News flash: I suffer from depression. So, when I noticed a supplement called Mucuna pruriens trending on the internet—from whence I get all my medical advice—that promised to naturally boost mood, energy and sex drive (yes, yes and meh, why not), I snagged some immediately (from Moon Juice, of course). Here's what happened when I began to add a dash of the so-called dopamine bean to my coffee each morning.
Photo: Getty Images. Top photo: ImaxTree
I'm not one to fall for the placebo effect, and in fact I tend to be dubious of everything LA girls are obsessed with when it comes to the weird and wonderful world of wellness. I think I may have mentioned this in a previous post, but it was recently suggested to me that I steam my swimsuit areas in order to alleviate PMS. Girl ... just no. I don't pay $20 for a smoothie I could make at home for $5, I don't take 500 vitamins a day to manage all the various issues I never knew I had, and I do eat macaroni and cheese for basically every other meal. So, I'm not truly expecting the dopamine bean to work for me or, really, for anyone. I imagine the women I've read reviews by are experiencing what I like to call the "vaginal-steaming placebo effect." In other words, I figure any results are all in their heads.
I'm wrong—the dopamine bean works. So much so that even my coworkers notice a difference in me. Most days, I feel sluggish (perhaps as a result of my mac-and-cheese-heavy diet). On the dopamine bean, I feel more energized than I have in at least five years, like a spry spring chicken of 25. I also tend toward a negative worldview—in more of a depressed than realistic way—but the bean has me feeling positive, optimistic and ready to take on the day's challenges with aplomb.
What's more, my horrifically bad PMS disintegrates, so much so that I recommend the bean to another friend who similarly suffers. It's a true, Moon Juice–enabled miracle!
It's also weird. My coworkers worry—I'm not myself, and even if that's a good thing, it's also alarming. The dopamine bean becomes an in-office joke, and when it inevitably wears off sometime mid-afternoon, they tease me that it's time for a second dose.
Then, the migraines begin. Or, more specifically, I get my first migraine ever and it cripples me for 24 hours. In the days that follow, I continue to suffer from headaches daily, and the only culprit I can figure is my new best friend, the dopamine bean. After doing a bit of research, which admittedly I should have done before adding the supplement to my daily diet, I discover headaches are a potential side effect of overdosing.
I quit cold turkey and go see my doctor, who tells me that in taking the bean, I've essentially been self-medicating with a new antidepressant. She explains to me that some antidepressants contain exactly the ingredient that makes the dopamine bean effective, and that I should read "natural" to mean "unregulated." However, she doesn't think my headaches are a result of the Mucuna pruriens, as I'd already been taking it for weeks by the time they appeared. This is reassuring, but the rest of her comments are definitely food for thought.
Coincidentally, around this same time I conduct an interview with Robert Lustig, MD, author of The Hacking of the American Mind, about the difference between pleasure (dopamine) and happiness (serotonin). He mentions something alarming: "Once we realized dopamine is the problem in Parkinson's disease, doctors started giving people L-dopa. It raised dopamine levels and improved motor function and let them live more functional lives. But a sizable proportion of these patients became compulsive gamblers, where they weren't before."
Needle-scratch! I'm already impulsive, and the last thing I need is to be taking a supplement that makes me more so. I did a little digging and found a scientific paper that backs up Dr. Lustig's claims, concluding: "Longstanding exposure to dopaminergic drugs may cause reward system malfunction. This may manifest as addiction to L-dopa and behavioral disturbances associated with the impulse control system. These disturbances include: gambling, excessive spending (shopping), hypersexuality and binge eating." Yikes.
To get some clarity from someone who might know how to speak about Mucuna pruriens in layman's terms, I reach out to Parsley Health nutritionist Adrienne Dowd, who weighs in with the following advice: "While Mucuna pruriens has antidepressant capabilities, I wouldn't call it an unregulated drug. In which case, you'd have to categorize all adaptogens as unregulated drugs, right? M. pruriens is an adaptogen that's been used for a very long time. It's used in many tribal communities and in Ayurvedic medicine. It's sourced from the velvet bean plant and is one of the only naturally occurring sources of L-dopa (a precursor to dopamine). It's so rich in L-dopa that it's been studied and used as an alternative treatment for Parkinson's disease. More commonly, Mucuna pruriens is used to promote muscle growth, increase strength and has been proven to raise levels of testosterone. It can help reduce menstrual discomfort in women and increase sperm motility in men. It can also help decrease psychological stress and increase sex drive. It's often used in cases of depression and anxiety."
Now I'm just confused, as the bean did for me many of the things Adrienne reports it's meant to do and yet my doctor more or less advised against it. At this point, I'm scared to start taking it again because I don't know for sure if I'm improving my health or endangering it. This is why, personally, I think you should work with a nutritionist and a doctor to add any supplement into your daily diet. Don't trust the internet or Instagram with your health! If you must try Mucuna pruriens after reading this, however, I suggest you take Adrienne's advice on self-administering this supplement. "Recommended dosing should be two weeks on and one week off. Dosing should start slow and work up to a level that is best for the individual (generally, one half to one teaspoon). It's best to take it away from food."
Oh, and maybe steer clear of the poker table.