by Riverdave Owen

December 1, 2017


       Since my early childhood growing up in North Carolina, with the onset of winter I became accustomed to migrating south and experiencing sunlight and warmth.  My parents were originally from Florida.  To keep in touch with relatives at Christmas time we would pack up our Plymouth station wagon, rise at 2AM and head due south on Highway 1 passing through the Sandhill towns of Southern Pines and Sumter.  As my sister and I slept on mats in the back of the car, dawn would awaken us in South Carolina in what I remember as a magical world of cabbage palms and Spanish moss drooping from sprawling live oaks. With this transition into southern exotica the world seemed brighter and magical. I experienced a mood arousal and uplift that was palpable. 


       From there we would enter the winding coastal Highway 17, snaking along the Georgia coast into Florida.  Crossing over mysterious blackwater rivers lined with cypress knees, I would beg my father to stop by the bridges that often had an adjacent tourist shack offering “jungle” shows of live gators, macaws and anacondas.  He refused, dismissing them as “tourist traps.”  But we couldn’t pass too many Stucky’s outlets before my sister or I “needed” to use the restroom. Their pecan bars became an important component in this ritual of tropical migration. By mid afternoon we found ourselves by the St. John’s River in the sleepy river town of Palatka, Florida. There we imbibed the fragrant winter orange blossoms, basking in a sunny environment with only fading memories of North Carolina’s cold and dreary winterscape of Santa land. I traded my long sleeves and winter jacket for a t-shirt as my young body attuned to this seasonal latitudinal crossing. On a subconscious level, my parents were taking very good care of me.   


       As an adult I perpetuated this pattern of tropical winter migration and eventually began leading winter ecotourism groups to remote areas of Central and South America.  In North Carolina I became particularly interested in seasonal bird migration.  The arrival of migrating tropical warblers to my hometown of Durham during the last week of March became a defining moment in my calendar, soon to be followed by cheery voices of tropical thrushes, peewees and cuckoos.  When I began to take note of the effects of aging on my own body at the age of forty, I became aware of the concept of seasonal affective disorder.  Although never professionally diagnosed as such, I eventually accepted the notion of SAD as a reasonable explanation for my seasonal migratory behavior.  Winter’s shortening of sun exposure brought on a season of moderate mood depression that my body tried to evade by instinctively heading south.  


In my fifties I began to study a concept found in the practice of Asian traditional medicine known as personal constitution analysis.  A Thai medicine teacher challenged me with the probability that I had a “windy constitution,” one deficient in warmth and moisture.  At first I balked, stating that I was a very warm blooded person and had a strong affinity with the sun. I shared this conundrum with several friends and was surprised to hear them agreeing with the assessment of the Thai medicine teacher, saying “Riverdave, you are indeed a cold person!”  With this resounding peer verdict, everything suddenly popped into focus. For me, this was not an issue of affinity with the sun, but one of polarity.  I was a sun seeker because I was born with a cold constitution!  I had an imbalance in my wind element manifesting as a deeply entrenched seasonal affective disorder.  Unknowingly, my parents had taught me one method of managing my condition. 


       Besides tropical migration, I later learned to manage my wind imbalance with a number of creative innovations requiring less dislocation.  In Durham I moved to a hillside with a strong southern directional exposure and made it a practice to lay on my porch with skin exposed on sunny winter days.  I installed a wood stove, scavenged and chopped my own wood to heat my house and spent many a dark winter night enjoying the warmth and glow of my hand prepared fire. In the bathroom of the log cabin I placed a large claw foot tub and soaked in hot water sprinkled with olive oil several times a week as I undertook the Ayurvedic practice of abhyanga or oil massage on my tightly muscled legs and arms.  I began to follow a food intake that included more seasonal, warming and spicy soups in the winter and studied the art of making a nourishing nut broth from the fruit of hickory trees in my own backyard.  As I implemented these practices, I began to scale back my winter tropical travels.  But my search for constitutional balance remained an ongoing challenge until the Fall of 2015 when I learned of an intriguing new herbal option.  


