Fava Beans, Levodopa, and Parkinson’s Disease
Kathrynne Holden, MS, RD (retired)
Beans and Parkinson’s disease
I’ve often been asked for information about fava beans as a source of levodopa.
It’s clear that many people are trying fava beans without fully understanding
their properties. This article is designed to answer questions that have
arisen about fava and Parkinson’s disease (PD). I hope this may clear up
some of the confusion about the bean, and encourage people to discuss
its use with their doctors and dietitians.
This bean is a legume called “fava” (fah-vuh), faba, broad bean, and
horse bean. Its botanical name is “Vicia faba.” There are many species
of faba; however, the “faba major”is the bean of concern here. It grows
in a long pod, like a giant green bean, with large, flat seeds inside.
It has been eaten for thousands of years throughout the world,
especially in the Mediterranean region.
How are fava beans related to PD?
Fava beans contain levodopa, the same chemical in Sinemet, Madopar,
Dopar, Larodopa, and other levodopa-containing medicines used to treat
PD. In fact, the entire fava plant, including leaves, stems, pods, and
immature beans, contains levodopa.
The amount of levodopa can vary greatly, depending on the species of
fava, the area where it’s grown, soil conditions, rainfall, and other
factors. It appears that the young pod and the immature (green) beans
inside the pod contain the greatest amount of levodopa, and the mature,
or dried bean, the least. Three ounces (about 84 grams or ½ cup) of
fresh green fava beans, or three ounces of canned green fava beans,
drained, may contain about 50-100 mg of levodopa. If using the young pod
as well as the beans, the amount of levodopa may be greater than that in
the fresh beans alone.
What effect do fava beans have on PD?
Some small studies have shown that the levodopa in fava beans can help
control the symptoms of PD, just as medications containing levodopa do.
In fact, a few people report that the effects from fava last longer than
the effects from medications. Some researchers believe fava beans may
contain other substances besides levodopa that could be helpful for PD
symptoms. However, although some people report good effects, others find
no antiparkinson effect from fava beans at all; and still others report
adverse effects, such as nausea and dyskinesia. Much more research needs
to be done to determine how effective fava beans may be.
Are there any problems associated with eating fava beans?
Yes, there are a number of concerns to be aware of:
Variable levodopa amounts. Because fava plants have varying amounts of
levodopa, it’s possible to get either too much or too little levodopa.
Too little levodopa will not relieve PD symptoms; and too much levodopa
can cause overmedication effects, such as dyskinesia – particularly if
other PD medications are being used at the same time. Also, the levodopa
can cause nausea in some people.
Allergies. Raw fava beans can produce an allergic reaction in some
people, including discomfort, and occasionally, coma. Cooking may
prevent allergic reactions.
Monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) use. Another consideration is the use
of fava for people who take MAOIs. These include: isocarboxazid
(Marplan); phenelzine (Nardil); tranylcypromine (Parnate); rasagiline (Azilect) and
selegiline (deprenyl, Carbex, Eldepryl).
MAOIs taken in combination with pressor agents (foods high in dopamine,
tyramine and phenylethylamine), can bring about a dangerous, and
sometimes fatal, increase in blood pressure. Levodopa in medications or
in fava can convert to dopamine in the bloodstream. It should be noted
that selegiline and rasagiline are a different type of MAOI (MAOI-type B), and in the
amount normally used by people with PD, are not thought to pose a risk when used
with dopamine. However, people using any MAOI should discuss foods containing
pressor agents with their physicians and dietitians.
Favism (G6PD deficiency). Favism is an inherited disease in which a
person lacks an enzyme called glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase (G6PD).
When these people eat fava beans, they develop a condition called
hemolytic anemia. This anemia causes red blood cells to break apart and
block blood vessels. When such blockage occurs in the kidneys, it can
result in kidney failure and even death. Although favism is usually
detected in childhood, adults can be affected as well.
G6PD deficiency is rare, occurring mostly among people of Mediterranean,
African, and Southeast Asian descent, but others can be affected as
well. Your physician can perform a blood test for G6PD to determine
whether you are at risk. If you find you have inherited G6PD deficiency,
your dietitian can help you locate other foods that may be of concern,
and can help you plan safe and healthful menus. For more information on
favism, see “Resources” at the end of this article.
Should you eat fava beans if you have Parkinson’s disease?
Many people with PD can benefit from use of fava beans. If you’d like to
try them, discuss it with your physician first. Besides MAOI use and
risk for favism, your doctor may want to adjust the amount and/or timing
of your PD medications.
