The first signs of something wrong might be as simple as a trembling noticed in your hand, or perhaps a feeling of weakness or stiffness affecting one body part. You might notice that your balance just isn’t what it used to be. Or your loved one might notice, wondering if you’ve had too little sleep or perhaps too much to drink. The symptoms usually start past the age of 50, when we all notice a few deficits compared to our youthful vigor, so people usually have several symptoms before they present to a physician for diagnosis.
The name "Parkinson's Disease" is frightening, because we know it to be progressive and have seen its advanced forms. For many people, however, healthful life choices can forestall the appearance of more serious symptoms. If you are seeking natural steps you can take to treat and perhaps stall the progression or even resolve your symptoms, keep reading.
Parkinson’s is the second most common neurological disease associated with aging. The disease is progressive, and affects approximately 1% of those Americans over 60. On a physiological level, we know that the very center of the brain, the basal ganglia, is involved in the development of Parkinson’s. The cells that produce dopamine begin to deteriorate, disrupting the normal balance between dopamine and acetylcholine.
For the person with Parkinson’s the brain changes make their voluntary movements slow, especially finding difficulty with the initiation of motion. At the beginning, the symptoms seem like normal variants of personal “tics” making diagnosis difficult, but symptom progression reveals the problem to be Parkinson’s. Early diagnosis is most likely in consultation with a physician experienced in making the diagnosis.
The symptoms are “staged” from one to five. Symptoms are consistent enough to allow diagnosis usually in stage one or two. By stage three walking becomes quite difficult and all movements become slowed. The patient may be unable to walk or stand unassisted. In stage four, the gait becomes rigid and even the simplest of self-care tasks are insurmountable challenges due to weakness, rigidity and tremor. In the final stage, patients with Parkinson’s lose the ability to stand or walk and require constant nursing care. Depression and cognitive impairment usually appear in the later stages. The rate of decline is unpredictable, but can be estimated based on symptoms at the time of diagnosis. If slowed movements and rigidity are present, the deterioration is usually rapid; if diagnosis is made based on a prominent tremor, decline is usually slower.
The search for a cause of Parkinson’s is an ongoing research focus.
- Genetics can play a role, though specific genetic markers are not identified.
- Certain toxins are implicated in observed epidemiological trends. In a number of studies, Dr. Beate Ritz and others have found an association between exposure (airborne and water contamination) to agricultural pesticide and a higher rate of Parkinson’s. Individuals with a family history of Parkinson’s would be particularly advised to avoid synthetic chemicals and to maintain organic kitchens and gardens.
- Low estrogen levels might be contributory and hormone replacement therapy at menopause might prevent or delay disease onset, according to recent research.
Dietary treatment of Parkinson's Disease has followed two different tracks, one emphasizing protein restriction – an approach used primarily in patients taking medication – and the other recommending the ketogenic diet, namely a moderate protein, high fat diet, that has been found useful in multiple neurological conditions. I am most significantly impressed by the results with ketogenic interventions, particularly since the protein component of that diet would be sulfur-rich (which has been posed as a problem for many Parksinson’s patients), the observed protective effects of the diet speak even more highly of the value of the fat-based ketone bodies to brain health.
Any time that toxins are considered a contributing factor to the development of disease, the individual’s underlying ability to maintain de-toxification pathways is important in resisting the disease. The ability to detoxify sulfur (found in animal products, onions and garlic, and other foods) is compromised in a greater number of Parkinson’s patients than others. This might explain the benefit seen in some patients, particularly as an adjunct to levodopa therapy, of following a low protein diet.
Additionally, research is emerging which indicates that fish oil fatty acids can protect brain cells, specifically the kinds of deterioration seen in Parkinson’s. Cold water fish, and fish oils, are important aspects of the ketogenic diet as I recommend it.
Medical treatment is usually begun once patients develop some degree of functional disability, and not before. All pharmaceutical options carry significant risk of side effects as well as time-limited usefulness in their application. Consultation with a physician experienced in Parkinson's treatment is strongly advised.
