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My Mornings on ‘Dopamine Bean’

I’m on hold with Paypal to cancel a transaction, answering a dozen automated questions before they connect me to an actual agent. I’m speaking calmly, providing answers in my speaking voice rather than the temper-tantrum tone I normally save for such computer-mediated situations. I sent money to the wrong username. The typo was my fault. Still, I want my money back because somebody else could have this username and transfer the funds to their bank account — and suddenly, my little error would launch an entire investigation in which I’d have complete all sorts of bureaucratic bullshit. Somehow, though, I’m taking deep breaths and envisioning a helpful agent taking perfect care of me any minute now.

It probably helps — and is obviously worth noting — that I’m also high on macuna pruriens (aka dopamine bean).

For the uninitiated (which is pretty much everyone), Macuna pruriens is a legume that grows on trees, indigenous to Africa and Southern Asia. The basic idea is that it contains an immediate precursor to dopamine, a neurotransmitter in our brain called l-dopa that boosts our moods and improves our sleep. Studies also have shown it to reduce stress, increase testosterone and improve the semen quality of infertile men.

I’ve been taking macuna pruriens for a week. I became curious after a friend mentioned she’d incorporated them into her own wellness routine. “I take it about two or three times a week via smoothie,” she said. “If something is natural and people say it’s going to help lift my spirits, my thinking is ‘Why not just try it?’ I take medication specifically for depression, so why not supplement it?”

Another friend told me she began taking macuna pruriens after a healer recommended them to her: “The results were almost immediate. A lot of it could have been general excitement about being on a regimen to help my mood, focus and sad-induced weight gain. My brain had been so foggy, and I was having a hard time finding any motivation for anything. A lot of that changed after I started the regimen. I had more energy, was more focused and making better choices about what I put into my body. I guess I didn’t realize how down I was until I noticed how much more up I felt afterward.”

All sold out at Erewhon, the boutique health food store in L.A. that makes Whole Foods look pedestrian, I went to Moon Juice to purchase its variety of macuna prurien powder, which it hilariously and falsely describe as tasting like “caramel.” Moon Juice is the brainchild of Amanda Chantal Bacon, who throws macuna pruriens into pretty much everything, especially mood-boosting tonics and mylks (the appropriate way to spell diary-less milks). Moon Juice is a boutique juice, snack and supplement chain that, in terms of organic eateries/juice bars/boutiques, is at the fully Goop end of the spectrum.

The macuna happened to be on sale, so I got a few bucks off its typical cost of $36 for 1.3 ounces. (The cashier told me a lot of her customers begin taking it when getting off of Zoloft.) After dosing my coffee with a splash of the brown powder, along with Moon Juice’s “spirit dust,” which was recommended as a companion supplement, I begin searching for other supplementheads on Reddit, because if perusing Reddit has taught me anything, it’s that men love nootropics, which they lovingly refer to as “noots” while biohacking their health and performance.

Sure enough, macuna pruriens proved to be a hot topic. One thread is about macuna pruriens as part of the ayurvedic nootropic lifestyle. (Ayurveda is a holistic medical approach ancient to India, which is where many of the popular brands like Sun Potion source their beans). Another is titled “Mucuna Pruriens (L-Dopa) Makes Me Feel So Good That It’s Scary,” in which after taking mucuna, the user describes feeling “back to normal like how I felt when I was 14 years old again. I’ve been living in a daze the past 7 years it seems.”

Of course, within Reddit’s nootropic community, users aren’t always dealing with depression but looking for ways to improve their own performance. After all, macuna is sold in healthfood stores as “a neurotransmitter that ignites the brain’s pleasure centers” — hence the nickname, “dopamine bean.” “A lot of people think of dopamine as a neurochemical reward, but it’s really the attention to reward-related cues and the anticipation of engaging motor activity toward that end. Like you want something, you see something, you move toward it. You go from distal, to proximal, to interactive. Dopamine is really involved in that anticipation of engaging motor activity toward the reward,” neurobiologist Jim Pfaus once explained to me.

Dopamine is involved in lots of other bodily processes too, which might be why I vomited a few hours after first trying it. In fairness, that also could have been because I took too much of it. Regarding serving size, Moon Juice suggests “1/2 teaspoon (2 grams) to water or tea!” and adds that it’s an “excellent addition to milk potions, elixirs, smoothies, raw treats, busy schedules, soup and everything!” Scared after my initial negative reaction, however, I’ve kept it down to a quarter of a teaspoon (or about half the recommended dosage).

Online, there’s a ton of debate about how much — and how often — you should take mucuna pruriens. I blame it on bodybuilders who experimented with super high concentrations in in the 1990s. “The theory is that taking this supplement increases levels of dopamine, which then translates into the behavioral benefits,” says Dr. Jamin Brahmbhatt, MEL’s go-to urologist. “In the case of fertility, there are three studies that have shown an improvement in semen parameters by reducing the effects of stress on the testical and production of sperm. The dose used in this study was five grams daily.”

Fertility expert Dr. Brian Levine, the founding partner and practice director of CCRM New York adds, “As a Western-trained physician, my experience with mucuna pruriens is limited. In fact, I’m neither trained nor familiar with its preparation or use. That said, any agent that can help reduce stress can improve semen parameters. It’s been known for more than 20 years that there’s a profound inverse relationship between semen quality and specific aspects of psychological stress. As such, it doesn’t surprise me that the administration of mucuna pruriens in a subset of infertile men has helped improve their reproductive potential.”

Nonetheless, while many medical traditions have found mucuna pruriens helpful throughout the years, Western science doesn’t consider the bean to be as sound of an elixir for mood disorders as it has other conditions (e.g., Parkinson’s), where there’s an actual lack of dopamine receptors. In other words, while people such as myself may like the sound of increasing our dopamine levels, it doesn’t mean we’ve actually had our dopamine levels tested to know they are, in fact, low.

If anything, there’s a potential risk in experimenting with your brain chemistry without the supervision of some kind of medical professiona — be it your regular physician or a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioner. Speaking of risk, studies have shown mucuna pruriens may actually increase risk-taking behavior. Case in point: This study explores how many people who treated their Parkinson’s with drugs containing mucuna pruriens became compulsive gamblers. “Degeneration of the dopaminergic system in Parkinson’s disease and longstanding exposure to dopaminergic drugs may cause reward system malfunction,” it reports. “This may manifest as addiction to l-dopa and behavioral disturbances associated with the impulse control system. These disturbances include: gambling, excessive spending, hypersexuality and binge eating.”

For the sake of transparency, I’ll admit that after taking macuna pruriens every morning for a few days, all of my blissful productivity took a high-spirited turn. I wound up at two strip clubs in the same night, spending all the money I’d been paid in cash after a recent job. So yes, while experimenting with macuna, I spent excessively, broke my “Sober September” no drinking pledge, got all horned up at two different exotic establishments and ate a lot of pizza.

But hey, I was really, really happy the whole time.