Parkinson’s Disease (PD) is not something you hear a lot of in the news, especially compared to other neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, but it affects a significant percentage of the population: one to two percent of Americans over the age of 60, or somewhere between one and one and a half million Americans. Over ten million people worldwide live with PD.
Those with PD have diminished dopamine production in the brain, which leads to the movement and coordination issues that are common, including stiffness, slowness, balance issues, tremors, and muscle rigidity. Other symptoms include cognitive and emotional issues; GI issues such as constipation, chewing/swallowing, reflux; and weight loss or gain, among others.
Environmental exposures can greatly impact one’s risk for PD, even though genes do play a (smaller) role. Environmental factors include stress, toxins (from the environment or smoking), physical inactivity, and poor nutrition. Some of these can contribute to inflammation, which can play a role in damaging the very sensitive neurons in the brain.
Chemicals used in commercial farming have been implicated in PD. These include pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, most of which are not allowed in organic farming. Eating foods containing these chemicals, or living near a farm that uses them, can increase risk for PD. Other toxins include PCB’s, heavy metals, and dry-cleaning chemicals, which can linger in clothing. Chemicals brought into the home can also have a toxic effect: laundry detergent, cleaners, drier sheets, weed killers and lawn care items can all contain toxic chemicals. We absorb many chemicals thought our skin, too; even personal care items can have an effect. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is a useful online resource for finding safer alternatives.
Food can certainly have an effect on development of PD as well as symptom management. Eating organic as much as possible, as mentioned above, is a great place to start. The EWG has a list of the “Dirty Dozen” as well as the “Clean Fifteen,” both of which are handy when deciding which foods to buy organic and which ones are safe to buy conventional. Besides eating organic when possible, what else can you do?
Eat foods in their natural state, i.e. whole, unprocessed foods. Vegetables should take center stage due to their nutrient density, antioxidants, phytochemicals, vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Make sure to include a wide variety in your diet. When you look down at your plate, at least half of what you see should be vegetables. There are many different types to choose from: leafy greens (chard, spinach, mustard greens, arugula, lettuce, kale); cruciferous (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, brussels sprouts); solanaceae family (peppers, eggplant, tomato, potato; root vegetables (beets, carrots, parsnips, rutabagas); and squashes (zucchini, winter squashes, pumpkin). This is not a complete list, but it gives you an idea of the possibilities. Eating more plants will by default provide more fiber. Aim for at least 25-35 grams per day (the average intake on the Standard American Diet is 11 grams). Include some probiotic foods as well, such as fermented vegetables, pickles, sauerkraut, and kimchi.
Other plant foods include fruits, although it is important to not gorge on them. Berries are particularly nutrient-rich. Seaweed, mushrooms, herbs and spices are also nutrient-rich. Pastured meats, poultry, eggs, and wild-caught fish all fit into this way of eating. Nuts and seeds, legumes, and grains will work for some, but not all, depending on your tolerance. There is conflicting information on dairy, and some believe that gluten plays a role if you are sensitive to it. If you are in doubt, a trial elimination is always an option.
Processed foods are on the out list. They are nutrient-poor, calorie-dense, and are especially high in dense carbohydrates. This can contribute to high blood sugar and diabetes, which are risk factors for PD. If you are unsure, one indication is the packaging. If it’s in a box or bag, it is likely a processed food. Some examples include sugar in all its forms, crackers, pasta, cookies, cakes, muffins, doughnuts, chips, pretzels, french fries and other deep-fried foods, candy, energy bars, energy drinks, soda, and even most fruit juices. Many breads fall into this category as well. Reducing or eliminating flour-based products is a good place to start. Instead, cook your grains whole, such as steaming rice, buckwheat, or quinoa, for example.
Lastly, do not fear fat. Fat seems to be neuroprotective. A large part of our brains consists of fat, and cholesterol is especially important for cell membrane health and nerve cell communication. Pastured egg yolks, shrimp, liver, and squid are good sources of cholesterol and contain other important nutrients as well. Fatty fish such as herring, mackerel, sardines, and salmon are high in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids. Coconut oil contains a saturated fat called MCT (Medium Chain Triglyceride) that is more easily absorbed and produces some ketone bodies, which the brain can use for energy. This has anecdotally shown benefit in some with Alzheimer’s. Coconut milk (full fat), coconut cream, and coconut butter are other sources of MCTs. One very small study on five people with PD revealed that a mostly fat (ketogenic) diet for one month decreased PD symptoms by an average of 43%. While much more research is clearly needed, it does provide hope. Please make sure to speak with a knowledgeable health care practitioner before you embark on such a diet.
How Parkinson’s is affected by what we eat is a vast topic and not one that can be condensed into a single article. However, the above-described foundation of a healthy diet for PD could improve your health dramatically. If you already live this way, do not hesitate to seek help in finding other ways to make changes. Every person is an individual with individual needs; there is always fine-tuning that can be done. And lastly, do not forget that nutrition is just one piece of the puzzle. Being physically active, reducing stress, building healthy relationships, and having a meaningful purpose in life are all equally important.