For the greatest health improvement with the fewest steps, do the following:
- Follow a ketogenic diet. What if eating differently could reduce Parkinson’s symptoms by 43% within 28 days? Those were the results of a published clinical trial, reviewed here. If thinking about rewinding the clock to lose 43% of your symptoms is exciting, it’s time to learn about the ketogenic diet. My weight loss diet is essentially a ketogenic diet, although I recommend working with an experienced health care practitioner if this is far afield from your normal diet: some of the changes can be quite dramatic, both uncomfortable (usually temporary) and pleasing.
- Eliminate chemical exposures as much as possible. Filter your drinking and bathing water, stay away from agricultural and gardening chemicals, and
- Pure Encapsulations Cod Liver Oil, 1 teaspoon, or Barlean's Fish Oil, 1 tablespoon daily.
A comprehensive program involves many areas in which action steps can be taken, gradually or all at once. You will be your own most valuable health manager. Some of the suggestions below include flexibility: balance gentleness and honesty with yourself!
Start by following the basic nutrition and healthy lifestyle guidelines, with the following modifications:
Savor Helpful Foods
- Follow a ketogenic diet. (See what’s written above: a clinical trial found 43% symptom reduction in 28 days on this diet.) My weight loss diet is essentially a ketogenic diet, although I recommend working with an experienced health care practitioner if this is far afield from your normal diet: some of the changes can be quite dramatic, both uncomfortable (usually temporary) and pleasing.
- Choose organic meats, fats, and vegetables.
- Cold water fish offer protective omega 3 fatty acids.
Avoid Problematic Foods
- A number of studies have found a relationship between dairy products and Parkinson's. The link is stronger in men, but also observed in women. Those with Parkinson's would be wise to eliminate dairy or keep consumption to a minimum.
- Trial without red meat? In the same article citing dairy's association with disease severity, it is observed that reducing or eliminating meat may confer a benefit: the benefit may JUST be better absorption of levo-dopa, but it is worth a try.
- Avoid sugars and grains that stimulate insulin and might be neurotoxic, working in a way opposite to the ketogenic effect.
- Avoid those foods that concentrate pesticides when applied. Be particularly careful, even outside the home, to avoid inorganic servings of the following:
- Fruits: apples, celery, strawberries, peaches, imported nectarines and grapes,
- Vegetables: celery, spinach, sweet bell peppers, potatoes, blueberries, lettuce, kale, collard greens.
Supplements Can Help
- Pure Encapsulations Cod Liver Oil or Barlean's Fish Oil. Take 1 tsp of CLO or 1 Tbsp of fish oil, at a minimum, for brain cell protection and the most natural and comprehensive form of the omega-3 fatty acids to be found in cold water fish.
- Vitamins C and E. Take vitamins C and E for anti-oxidant effect. Start with Innate Response Vitamin C and Thorne Research Ultimate E, 1 capsule each taken four times daily, doubling the doses if symptoms increase. In an uncontrolled clinical trial the combined vitamins seemed to delay the need for pharmaceutical treatment by 2.5 years.
- CoQ10. High doses of CoQ10 have been helpful to some individuals, doses ranging from 600 to 1200 mg daily, well beyond that taken for cardiovascular health. A 2 month commitment should enable you to see if it can be helpful for you. If you are over the age of 60, I would recommend CoQ10 in its Ubiquinol form. NOW Foods makes an excellent Ubiquinol; as does Qunol, sold at Costco Stores.
- Vitamin D: Obtain vitamin D from the sun with 20 minutes of full-body (not just hands and ankles) exposure to midday sun (May to September in northern latitudes). With direct UV exposure, the body can generate up to 20,000 units or more of vitamin D daily. Test your blood level of vitamin D3: the ideal range for healthy people is 40-65 ng/ml; those with health challenges may benefit from higher levels. If sun exposure is not giving you adequate vitamin D3 levels, take Pure Encapsulations Vitamin D3. Take as needed to normalize blood levels. For most adults that amount is approximately 4000 i.u., daily, or consult your health care professional for individual requirements.
- A comprehensive multi-vitamin, ideally one with methylated B vitamins, is an excellent support. I recommend Thorne Basic Nutrients III, taking 4-6 a day, divided and at mealtimes.
