Eating Healthy When You Have Parkinson's Disease

As we learn more about the role of nutrition in health and disease, are there any diet tips for food groups that have been beneficial for those living with Parkinson's disease?

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Diet, Nutrition, and Parkinson's Disease

In the past, it was thought that a special diet was unnecessary in the early stages of Parkinson's disease (PD) and that all was needed was eating a healthy, well-balanced diet. As we learn more about the mechanisms in the brain involved with Parkinson's disease and the role certain nutrients may play, it becomes apparent that taking a good look at your diet may be a good idea even early on after diagnosis.

Studies have shown some eating habits may help slow the progression of your disease, at least in theory Since the role of food in disease has only recently been looked at systematically, it's likely we will be learning much more in the coming years.

Eat More Antioxidant-Rich Foods

Eating a diet rich in antioxidant foods is a good first step. Antioxidants are those chemicals that scavenge and eat-up so-called ‘free radicals'–-tiny molecules that circulate in your tissues and damage those tissues. Free radicals have a special affinity for cells that produce dopamine. So the greater the number of antioxidants in your system (within reason, of course), the fewer the number of circulating free radicals.

Studies have now confirmed the ability of polyphenols in fruits and vegetables to decrease death of nerve cells in the brain.

So what foods contain a lot of antioxidants?

  • Fruits and vegetables - Rather than one particular fruit or one particular vegetable, it's best to eat a wide variety of these as these foods contain different phytonutrients depending on their color. Some nutritionists refer to this as getting a rainbow of colors. Examples include leafy green vegetables (such as spinach), broccoli, tomatoes, carrots, garlic, red kidney beans, pinto beans, blueberries, cranberries, strawberries, plums, and apples.
  • Tea - While black tea can be good, green tea and white tea are a great source of antioxidants. Though green tea is an excellent source of antioxidants, make sure you learn how to brew green tea properly or much of this effect can be lost. Also keep in mind that adding cream, or any milk products can greatly decrease the antioxidants by binding them. If you need to alter the flavor, add a touch of lemon, which actually improves your body's absorption of green tea.
  • Coffee - Yes, there are times when coffee can be included in a list of foods that are good for you!
  • Red grape juice contains reseveratrol, an antoxidant.
  • Dark juices like pomegranate and blueberry juices are rich in antioxidants.

Get Omega-3s in Your Diet

Omega-3-fatty acids are an essential nutrient for most tissues in your body so you want to make sure to consume adequate amounts of these nutrients. Fatty fish like mackerel, trout, herring, sardines, albacore tuna and salmon are high in two kinds of omega-3 fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). While we are just learning about how omega-3-fatty acids may impact people with Parkinson's disease, it appears that these nutrients may have a neuroprotective action in rats with a condition meant to simulate Parkinson's disease. In people, increased levels of DHA may slow cognitive decline related to a number of neurodegenerative diseases.

Eating fish at least twice a week is recommended for optimum health. If you don't eat fish, consider taking a fish oil supplement or check out plant sources of omega-3-fatty acids.

Other Nutrients to Focus On

Adequate amounts of calcium, magnesium, and vitamins D and K help to strengthen skin and bone. You can get these nutrients from dairy products like yogurt and milk.

Do You Need Any Supplements?

While it is ideal to get your vitamins and phytonutrients through food sources, it can be hard to get enough vitamin D in your diet. Studies are telling us that adequate vitamin D levels play a role in everything from Parkinson's disease to cancer prevention.

Ordinarily, we get a lot of our vitamin D from the sun, but with the adoption of sunscreen use along with indoor activities, it's been found that the majority of people have levels that are considered to be too low.

Many people need to take a vitamin D3 supplement in order to get enough, but this is easy to determine. A simple blood test can let you know if you are deficient or in the low end of the "good range." Ask your healthcare provider to check your level. It's thought that less exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun, resulting in less vitamin D absorption, is linked with an increased risk of Parkinson's disease, at least in young people.

How to get More Healthy Foods in Your Diet

Here are some tips for eating a healthier diet keeping the above nutrients in mind:

  • Blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries can be stirred into vanilla yogurt for a delicious dessert. Or blend them with yogurt and ice to make a smoothie. Fiber-filled fruit smoothies can also help prevent constipation associated with some PD medications.
  • Add spinach to scrambled eggs and other dishes. Stir chopped, fresh spinach tossed in olive oil into salads or into steamed brown rice.
  • Carrots are loaded with a potent antioxidant called beta-carotene. Cooked, steamed or pureed carrots liberate the antioxidants or somehow make them easier to absorb. Cooked carrots are often tastier as well. It is best to derive beta-carotene from your diet and not a supplement.
  • Vitamin E is a potent antioxidant and is found in some nuts and in whole grains. Although studies on the anti-PD effects of vitamin E have yielded only discouraging or mixed results, vitamin E should nevertheless be a part of your diet. Cook whole grains, such as brown rice, quinoa or bulgur wheat. For variety, add raisins or cranberries, chopped parsley or spinach, and olive oil.
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By Patrick McNamara, PhD
Patrick McNamara, PhD, is an associate professor of neurology and the director of the Evolutionary Neurobehavior Laboratory.