       While on a forest walk a physician friend mentioned to me how she was taking an Asian herb known as Mucuna pruriens and how it had proved to be a valuable aid in dealing with a recent bout of acute depression. She took this powdered tropical bean in capsules for six months, got positive results and then moved on with her life.  I was tweaked by her story and began to further investigate this leguminous vine myself.  I recalled how several years earlier, based on a traditional botanical protocol in India, I had encouraged my own father to take Mucuna to curb the deepening of his neurological setback due to Parkinson’s Disease.  And although of Asian origin, I discovered that Mucuna is now commonly grown in the southeastern U.S. as a nitrogen fixing cover crop.  A conviction began to grow that I should now experiment with this neuroprotective bean to further treat my own experience of seasonal depression.


       In preparation for the winter of 2015 I ordered one pound of powdered organic Mucuna bean from Banyan Botanicals, an herbal products retailer in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  This company formed under the guidance of Ayurvedic Physician Dr. Vasant Lad, a respected traditional Indian doctor who has been practicing in the USA for thirty years. I decided to set a firm seasonal boundary for my personal herbal trial, maintaining my intake of this bean only during the winter months of December, January and February.  Even though I had been assured by accounts of modern scientific trials with this bean in India that it did not create physical dependency, I wanted to approach this herb with special care.  I felt strongly that attempts to balance my moods with medicinal substances of any kind should be approached very cautiously.  


       With this issue in mind, I was able to speak with Dr. Lad personally about the traditional Ayurvedic use of Mucuna in a conversation at Ananda Ashram in New York. I mentioned my concern about developing a dependency with this herb.  He assured me that it was not likely to happen with Mucuna and said that once ingested, the herb does not remain in the body but instead is cleared daily.  And for those currently taking the modern pharmaceutical medication for Parkinson’s Disease, but who wish to test the bean to see if it might produce a better outcome, Dr. Lad said Mucuna should be gradually worked at the rate of 25% a week over a period of four weeks while the prescribed pharmaceutical medication is gradually tapered off at the same rate.  


       After taking my first dose of Mucuna for treating my SAD condition, the effect was noticeable within 48 hours.  It was as if a lightbulb of modest wattage had been quietly switched on deep within the recesses of my head.  Another metaphor might be that it felt like the Spring season had unexpectedly snuck in several months early. The feeling was subtle, but easily located within the sphere of my waking awareness.  It was not the sensation I normally experienced when I stepped out of an airplane upon arriving in Miami in December, a blunt wave of warm moist air that is shocking or exhilarating to the system as one reaches for the sunglasses. Instead I became aware of a gentle illumination and warmth that was accessible with simply a soft breath.  I smiled inwardly as I observed my body’s reaction to this herbal uplift. The taste of the Mucuna bean powder was even mild and slightly sweet. I had simply washed down a half teaspoonful of powder with a swig of water.


       The winter of 2015/16 indeed turned out to be quite different for me.  Life did not seem to be a struggle as in previous winters when I often found myself squandering time searching the internet for cheap airline tickets for flights heading south.  I had never taken a pharmaceutical antidepressant before, even though there were times in my life when I was tempted to try one.  But my fear of their well-documented negative side effects always caused me to keep these synthetic drugs at arms length.  The common side effect of libido loss experienced by users of pharmaceutical antidepressants seemed daunting. The loss of vitality seemed inconsistent with the goal of medicine. In contrast, users of Mucuna were actually finding libido enhancement!  But the thing I noticed most about my mucuna trial was that when I became aware of a negative thought hovering on the periphery of my consciousness, I was able to turn and acknowledge it, and then at will, disallow its entrance into my arena of mental activity.  The negative thought would linger for a short while longer, but then seem to dissipate and vaporize on its own.  I marveled at the ease with which this new mechanism functioned. I finally had a working ally in a longstanding mental health and lifestyle challenge! 


The perspective provided by modern pharmacology for the Mucuna bean’s mood enhancing action is that it contains by weight on average 5% levodopa, an amino acid and dopamine precursor synthesized endogenously by many plants, animals and even humans.  When ingested, Mucuna’s levodopa can pass directly through our blood-brain barrier to be converted by the brain into dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is important in the  healthy function of the central nervous system. The brain has several dopamine pathways, including one associated with reward-motivated behavior, another involved in motor control and a third that modulates hormonal release. Diseases that can develop because of dopamine insufficiency include Parkinson’s, schizophrenia, ADHD, low libido, restless leg syndrome and the one this essay is concerned about - seasonal affective disorder. The bean also contains lower levels of serotonin, nicotine and DMT.