Daily Life Activities
- Eliminate chemical exposures as much as possible. Filter your drinking and bathing water, stay away from agricultural and gardening chemicals, and evaluate whether you have had significant toxic exposures in the past. If you think that is possible, it would be valuable to speak with a health care practitioner capable of evaluating and treating you for any remaining toxic burden.
- Stay active mentally, socially, and physically. Incorporate mental challenges and group interactions to keep your mind sharp. Move your body in a variety of different ways (walking, housekeeping, gardening and some form of exercise) to maintain flexibility and strength.
Physical Therapy improves many of the challenges for Parkinson’s patients. Although no single type of PT has been show to be superior to others, individual physical therapists with experience treating Parkinson’s patients are more likely to be helpful.
Forced Exercise. While it has long been known that staying active and mobile adds benefit and life value for people with neurological problems, there has been particular interest in the application of Forced Exercise (FE) for Parkinson’s. FE is a very specific exercise design. It is not simply pushing yourself, but rather something like a motorized treadmill that keeps you running just a bit faster than you would voluntarily choose to run, or perhaps a tandem bicycle with a slightly stronger bike-mate. FE was first shown to have neuro-protective effects in an animal model of the disease, and now those benefits have been demonstrated in humans. Speak with a Personal Trainer or Physical Therapist about applications that might work for you. (For more information, see Jay L. Alberts, et al. “It Is Not About the Bike, It Is About the Peddling; Forced Exercise and Parkinson’s Disease” in Exerc Sport Sci Rev 2011; 39(4):177-186.)
Pharmaceutical treatment for Parkinson’s offers a temporary relief from some of the stiffness and slowness associated with disease progression. Medications all carry some potentially serious side effects and seem to “wear off” – requiring gradually increasing doses until the drug seems to have no effect at all. In this area as well, working with an experienced physician is a wise choice.
A prescription worth trying is low dose naltrexone. Used originally, in high doses, as an opioid antidote, it is used in smaller doses (3-5 mg at bedtime) for auto-immune disease, depression and problems with intestinal motility. It appears to have anti-inflammatory effects in the brain, improving function for some people, and with a very limited incidence of side effects. We will hear more about this application in the future, I'm quite sure.
Classical homeopathy may be helpful. Experienced practitioners of Classical Homeopathy have reported some success with slowing the progression of the disease. This is not a treatment you can pick for yourself, nor from a book. The wrong homeopathic remedy can interfere with your progress, so it is best to consult an experienced practitioner. The National Center for Homeopathy can help you to find a homeopath and it would benefit you to interview your prospective clinician. Pick someone with at least five to ten years’ experience, rather than a recent graduate.
Prevention of Parkinson’s Disease is of interest to everyone, but these tips are perhaps most relevant to those at greatest risk, individuals related to someone with Parkinson’s, particularly men, who are at highest risk.
Men should drink coffee, but avoid dairy – perhaps. A higher intake of caffeine is associated with a lower risk of developing Parkinson’s disease in men, an association not consistently seen in women. The relationship is not causal but observed: perhaps people intolerant of caffeine are more likely to develop Parkinson’s or perhaps there is some beneficial effect of caffeine and coffee, as yet unidentified. Dairy products, on the other hand, appear to be associated with increased Parkinson’s disease in men, but not in women. Again, not causal, but only observed, though the potentially significant concentration of toxins in non-organic dairy might be contributory.
An organic lifestyle prevents exposure to toxins. Keeping your home and work environment free of toxic chemicals benefits all of us, particularly children and those at risk for environmental illness.
A ketogenic diet has beneficial effects for neurological conditions in general. The ketogenic diet has been in clinical use for almost a century in the treatment of epilepsy, falling out of favor once pharmaceutical interventions became available. However, more recent clinical investigations have revealed that following a ketogenic diet can benefit not only epilepsy, but a host of other neuro-psychiatric illnesses as well, including Parkinson’s Disease. The numbers are not great, and dietary instruction and compliance can be complex. See the description and details in the Real Food section under Nutrition, Weight Loss Eating Plan.