If your doctor agrees that you should try using fava beans, he or she
will probably ask you to start out with a very small amount at first, to
see what effect, if any, fava has for you. An ounce (about 28 grams, or
two tablespoons of beans) a day is probably right for most people to
begin with. After a week you should notice whether there is any effect,
and if not, your doctor may suggest that you increase the amount. If the
fava beans reduce PD symptoms, your doctor may want to adjust your other
How often should I eat fava beans?
There is too little information available to give an exact answer; also,
each person with PD is different, and has different medication needs.
Some people report a half cup (4 ounces, 112 grams) of fava a day, or
even every other day, gives good results. Begin with a small amount,
increasing gradually under your doctor’s supervision, until you find the
combination of fava and/or PD medications that’s right for you.
Even if fava beans help, you shouldn’t eat too much. If you fill up on
fava, you’ll be too full for other foods, and will miss out on the
benefits they offer. A dietitian can help you plan menus that include
fava beans and will best meet your personal needs.
Where can I get fava beans?
Fresh pods and/or green fava beans are available in season at specialty
produce markets and some specialty foods shops. They may also be found
at Middle Eastern markets, some supermarkets, and farmers’ markets.
Grocery stores may be willing to special order the fresh pods or beans
in season, frozen pods/beans, or canned green fava beans, such as
produced by Krinos or Cortas. Be sure to specify “green fava beans,” not
dried or mature beans. For more information, see “Resources.”
Nutrient information for fava beans
Besides levodopa, fava beans are rich in valuable nutrients. Fava pods
with beans are a good source of iron, magnesium, potassium, zinc,
copper, selenium, and many vitamins. The beans alone are also good – 3 ½
ounces (98 grams) of cooked fresh beans contain 56 calories, 20 grams
carbohydrates, 5 grams protein, 2 grams fiber, and substantial amounts
of iron, magnesium, and vitamin C.
How do I prepare fava beans?
The pods, including beans, are best eaten when very young, before a
“string” forms along the side. They can be steamed or boiled until
tender. Add some olive oil or butter, lemon juice, salt and pepper, and
serve as a vegetable side dish, like snow peas.
To use the fresh green fava beans alone, shell the beans from the pods,
like green peas. Then boil or steam them till tender – usually two to 10
minutes, depending on size and age. Add butter, salt and pepper, or your
own favorite seasoning, and serve as a side dish. You can also add the
cooked beans to salads. If the beans seem too chewy, cook for 8-10
minutes, then cool and slip off the outer skins; cook a few more minutes
if needed. Some people like to eat the skins, others find them too tough.
In conclusion, fava beans are an excellent food, as well as a possible
way to help fight the effects of PD. Discuss use of fava with your
doctor and registered dietitian. Here’s to your good health!
For information on Favism:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
1600 Clifton Rd.
Atlanta, GA 30333
Burbano C, Cuadrado C, Muzquiz M, Cubero JI. Variation of
favism-inducing factors (vicine, convicine and L-DOPA) during pod
development in Vicia faba L. Plant Foods Hum Nutr. 1995; 47(3): 265-75.
Rabey JM, Vered Y, Shabtai H, Graff, E; Korczyn, AD. Improvement of
parkinsonian features correlate with high plasma levodopa values after
broad bean (Vicia faba) consumption.
J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry. 1992 Aug; 55(8): 725-7.
Rabey JM, Vered Y, Shabtai H, Graff E, Harsat A, Korczyn AD. Broad bean
(Vicia faba) consumption and Parkinson’s disease. Adv-Neurol. 1993; 60:
Apaydin H, Ertan S, Ozekmekci S. Broad bean (Vicia faba)–a natural
source of L-dopa–prolongs “on” periods in patients with Parkinson’s
disease who have “on-off” fluctuations. Mov Disord. 2000; 15(1): 164-6.
Food Fact Finder: nutrient data for Beans, fava, in pod, raw
Nutritional Anemias (from Clinical Nutrition and Dietetics, 2nd ed.,
edited by Frances J. Zeman). Macmillan Publishing Co., NY NY, 1991.
Favism, pp. 698-99.
Glucose-6-Phosphate Dehydrogenase Deficiency (from Hematology, edited by
W.J. Williams, E. Beutler, A.J. Erslev, and M.A. Lichtman). New York:
McGraw-Hill 1990, p. 591-606.
Mehta A, Mason PJ, Vulliamy TJ. Glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase
deficiency. Baillieres Best Pract Res Clin Haematol 2000 Mar;13(1):21-38.