I Tried The “Dopamine Bean” Supplement — Here’s What Happened
This tropical plant has been said to help decrease stress and improve sex drive.
News flash: I live with depression. So, when I noticed a supplement called Mucuna pruriens trending on the internet that promised to naturally boost mood, energy, and sex drive (yes, yes, and meh, why not), I snagged some immediately. Here's what happened when I began to add a dash of the so-called “dopamine bean” to my coffee each morning.
For some background, Mucuna pruriens is a tropical legume, originally from parts of Africa and Asia, that has been used for thousands of years in herbal and Ayurvedic medicine as a remedy for nervous disorders, Parkinson’s disease, male infertility, and even as an aphrodisiac, according to a 2012 study about the bean published in the Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine. It has been coined the dopamine bean because it is a good source of L-Dopa, a precursor from which dopamine is made in the body — but I didn’t know any of this at the time.
First things first on my end, I should say that I'm not one to fall for the placebo effect, and I actually tend to be pretty dubious of everything the L.A. girls are obsessed with when it comes to the weird and wonderful world of wellness. For example, it was recently suggested to me that I steam my swimsuit areas in order to alleviate PMS — and it was an obvious no from me.
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 should preface this by noting that I was truly not expecting the dopamine bean to work for me or, really, for anyone. I imagined those women who wrote Mucuna pruriens reviews were experiencing what I like to call the "vaginal-steaming placebo effect." In other words, I figured any results were all in their heads.
However, I was wrong — the dopamine bean worked for me.
How The Dopamine Bean Affected Me
Mucuna pruriens seemed to be working for me so much so that even my coworkers noticed a difference. Most days, I feel sluggish (perhaps as a result of my mac-and-cheese-heavy diet). On the dopamine bean, though, I felt more energized than I have in at least five years, like a spry spring chicken of 25. I also usually tend toward a negative worldview (re: depression), but the bean had me strangely feeling positive, optimistic, and ready to take on the day's challenges with aplomb.
What's more, my typically horrifically bad PMS disintegrated, so much so that I recommend the bean to another friend who suffers from similar monthly cycle effects. It was a true Moon Juice-enabled miracle!
However, it was also weird. My coworkers were starting to worry — I was not myself, and even if that seemed like perhaps a good thing, it was also alarming. The dopamine bean became an in-office joke, and when it inevitably wore off sometime mid-afternoon, they teased me that it was time for a second dose.
Then, the migraines began. More specifically, I got my first migraine ever, and it crippled me for 24 hours. In the days that followed, I continued to suffer from headaches daily, and the only culprit I could figure was 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 discovered headaches are a potential side effect of overdosing, which stopped me in my tracks.
After I Stopped Taking The Dopamine Bean
Basically, I quit cold turkey and went to see my doctor, who told me that in taking the bean, I had essentially been self-medicating with a new antidepressant. She explained to me that some antidepressants contain the exact same ingredient that makes the dopamine bean effective and that I should read "natural" to mean "unregulated." However, she didn’t think my headaches were a result of the Mucuna pruriens, as I'd already been taking it for weeks by the time they appeared. This was reassuring, but the rest of her comments definitely got me thinking.
Around this same time I conducted an interview with Robert Lustig, M.D., author of The Hacking of the American Mind, about the difference between pleasure (dopamine) and happiness (serotonin). He mentioned 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 2008 study in Parkinsonism & Related Disorders that backs up Dr. Lustig's claims. It concluded that lengthy exposure to dopaminergic drugs can cause reward system malfunction, which can manifest as addiction to L-dopa and behavioral disturbances linked to impulse control — gambling, excessive shopping, hypersexuality, and binge eating. Big yikes.
To get some more clarity from someone who might know how to speak about Mucuna pruriens in layman's terms, I reached out to Adrienne Dowd, a registered dietitian and nutritionist and board certified health and wellness coach at Parsley Health, for some advice. "While Mucuna pruriens has antidepressant capabilities, I wouldn't call it an unregulated drug,” she says. “In which case, you'd have to categorize all adaptogens as unregulated drugs, right?”
After all, Mucuna pruriens is an adaptogen that's been used for a very long time in many indigenous communities and Ayurvedic medicine. “More commonly, Mucuna pruriens is used to promote muscle growth, increase strength, and has been proven to raise levels of testosterone,” Dowd says. “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 was just confused, since the bean did for me many of the things Dowd reported it's meant to do, and yet my doctor more or less advised against it. At this point, I was scared to start taking it again because I didn’t know for sure if the dopamine bean was improving my health or endangering it.
Ideally, you should work with a nutritionist and a doctor to add any supplement into your daily diet. After all, trusting just the internet or Instagram with your health is never a good idea — one that I learned the hard way. If you do decide to try Mucuna pruriens, however, Dowd advises on self-administering the supplement. "Recommended dosing should be two weeks on and one week off,” she says. “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.
If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI (6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or call 911.
Lampariello, L. R., Cortelazzo, A., Guerranti, R., Sticozzi, C., & Valacchi, G. (2012). The Magic Velvet Bean of Mucuna pruriens. Journal of traditional and complementary medicine, 2(4), 331–339. https://doi.org/10.1016/s2225-4110(16)30119-5
Merims, D., & Giladi, N. (2008). Dopamine dysregulation syndrome, addiction and behavioral changes in Parkinson's disease. Parkinsonism & related disorders, 14(4), 273–280. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.parkreldis.2007.09.007
Robert Lustig, M.D., author of The Hacking of the American Mind
Adrienne Dowd, registered dietitian and nutritionist and board certified health and wellness coach at Parsley Health