Parkinson’s is a neurological disease that affects a person’s motor skills such as walking, dexterity of the hands, and speech. The classic symptoms of the untreated Parkinson’s patient are: rigid or stooped posture, ‘mask-like’ face, tremors in one or both hands, and shuffling gate.
Symptoms generally show after the age of 60 but there are cases of Parkinson’s patients as young as 30.
The disease is caused by the wasting of the substantia nigra area region of the brain, although the exact cause of cell death is uncertain.
There are a number of standard treatments that alleviate some of the debilitating symptoms of Parkinson’s and slow the progress of the disease but there is, as yet, no cure.
The most commonly used pharmaceutical medicine is levodopa, which stimulates the formation of the natural brain chemical dopamine.
As with other neurological diseases that are conventionally treated with pharmaceuticals, there has been an interest in recent years to find alternative treatments, such as herbal medicine, for Parkinson’s.
Medicinal herbs for Parkinson’s disease seem to fall into three main categories of action:
- Aiding the synthesizing of the neurotransmitter dopamine.
- Inhibiting the enzymes that interfere with dopamine production, in particular monoanimine oxidases (MAOs).
- Protecting the brain from further cell death by counteracting free-radicals.
These are the mechanisms that act directly on the disease itself. In addition, certain foods and medicinal herbs may also help alleviate other symptoms or complications due to Parkinson’s such as: anxiety and depression, dementia, chronic muscle wasting and digestive disorders such as stomach upset and constipation.
The majority of natural treatments for Parkinson’s are dietary and nutritional rather than purely medicinal. There are a number of important nutrients that can be obtained from foods or nutritional supplements.
Those usually cited at the top of the list for their importance in Parkinson’s are: vitamins C, E, B6 and B12, selenium, and co-enzyme Q. Amino acid supplements that boost the body’s production of glutathione are also a possibility.
An overall healthy diet: low in starch, sugar and dairy but also rich in foods that contain natural anti-oxidants such as berries and beans, may help delay or alleviate the symptoms of Parkinson’s.
Those who are prone to food intolerances or allergies should take care when adding any new item to their diets. Choosing organic foods is particularly important for those concerned with preventing or treating neurological disease.
Although it is difficult to know for certain, Parkinson’s may be caused by environmental toxins such as pesticides and heavy metals.
Parkinson’s is a serious, debilitating disease and those who have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s should be under professional medical care. This entails consulting with a medical doctor on matters of diet and any and all herbal remedies being considered.
Medicinal Herbs for Parkinson’s Disease with the Most Promise as a Treatment
A systematic review of all clinical studies of medicinal herbs for Parkinson’s disease for their potential as a treatment found that there were as many as 59 different candidate plants that have been studied but only 64 studies total, meaning that most plants were only studied once.
The review writers failed to find any single strong candidate for Parkinson’s treatment. However, this may be due to the fact that there have not been enough properly designed clinical trials that can produce statistically significant results.
Note that a large part of what is published about the usefulness of medicinal herbs for Parkinson’s disease is based on user testimonials and an understanding of the nutritional base of neurophysiology. There is a marked lack of proper clinical study of these treatments with respect to Parkinson’s.
It should be kept in mind that because clinical research on medicinal herbs for Parkinson’s disease is lacking, there are no reliable recommendations for the preparation and dosage of these plant extracts. A medical professional should be consulted.
Mucuna Bean (Mucuna pruriens)
Mucuna is a natural source of levodopa—the precursor to dopamine. Levodopa was first isolated from mucuna in the 1930s. The drug is now produced synthetically.
Mucuna is a climbing, vine-like shrub with large hanging bunches of flowers typical of legume species of the tropics. These flowers develop into a long, hanging seed pod that appears to be furry.
The seed pods and the leaves of the young plant produce can produce a severe irritation to the skin (hence the name ‘cow itch’); although this irritant does not exist in the mature plant, which is often used for forage for livestock.
Mucuna is an old world plant that has become widespread in the tropics of Africa and Asia and is now invasive in parts of the Americas.
Because mucuna is actually a source of levodopa, it is not surprising that it’s beneficial action on Parkinson’s has been fairly well established by both laboratory and clinical evidence (see for example Mangan and more recently Lieu. Mucuna stands out among the many other herbal remedies that claim to have a benefit for Parkinson’s patients.
The trouble with this natural source of levodopa is that, with a few exceptions, commercially available mucuna in powder or capsule form is not reliable in terms of consistent dosage and consistent dosage is essential to proper treatment of Parkinson’s.
Therefore, mucuna may not be the best choice for those suffering from advanced Parkinson’s but it may be beneficial in the very early stages when the symptoms are not as debilitating or as a partial replacement of pharmaceutical levodopa.
A medical doctor should be consulted before taking mucuna or any herbs for Parkinson’s disease. The potential complication is that a person already taking pharmaceutical levodopa will be increasing their dose of levodopa (often unpredictably) by taking mucuna.
Fava Bean (Vicia fava)
Although cultivated for food in Europe and the U.S., the fava bean is not as well-known as it is in Asia, where it is cultivated both for food and as a medicinal plant. It is less commonly used than the velvet bean.
Like the velvet bean, fava bean is a natural source of levodopa and this has been confirmed with a few studies; however the data are inclusive. Some patients report no benefit from fava bean treatment and this may be due to inconsistent concentrations of levodopa in the plant.
As with velvet bean, the side effects of taking extracts from fava bean may in a few cases be severe, even fatal. There is a rare disease called favism, in which a person is unable to make the enzyme necessary for breaking down the chemicals found in the bean and haemolysis (rupturing of blood cells) ensues.
It is imperative that a medical doctor be consulted before ingesting any form of this medicinal plant.
