mucuna pruriens is said to induce a CNS stimulant effect at low doses and a CNS depressant effect at high doses.
L-DOPA is a mild REM suppressant so it may also induce a deeper, more restorative sleep and may prevent nightmares. And as we shall see below, it also increases the confidence level of dreamer, leading to a total lack of fear.
To use Mucuna pruriens to improve sleep, ingest it right before going to sleep.
One person reports beneficial effects after taking 750-3,000 mg of a Mucuna pruriens extract. He writes:
I always experience deeper, more refreshing sleep […] REM sleep seems to increase greatly and dreams are incredibly vivid and animated. It could be useful for someone who is interested in Lucid Dreaming, but I think it is also great for use as a true sleep aid. It does not necessarily induce drowsiness, but does improve sleep quality.
As a Dream Herb
Mucuna pruriens increases the ability to control lucid dreams, boosts the confidence of the dreamer, and reduces fear. Moreover, it may induce vivid dreams, which are often long and action packed.
When the plant is ingested, it reaches peak plasma levels within 90 minutes and after 12 hours, it is eliminated from the body. (The elimination half life is 1.5 hours.) This suggests that the best time to take Mucuna pruriens is about one hour before you want the effect to effect to kick in. It is recommended to use it before a nap or after about 4-5 hours of nocturnal sleep when dreams are longer and more frequent.
According to Thomas Yuschak in his book Advanced Lucid Dreaming: The Power of Supplements, dopamine dreams
[…] are always extremely action packed and fully participatory (meaning that the dreamer is fully caught up in the action rather than just observing it). There seems to a common theme to dopamine dreams: the dreamer is put in some kind of threatening situation and must overcome some type of adversary. On the outside, these dreams often sound like nightmares, but on the inside they are usually characterized by a strong feeling of confidence and a triumphant rush once the dreamer has prevailed. I find these types of dreams thoroughly enjoyable although they may not be for everybody.
Another way to use Mucuna pruriens relies on its purported REM-suppressing effects. When a REM suppressant is taken before sleep, the first 1 or 2 REM periods may be skipped, causing a REM rebound during the later REM periods. During a REM rebound, dreams may be longer, more frequent, and more vivid.
Thomas Yuschak describes his lucid dreams under the effect of Mucuna pruriens:
I have walked into a raging fire and absorbed the energy of the flames, created a thunderstorm and guided lightning bolts into my hands, stood on the tracks as a speeding train passed right through me, and climbed a mountain to the summit, then just casually stepped off the edge, and much more. Mucuna Pruriens can create a true adventure in your lucid dreams.
Here’s another case report from a person who took 400 mg of the plant for about 3 months on and off. According to him, Mucuna pruriens also greatly improves the recall of dreams:
Since I have been on it I dream every single night, Vivid Colourful dreams and they are amazing to the extent that I remember almost all of them when I wake up. Not only that but my imagination is also just as clear and vivid.
Dosage for inducing dopamine dreams: up to 400 mg of L-DOPA.
If combined with lucid dreaming supplements such as galantamine: 80-100 mg of L-DOPA.
If taken one hour before taking lucid dreaming supplements: 100-200 mg L-DOPA.
If you’re planning on using Mucuna pruriens, there are a few warnings to keep in mind.
Firstly, if you’re using seeds, be aware that they may vary in L-DOPA concentration, making proper dosing difficult. Therefore, it may be better to use a supplement standardized to a specific L-DOPA concentration (choose the lowest concentration available, ideally 10%), but make sure it’s USP-verified to ensure the purity and quality of the supplement.
If you are using plant material (seeds) rather than a supplement, then you can easily extract L-DOPA from Mucuna pruriens by boiling and soaking, ideally in acidic water (add some lemon or vinegar).
Second, side effects may result from overdoses, which may consist of overstimulation, increased body temperature, insomnia, cramping, arrhythmias, hypotension, nausea, and vomiting.
Chronic use of high doses of L-DOPA may cause a movement disorder called dyskinesia, characterized by involuntary muscle movements.
If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, do not use this plant.
If you’re taking any drugs, medications, or supplements (including vitamin B6), or are suffering from any disorder, consult with your physician before using it.