A decade ago, Diwakar Pakshimane, a retired banker from Ujire, a small town in Karnataka, encountered the first symptoms of Parkinson’s disease (PD). It started with his thumbs shaking involuntarily. “Initially it did not disturb me much,” says Pakshimane, now aged 68.
But this continued for five long years. The symptoms aggravated gradually, and he started noticing other symptoms such as difficulty in walking, slurred speech, loss of strength and constipation. “That’s when I got really scared,” he confesses. He consulted a neuro physician. “I was prescribed dopamine precursors (levodopa), but the medicines gave me relief only for a few hours.”
The lack of control over his situation through medicines made him seek answers in Ayurveda.
“It has been six month since I started Ayurvedic treatment. I have received a combination of therapies and medicines. I feel much better physically and mentally. I have regained my strength. My sleep pattern has drastically improved and recently I discontinued my sedatives,” he says.
He further adds, “Though the changes are not drastic in my case, I still have a hope of getting better with the ayurvedic treatments and oral medications.“
Herbs and Parkinson’s
Pakshimane may be just one of the hundreds of known case of Parkinson’s disease who has found some hope in Ayurveda treatment. Herbal medicines can play a key role in providing relief for both motor and non-motor symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. There is growing evidence that some herbs can check the progression of the symptoms as well as reduce the severity of side-effects from medicines: Researchers are already exploring whether herbs like mucuna can offer long-term amelioration of Parkinson’s and a reduced risk for dyskinesia (increased symptoms as a side effect of medicines).
Herbs and herb-based therapies are an important aspect of Ayurvedic treatment for any disease. To those affected by Parkinson’s Disease, it offers a combination of therapies such as enema (medications are given through the rectal route), nasal medications, body massage using medicated oils followed by a steam bath and head massage using medicated oils.
Role of Ayurvedic cleansing therapies
- Enema cleanses the colon
- Nasal medication helps to cleanse the pathway
- Oil massages followed by a steam bath help to relieve stiffness and nourish the muscles
However, the treatment of PD is incomplete without oral medicines. They include either a single herb or a combination of herbs and minerals. Single herbs that are extensively prescribed for managing Parkinson’s disease are Ashwagandha (winter cherry), Kapikacchu (velvet bean), Brahmi (Indian pennywort or bacopa), Bala (sida) and Indravaruni (bitter apple).
Decoding the benefits
The medicinal uses of these herbs come with different attributes.
As dopamine precursors
Dopamine is an important chemical molecule that plays a significant role in influencing one’s mood and regulating movements as it plays the role of messenger in nerve cells. Dopamine levels drop in people affected by PD due to which their bodily movements and moods get deranged.
Although dopamine replenishment is an important strategy to counteract PD, dopamine cannot be directly administered as it cannot cross the blood-brain barrier. Instead, the precursor popularly known as L-dopa (levodopa) is administered which is capable of crossing that barrier. In humans, L-dopa’s conversion into dopamine occurs not only in the central nervous system but also in the peripheral nervous system (the nervous system that links organs and limbs).
The velvet bean plant’s seed is a reliable source of L-dopa and accounts for 4-6 percent of levodopa.
Our body undergoes constant oxidation – a physiological process in which oxygen molecules are reduced to reactive oxygen species. Antioxidants help to fight oxidation and prevent cell damage. Further, when there is an imbalance between the reactive oxygen species and antioxidants, it leads to oxidative stress – which, if left unattended, leads to inflammatory diseases such as arthritis besides heart ailments, certain cancers, and ageing. It can also lead to extensive damage to dopamine producing cells.
Interestingly, plants such as the Indian pennywort, bitter apple and winter cherry are known to be used for managing Parkinson’s disease for their efficacy as antioxidants.
Neuroprotectors can prevent nerve cell damage due to oxidative stress, ageing, inflammation, and various form of neurotoxicity. Neuroprotection and antioxidants are strongly associated with each other. Bacopa or brahmi is used to manage Parkinson’s disease for this property in it.
As cognition enhancers
Ageing and neurodegenerative diseases disturb the cognitive process. Cognition enhancers, when used along with the main prescription drug mucuna (a dopamine precursor), could add to the efficacy of the treatment. Again, bacopa has been traditionally known to improve cognition.
Locomotor behavior enhancers
PD disturbs movements in many people affected by it. The Indian pennywort (bacopa) has been shown to help in improving movement disturbances.
And the experts say:
Right medicine: According to them, herbal remedies, when used appropriately in the right dosage under the supervision of experts, are known to give desired benefits without any untoward effects. At the same time, they can cause adverse effects due to self-medication and random usage along with existing prescriptions, especially in long-term conditions like PD.
“To ensure long-term benefits, the treatment should include the prescription of time-tested herbs such as ashwagandha and mucuna, which have been used for ages by Ayurvedic experts and are now being explored by researchers globally,” says Dr Ashrafuddeen I, Principal of Kasaragod’s PN Panicker Souharda Ayurveda Medical College.
Monitor well: According to Dr Noor Fathima, a researcher from JSS Ayurvedic Medical College, Mysuru, “It is important to carefully monitor the interactions of herbal medicines with existing prescriptions to avoid the possible side effects of their abrupt withdrawal.”
Needs wider proof: Though the therapeutic benefits of herbs are in practice for ages, Dr Sujith Ovallath,ays there is a need for additional studies and clinical research involving a large, randomised sample size to establish the safety aspects of these plants as medicine.
Scope: Experts of Ayurveda say this system of medicine can provide effective relief to those who are diagnosed early and opt for this system in the initial stages of health conditions, and that it is true for the geriatric age group too.
A common view is that rather than treating only the symptoms, an integrated approach involving a combination of therapies along with oral medications and an appropriate diet plan will benefit those affected by Parkinson’s disease.