Parkinson’s Disease and Nutrition

April 9, 2015 Updated: April 9, 2015

Parkinson disease has had considerable media attention over the years, but with all of the efforts to educate the public, little has been said on how nutrition can reduce its risk and manage symptoms.  Many of us are familiar with symptoms of Parkinson’s, such as tremors, slow movements, rigid muscles, impaired posture, and problems with balance.  Specific Parkinson drugs are prescribed for motor control while other drugs may be used for non-motor symptoms, such as depression, anxiety, hallucinations, insomnia, and pain, among others.

While drugs to control motor symptoms can be effective, additional support can come through specific attention to diet and lifestyle, which also can be effective in managing non-motor symptoms.  One finding relating to nutrition is that deficiencies in certain B vitamins have be associated with Parkinson disease.  These include folic acid, vitamin B-6, and vitamin B-12.

Patrick Holford, in his book, New Optimum Nutrition for the Mind, reports that deficiencies in folic acid, in particular, can make the brain cells that produce dopamine more susceptible to damage.  One of the roles of dopamine is to regulate movement and emotional responses, and decreased levels are believed to be a factor contributing to Parkinson disease.

Whenever there is cell damage with Parkinson’s, free radicals are produced.  One way to fight inflammation caused by free radical damage is to consume foods high in anti-oxidants, such as fruits and non-starchy vegetables.  They also are high in fiber and can help with constipation that can occur with Parkinson’s.

Supplementation with high levels of anti-oxidant vitamins C and E also can fight free radical damage and according to Holford, delay the need for drug therapy in the treatment of Parkinson’s.  Supplementation with CoQ10 also has been found to slow the progression of the disease.  CoQ10 helps our body produce energy and levels decrease as we age.  Any supplementation should be monitored under the supervision of a qualified physician.

Along with free radical formation, there also is an association between folic acid, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12 deficiencies, and rising homocysteine levels in Parkinson disease.  Homocysteine is an amino acid that is a breakdown product of protein metabolism.  In high concentrations, it has been associated with an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes.

Supplementation with folic acid, vitamin B6 and vitamin B12 can be used to help reduce homocysteine levels and therefore manage Parkinson symptoms.  For anyone with Parkinson disease, it would be wise to have homocysteine levels tested and to consider supplementation under the supervision of a qualified physician.

Problems with detoxification also have been reported with Parkinson disease.  Specific amino acids that contain sulphur have been found to help with the removal of bodily toxins in the case of Parkinson’s.  Holford reports improved detoxification when supplementing with cysteine, methionine, and molybdenum, all sulphur-containing amino acids.  As with any supplementation, these should be administered under physician supervision.

Everyday foods can support or inhibit the body’s attempt to remove toxic substances.  Foods known to inhibit detoxification in Parkinson’s, according to Holford, include wine, coffee, certain cheeses, and chocolate.  Foods that support detoxification include broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, and kale.  Focusing on detoxification is especially important with Parkinson’s as it has been found that higher incidences occur in areas known for crop spraying, which involves the use of pesticides.

David Rakel, in his book, Integrative Medicine, reports research associating a decreased risk of Parkinson disease with higher intake of plant-based foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as flax seeds, walnuts, red and black current seeds, and omega-3 enriched eggs.  Rakel also reports the benefits of green tea, three cups a day, in reducing the risk of Parkinson’s and slowing the progression of the disease.

In addition to foods that can help manage Parkinson disease, Holford reports specific nutritional deficiencies associated with the condition,  including deficient stomach acid and enzymes, leading to poor digestion, and increased intestinal permeability.  When are intestinal membranes become permeable, undigested food can pass through into the bloodstream and we can develop food allergies.  A thorough medical-work up should test for stomach acid and enzyme levels as well as intestinal permeability and make recommendations to address these conditions.

Along with specific food recommendations, Holford emphasizes the timing of food and medicine in terms of Parkinson’s.  Foods with certain amino acids can worsen movement problems if taken too close to L-dopa medication.  These include eggs, fish, meat, poultry, dairy except, butter, legumes, green peas, spinach, soy, couscous, bulgur, coconut, avocado, asparagus, and gluten-containing grains.  Waiting one hour after medication before eating these foods and two hours after eating before taking the medication again is highly recommended.  L-dopa competes with the absorption of other proteins so it is especially important to time medication and food intake.

The National Parkinson Foundation also suggests diet modifications for people taking MAO-B inhibitors to treat Parkinson’s.  MAO-inhibitors help to block the breakdown of dopamine, thus alleviating some motor symptoms.   When taking MAO-inhibitors, foods with high concentrations of tyramine should be avoided.  These include cured, fermented or air-dried meats or fish, aged cheese, fermented cabbage, soybean products, red wine, and tap beer.

In terms of lifestyle, aerobic exercise can help to increase energy, manage anxiety and depression, and possibly slow the progression of the disease.  Rakel reports research suggesting that tai chi and yoga can help to maintain and improve balance.  There also is some research to suggest that acupuncture can help with non-motor and pain symptoms.  Exposure to pesticides and heavy metals should be limited as these substances may actually contribute to the development of Parkinson disease.

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”- Hippocrates

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