       On the other hand, the perspective provided by traditional herbal ethnomedicine for Mucuna's mood enhancing action is based on parameters disparate from the actions of chemical constituents.  The bean is native to tropical Asia and Africa but now thrives in tropical and subtropical regions throughout the world, including the southeastern USA.  In Ayurveda, the traditional medicine of India, Mucuna is often known by two Sanskrit names:  Kapicacchu कपिकच्छू, meaning “monkey itch,” because of dermatitis easily acquired by handling the hairy bean pods and Atmagupta आत्मगुप्ता, meaning “secret self,” probably signifying that the use of this medicinal bean can be an important gateway for self discovery or possibly even reaching the pranic or energy body.  Of the three designated human constitutional imbalances in Ayurveda - wind, fire and water, the Mucuna bean is considered to be a balancer of both wind and fire, but it may cause an imbalance for those with a water constitution. It is understood to have a sweet taste and a warming action. It is best known as a tonic for both the nervous and reproductive systems, but is also used in the treatment of diabetes, parasites, epilepsy, inflammation and as a pain reliever.


       One specialized use of Mucuna in traditional medicine is the treatment of venomous snakebite. In India where 50,000 people die of snakebite a year, Mucuna has been demonstrated to reduce the lethality of bites from both the Asian cobra and the Krait. With the snake or “naga” being the mysterious and revered animal that it is in Indian tradition, the ability of a common bean to reverse the effects of a deadly toxin has led to a particularly high respect for this tropical vine. In Nigeria, Mucuna beans are given as an oral prophylactic for snakebite.  It is claimed that if the seeds are swallowed whole, the individual is protected for an entire year against future snake envenomation. Mucuna’s use as a snakebite remedy clearly underscores the plant’s formidable neuroprotective properties, as venom can attack the victim’s central nervous system and quickly lead to systemic failures. 


       Desiring to work with this plant directly, in late Fall of 2016 I obtained Mucuna seeds from a grower in Tampa, Florida.  I potted them in the Spring of 2017 with herbalist Suki Roth, the owner of Herbhaven in North Carolina’s Haw River Valley.  They sprouted quickly so Suki planted six seedlings along the edge of Herbhaven’s garden fence in May. Foliage and beautiful purple flowers soon appeared as the vine began to spread along the fence and climb ten feet up and overtop a fig tree in the garden.  Dark green hairy seedpods appeared in mid summer and by September the three to five inch pods began to blacken. On November 7 we harvested about half the pods and left the other half to more fully dry and darken.  Finally on November 27, over six months after planting, we harvested the remainder for a total of twenty-one pounds of pods.


       The first thing we did with our beans was to celebrate by making a Middle Eastern style bean dip or “hummus.”  I substituted Mucuna beans for chick peas and blended in the traditional ingredients I was taught to use by Palestinian hummus masters - tahini, garlic, lemon juice and salt.  The process of cracking the pod and extracting the tightly encased beans necessitated wearing protective gloves as the pod is covered with tiny hairs that can leave an irritating itch lasting several hours. When that occurred we discovered that crushing fresh aloe vera leaves in our hands and rubbing them on to our forearms relieved the irritation. 


       But most of our extracted beans will be processed and prepared as medicine in powder form and also as a tincture extract as in the photo below. After grinding them into a white powder, Mucuna can then be taken by the teaspoon with water. The taste is mildly sweet. This winter I will be adding my teaspoon of Mucuna powder, along with other seasonal herbs, to my morning medicine pudding. See: Medicine Herb Pudding. Herbhaven's tincture will make use of the bean as a nervous system tonic in focus formulas, libido enhancement, mood balancing and in Parkinson’s referrals. We will experiment with making Himalayan-styled medicine balls with Macuna powder and honey that can be taken by both children and adults with ADHD. Neurological challenges from Lyme disease are yet another area for testing.  And of course, we will be saving a few of the beans for next Spring’s planting!