Nigeria’s medicinal plants: Mucuna pruriens (Werepe)

Mucuna pruriens is a member of the big family; Fabaceae. It is a lofty climber with pubescent stems. The flowers are deep purple to almost black. The fruit is densely clothed with rusty stinging hairs.

I know of a fertility supplement for both male and female that is made in India and marketed by a popular pharmaceutical company in Nigeria. The list of its ingredients includes Mucuna pruriens. One of my maternal uncles, Mr Lanre Olaoba, shared an experience he had years ago with me. It was so hilarious that I laughed so hard till tears came out of my eyes. He said he went to work on the farm one day but unknown to him Mucuna pruriens was on the farm. He told me it started like a sting but as soon as his body became sweaty, the itching began and he started scratching his body and rolling on the ground in pain. One of those around rubbed his body with sand to remove the hairy particules of the plant from his body. That was like adding salt on an injury! He was eventually advised to have a bath in the stream because there was no palm oil which is the antidote on the farm. The Igbo call it Agbala, the Yoruba call it Werepe /Yerepe. It is Karara in Hausa. It is already made into capsules.

Mucuna is called “pruriens” because of the intense itching produced by their contact. The orange “hairs” of flowers and pods of Mucuna pruriens contain chemicals (including serotonin) that, when they come in contact with the skin, cause intense irritation and itching and sometimes troublesome injury including allergies and severe swelling. Scratching the exposed area can spread the itching to other areas touched. Once this happens, the subject tends to scratch vigorously and uncontrollably and for this reason the local populace in northern Mozambique refers to the beans as “mad beans.”

Mucuna pruriens increases sexual drive in men and women due to its dopamine-inducing properties. Dopamine is the substance of desire and profoundly influences all appetites. In men with fertility problems, Mucuna clearly enhances sexual drive and power while improving the quality of the sperm. It increases the number of cells and also gives them greater mobility. It is used for nervous disorders and also as an aphrodisiac.

Mucuna pruriens extracts have shown the presence of substances that exhibit a wide variety of pharmacological effects, including anti-diabetic, anti-inflammatory, neuroprotective and antioxidant, anti-epileptic, anti-neoplastic, anti-oxidants, anti-microbial, aphrodisiac, anti-neoplastic, anti-epileptic, anti-microbial, anti-venom anti-helminthic and analgesic. It has long been used in traditional Ayurvedic Indian medicine and low income region of the world 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. It can also help decrease psychological stress. Since the plant is a legume, it fixes nitrogen and fertilises soils.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, Mucuna pruriens was grown widely as a green vegetable in the foothills and lower hills of the eastern Himalayas and in Mauritius. Both the green pods and the mature beans were boiled and eaten. In Guatemala and Mexico, Mucuna  pruriens has for at least several decades been roasted and ground to make a coffee substitute; the seeds are widely known in the region as “Nescafé,” in recognition of this use.

Mucuna pruriens is a tropical bean containing large amounts of levodopa (Levodopa is the precursor to dopamine). Dopamine enables neurons in your brain to communicate and control movement. Famous neurologists have patented methods of extraction for its advantages over the synthetic forms, Sinemet and Madopar. This natural levodopa is less toxic and has a faster and more lasting effect and can delay the need for pharmaceuticals and combination therapies.

Mucuna pruriens increases the adaptation and regeneration of tissues in general and has been shown to increase growth hormone. It has an anabolic effect and increases muscle mass; it also has antioxidant properties and favours the protective functions of the liver. Diabetics and people with high cholesterol may benefit from Mucuna pruriens. In rats, it has been shown to lower cholesterol by 61 per cent, and glucose was reduced by 39 per cent. Mucuna pruriens enhances the recovery of diabetic neuropathy induced in animals. In humans, it delays the onset of diabetic nephropathy. It also protects the stomach to relieve gastric mucosal lesions induced experimentally in rats. It contains prurienine which increases intestinal peristalsis and is a good remedy for constipation; prevalent in Parkinson’s disease patients.

It improves coordination and attention. It is used in some brands of itching powder. It is used for treating anxiety, arthritis, parasitic infections and a condition called hyperprolactinemia. It is also used to relieve pain and fever, to induce vomiting and to treat snakebite. Some people apply it directly to the skin for joint and muscle pain, to stimulate surface blood flow in conditions that involve paralysis and to treat scorpion stings. According to Ancient Ayurvedic literature, Mucuna pruriens is used as a geriatric tonic and vermifuge. It is also used for the treatment of menstruation disorders, constipation, edema, fever, tuberculosis etc.

Mucuna pruriens is a good antidote for snake bites, specifically, it reduces mortality due to bites from Gariba viper (Echis carinatus), Viper Malaya and spitting cobra (Naja sputatrix). In Plateau State, Nigeria, the seed is prescribed as a prophylactic oral anti-snakebite remedy by traditional practitioners and it is claimed that when the seeds are swallowed intact, the individual is protected for one full year against the effects of any snake bite.

In a study titled, “Effect of Mucuna (Mucuna pruriens) on spermiograms of West African dwarf bucks,’’ by James Daramola et al, the findings showed that oral administration of Mucuna pruriens seed powder to the bucks for 30 days resulted in improved testicular measurements and sperm quality without any adverse effect on structure of reproductive physiology of the bucks. I already hinted that a fertility supplement is made from the plant.

Dopamine is the chemical messenger that tells your brain, “this is good, do more of it.” It is a key player in your brain’s reward system and substantially affects your motivation. If you don’t have enough dopamine, you may feel depressed, listless, unambitious and in extreme cases, low dopamine may lead to mental illness. There is nothing bad raising our dopamine levels with Mucuna pruriens!

The fact that the toxicity of unprocessed velvet bean is the reason the plant exhibits low susceptibility to insect pests and that It is well known for its nematicidal effects teaches some inspirational lessons. As humans, we must not be influenced or harmed by anything. The plant makes all predators scratch their bodies, we must always put up a defence in times of danger. Mucuna pruriens is indeed an exceptional plant!


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