Medicinal herbs for Parkinson’s disease that are known MAO inhibitors. Some may also have general anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Another way that medicinal herbs may treat Parkinson’s is by inhibiting the action of the MAO enzymes. These enzymes, if present in excess, will catabolize (destroy) molecules of dopamine. Therefore, drugs that are known MAO inhibitors will help preserve the quantity of dopamine in the body and thus help restore normal nerve activity.
It should be noted that there are two types of MAO enzyme and each breaks down a different group of chemicals.
MAO-A breaks down serotonin; thus MAO-A inhibitors are used to restore serotonin levels in cases of anxiety and depression. MAO-B inhibitors catalyze dopamine; thus MAO-B inhibitors are used to restore dopamine levels in patients with neuro-motor diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Because anxiety and depression often co-occur with Parkinson’s, the presence of both MAO-A and MAO-B may be helpful – although the exact nature of the MAO in a plant extract is not always specified.
Some patients may already be taking MAO inhibitors in the form of prescription drugs for either neruological or psychiatric problems and thus it is very important that a medical doctor be consulted before taking any of these herbal supplements or making any significant changes to diet.
Turmeric (Curcumin longa, C. domestica) – not to be confused with ‘cumin’
Turmeric, a rainforest plant related to ginger, is known for its use in Indian dishes and other Asian cuisines. It is the dried and powdered root, yellow-orange in colour, that is used both in cooking and herbal medicine.
The plant is native to southeast Asia and has been used in ayurvedic medicine for centuries. The principal active ingredient of turmeric is curcumin, named for the genus.
Botanicals used to treat Alzheimer’s disease may also be beneficial for Parkinson’s as the two diseases share some of the same chemical mechanisms and symptoms.
Turmeric has shown promise for Alzheimer’s because of it’s anti-MAO activity and so would be expected to have an effect on Parkinson’s as well. In fact, curcumin has been shown to be an inhibitor of both MAO-A and MAO-B and so may be helpful for both Parkinson’s – due to low dopamine – and depression due to low serotonin.
In addition to these properties, the curcumin in turmeric has also been shown to be a strong anti-oxidant by scavenging free radical molecules.
Thus, turmeric is an herbal medicine that treats Parkinson’s in two important ways: by acting against the MAO enzymes and by reducing free radicals.
Because turmeric is also known to be a safe and effective anti-inflammatory agent (to treat arthritic pain, for example), it may help the elderly in maintaining the exercise regimes that are so important in slowing the progress of Parkinson’s.
The passion flower family contains some 650 species, many with the beautiful and unusual flowers for which the passion flower is known. Passiflora incarnata is one of several species native to the southeastern U.S.
It is a weedy vine that bears beautiful purplish flowers, similar in appearance to many other species in the genus; the name “passion flower” is supposedly a reference to the passion of Christ – different parts of the flower depicting the story of the betrayal and crucifixion.
The fruit is a large berry the size of an egg and was traditionally prepared as a jam. All parts of the plant have been used in herbal medicine.
Passionflower does not appear as frequently in the popular and scientific literature as other medicinal herbs for Parkinson’s disease.
It is listed by the herbalist Leslie Taylor for its use in treating Parkinson’s. The active ingredient is probably the MAO inhibitor harmine and harmaline, the same compounds found in Syrian rue.
It has been used by native Americans as a mild sedative and to treat anxiety and restlessness – which often occur with Parkinson’s. The Mayo Clinic notes that while passionflower is a folk medicine with a long history and therefore considered safe it is too often mixed with other herbs such as hawthorn and valerian, and therefore its effects may be difficult to detect.
Note: some species of Passiflora are poisonous.
Syrian Rue (Peganum harmala)
Syrian rue or “harmal” is a hardy desert plant native to the Middle East and known since ancient times in Persia.
The scent is believed to have a healing power and the dried plant was used as an incense in rituals to ward off evil. These old customs attracted the interest of researchers who have found a number of potent alkaloids in the plant and two of these are named after the plant itself: harmaline and harmine.
As with other enzyme inhibitors, there is little direct evidence that this herbal medicine may help Parkinson’s disease in particular.
The AChE-inhibiting action of Peganum harmala is particularly strong; however, in at least one study this enzyme inhibiting action was found to be irreversible, and may therefore be less suitable for clinical practice.
Magnolia (Magnolia officinalis, M. obovata)
A very recent (2013) study by Chinese researchers exposed artificially stressed neurons to polyphenols from Magnolia bark, either from the species native to China, M. officinalis, or the species found in Japan, M. obovata.
Theses polyphenols suppressed both the oxidative and inflammatory response of the nerve cells. As the research team points out, their work follows on previous laboratory studies showing the anti-oxidant potential of magnolia bark extract, such studies prompted by the traditional use of magnolia in Chinese and Japanese medicine.
Although this and earlier laboratory tests do not address Parkinson’s disease in particular, the basic research shows that magnolia bark has promise for general treatment of neurological disorders and should be investigated further.
The hallucinogenic ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis caapi) is probably the least practical choice for herbal medicine, although it is being studied for its ability to increase dopamine in the brain by inhibiting the MAO-B enzyme.
Although the kava plant (Piper methysticum) has been shown to contain potent MAO-B inhibitors, it is not recommended because of the potential severity of side effects, especially damage to the stomach and liver.
The common spice nutmeg (Mystirica fragrans) has also been cited by herbalists as a phytomedicine for Parkinson’s. There is a lack of laboratory or clinical studies to either support or refute this.
Mischley, L. K. Natural Therapies for Parkinson’s Disease. Seattle, WA: Coffeetown Press, 2010.
Kim, T.-H., K. K. Cho, et al. Herbal Medicines for Parkinson’s Disease: A Systematic Review of Randomized Controlled Trials.
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