Therapies to Reduce the Symptoms of Parkinson's

by Dr. David Williams
Filed Under: General Health, Mood & Memory
Last Reviewed 02/06/2014

Mucuna beans help combat constipation associated with Parkinson's disease

As many as one million Americans live with Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative neurological condition, and approximately 60,000 Americans are diagnosed with the disease each year, according to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation.

Surprisingly, the most common treatment today is based on Ayurvedic medicine used to treat the condition over 4,000 years ago. Since there is still no known cure, treatment has primarily consisted of therapies that increase dopamine levels in the brain, which in turn improve the transmission of nerve impulses. The chemical dopamine itself can’t be given because it can’t cross the delicate blood-brain barrier. A compound called L-dopa (levodopa) can pass through this barrier and gain access to the brain. Once there, L-dopa is converted to dopamine.

Once Again, Natural Trumps Synthetic

In 1936, Drs. Damodaran and Ramaswamy of India discovered the mucuna bean (Mucuna pruriens) is an excellent plant source for L-dopa, but this discovery didn’t receive much attention because the Parkinson’s–L-dopa connection wasn’t made by scientists until the 1960s. Once that connection was made, thousands of plants were screened in the search for those with high levels of L-dopa. But, as so often happens in the U.S., L-dopa was made synthetically, and efforts to extract the compound from plants were abandoned. The synthetic (read, prescription, or profit-making) form of L-dopa has since become the accepted way to control the symptoms of Parkinson’s.

One of the problems with the use of synthetic L-dopa is that over the long term it appears to lose its effectiveness. Another problem is side effects. Included among these are nausea, vomiting, headache, fatigue, fainting, increased thirst, and tremors. These same side effects were noted in ancient Ayurvedic writings, but only as problems associated with overdosing with plant extracts of L-dopa.

In Ayurvedic medicine, mucuna beans are ground into powder and given to treat not only Parkinson’s, but also cholera, snakebite, worms and intestinal parasites, nerve problems, tumors, mumps, paralysis, cancer, impotence, fertility problems, and tuberculosis, just to name a few. While the list of ailments treated with mucuna bean powder might seem quite varied, there is growing scientific rationale to support this form of treatment. Unlike the drug L-dopa and other pure, synthetic medicines, powdered mucuna beans contain dozens of different compounds that appear to exert a strong synergistic effect—an effect far stronger than if each isolated compound was used independently. Mucuna beans are also members of the legume family, and when the whole seed is used, it not only provides a rich source of vitamin E, but also roughage. The roughage helps combat the constipation commonly associated with Parkinson’s.

Mucuna powder products are being sold as anti-aging supplements that regenerate organs, help grow muscle and bone, and stop wrinkling. Don’t waste your money if that’s what you expect to achieve. However, if you or someone you know suffers from Parkinson’s disease, I would certainly discuss the use of mucuna powder with your doctor. I do not advocate self-treatment for Parkinson’s, because, regardless of therapy, this is a disease that needs monitoring.

One U.S. supplier of mucuna-based L-dopa is International Supplements. They sell a product called L-Dopa, and a 60-day supply (500 mg L-dopa per day) costs approximately $50. Just forget all their hype about anti-aging benefits, muscle building, and bone growth. It’s simply not true. But it could help lessen the severity of Parkinson’s symptoms.

A Wii Device With Big Benefits

With all the technological advances we’ve seen in the last few years, one of the most interesting aspects is observing how a technology eventually gets utilized. A good example is computer games, which have just recently been recognized as an effective form of physical therapy.

I don’t have a lot of research data to back up any claims, nor have there been any large-scale clinical trials on the use of these game consoles. But my conversations with patients and physical therapists have convinced me this type of therapy can make a world of difference.

Some patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease have seen dramatic improvements in their symptoms after just a month from playing the tennis game for only three hours a week. They report experiencing fewer tremors and also being able to move and walk better with increased coordination.

In one small 20-patient study, Dr. Ben Herz, an occupational therapist at the Medical College of Georgia, found that when Parkinson patients regularly played Wii games like tennis, bowling, and baseball, their physical conditions improved significantly. As a result, many showed improvement in their mental health as well.

As I mentioned, Parkinson’s results from low levels of dopamine in the brain. Preliminary data suggest that both exercise and these computer games can increase dopamine levels. No one is suggesting playing these interactive video games will cure Parkinson’s, but it certainly seems reasonable that it could slow the progression of the disease.

Creatine Can Help Shaky Muscles

Creatine also shows promise in treating patients with neuromuscular disease such as Parkinson’s. (Like many elderly individuals, patients with conditions such as Parkinson’s, muscular dystrophy, Alzheimer’s, and Huntington’s disease have been shown to have lower levels of creatine in their muscles.)

The McMaster study involved 80 patients with muscular dystrophies and other neurological diseases. Participants were given either a placebo, or 5 grams of creatine a day for five days and then 10 grams of creatine for an additional week. All of the patients taking creatine experienced significant improvements in overall strength and muscle mass. For example, those on creatine had an 11% increase in knee strength compared, to only 2.3% in the placebo group.

Creatine is available in capsules and powder in just about any health food store. While it’s not the precise dosage used above, the general recommendation is a “loading” dosage of 15 to 20 grams a day, and then a maintenance level of 5 grams a day. You should begin to see a difference in muscle strength in as little as 10 days.

Creatine has been used for some time now and is considered to be quite safe. Some people experience dehydration, which is solved by adding an extra glass or two of water a day (something that would undoubtedly benefit most of us anyway).

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