A group of us were helping teach yoga to members of a Parkinson’s support group. The members were very enthusiastic about learning the various asanas and were willing to do the breathing routines that accompany these asanas.
Most of them were on allopathic medications and using Dopamine-based drugs. In Parkinson’s, for some reason the brain produces less Dopamine giving rise to the typical symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Patients suffering from it have tremors in the hands while at rest. They have less tremors when the hands are actually holding something. The walking gait is altered and you see them walking as if they are chasing their own shadow —in a kind of jerky combination of running and walking. Often the face seems kind of expressionless and caregivers wonder why they are not responding well to their affection. Some of them have memory problems too.
The members of the support group were mostly senior citizens and had other health issues such as diabetes and blood pressure. No allopathic physician or neurologist who treats Parkinson’s will assure their patients of a cure. Some might warn that the disease takes hold as they age and they may get stiffer. None of this really deters our patients from taking the medications with full faith and trust. You mention ayurvedic drugs that have been in use for hundreds of years and you are faced with a barrage of questions as to its efficacy and safety.
I think we as a nation have failed to project the value of Ayurvedic, Siddha and Unani Pharmacopoeia. So it is that when I talked about Mucuna pruriens or Poonakali (Tamil name), an ayurvedic and siddha drug. Our friends were intrigued but were a little hesitant about using it. Almost none had consulted an ayurvedic or siddha physician. One of them, more intrepid than the rest, was taking capsules of Mucuna pruriens but in much smaller doses than prescribed by vaidyars.
How does Mucuna pruriens look like? It is a creeper with flat beans like avarakkai with similar violet and purple flowers. The beans are hairy pods which produce an itching sensation if touched. What prompted siddhars and vaidyars to pluck these pods and remove the black seeds and use them for treating Parkinson’s? I have been asking this question to all my friends and many of them, perhaps being spiritually inclined, have said that the sages must have had some divine inspiration. Perhaps! I would not ordinarily go plucking a fruit which produced quite an allergic itch. The wonderful thing is the seed inside is quite benign to touch and looks like a large black bean.
My siddha vaidyar friend says that the seed is a wonderful drug and is far better at preventing long-term stiffness which the allopathic drug brings about. The ayurvedic preparation is quite easily made at home. The country drug store stocks seeds of Mucuna pruriens. In Chennai, you can ask for Poonakali Vidhai. Get about 100 gms of the seed and soak in water overnight. The next morning the seeds swell up and the outer coat can be easily removed. The seed is then dried in the sun for a couple of days till it is stone dry. You can lightly pound it to facilitate drying. The completely dried seed can be ground finely in a mixie. My siddha vaidyar prescribes about 2 to 2½ gms, twice a day after food. The only caveat being that the seeds should not be eaten soon after eating any milk products as the protein in milk interferes with the absorption of the medication. To the question whether the seeds were safe and had any side-effects, I passed on the nugget of information given to me by my siddha vaidyars. Tribals and fisher folk of Kodikkarai in Tamil Nadu boil the beans and regularly eat the seeds as a snack. No study seems to have been done regarding the incidence of Parkinson’s among these people. Also with the growing popularity of Kurkure and potato chips, I wonder how many of the youngsters would consider poonakali seeds as a good evening snack! A time will come when the good old Mucuna pruriens seed will be the drug of choice for Parkinson’s patients. Perhaps better still would be control vata, eat ghee and avoid Parkinson’s altogether.
The writer is retired Additional Chief Secretary, Tamil Nadu. She can be reached at Sheelarani.arogyamantra@gmail. com / arogyamantra.blogspot.com