How to Prevent Parkinson’s Disease

Diet and exercise may play key roles

Parkinson's disease (PD) results from the death of dopamine-producing (dopaminergic) nerve cells within an area of the brain called the substantia nigra.

Since dopamine regulates movement, depletion of it results in motor (movement-related) symptoms like shaking, stiffness, and walking problems. Non-motor symptoms, like depression, sleep problems, and loss of smell, also commonly occur.

While there is no definitive way yet to prevent Parkinson's disease, eating a "brain-healthy" diet and incorporating physical activity into your daily routine might help reduce the risk or delay symptom onset. This article reviews the potential roles of diet and exercise in PD prevention.

Help Prevent Parkinson's With the Mediterranean Diet

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Diet

Research suggests that sticking to certain diets or eating patterns may nourish your brain in a way that delays or stops PD from manifesting.

The Mediterranean Diet

The Mediterranean diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, olive oil, fish, and whole grains. It is associated with both a decreased risk of PD and a delayed onset of Parkinson's disease symptoms.

While it's not entirely clear how, experts suspect that the various antioxidant and anti-inflammatory-rich components of the Mediterranean diet alter the brain in such a way that the death of dopamine-producing nerve cells is slowed or stopped.

The Mediterranean diet also limits your intake of dairy products, which are associated with an increased risk of PD.

A distinctive and hallmark feature of the Mediterranean diet is that it embraces the concepts of sustainability and balance, meaning it does not promote an overly restrictive way of eating.

Basic Concepts of the Mediterranean Diet

The components of a Mediterranean diet include:

  • Eat mainly plant-based foods, such as a variety of fruits and vegetables, along with whole grains, nuts, and legumes, including lentils, chickpeas, beans, and peas.
  • Consume a small amount of low-fat protein, either chicken or fatty fish, such as salmon, albacore tuna, or mackerel, a few times per week.
  • Limit red meat to a few times a month.
  • Avoid salt and instead flavor your meals with spices and herbs.
  • Drink red wine in moderation (one glass of wine with meals).
  • Replace butter with a healthier fat like extra virgin olive oil.
  • Limit dairy, including cream, milk, and ice cream.

The MIND Diet

The MIND diet combines elements from the Mediterranean diet and the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet. It is also linked to a lower risk of and delayed onset of Parkinson's disease.

Like the Mediterranean diet, the MIND diet focuses on eating vegetables, whole grains, beans, and nuts. Olive oil is the primary source of fat.

The MIND diet also similarly discourages the consumption of butter, cheeses, fried foods, red meat, and pastries/sweets. Eating fatty fish is encouraged in the MIND diet, although not as many servings as in the Mediterranean diet.

What is unique about the MIND diet is that it recommends eating berries (not just any fruit) and leafy green vegetables, like kale and spinach.

Berries, like blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries, are rich in organic compounds called flavonoids. Leafy green vegetables are also rich in flavonoids, as well as folate, vitamin E, and carotenoids.

Slow Cognitive Decline

Flavonoids, folate, vitamin E, and carotenoids have all been found in scientific studies to slow cognitive decline.

Of course, if you already have Parkinson's disease, eating a diet like the Mediterranean or MIND diet is a sensible approach as well. Besides improving cognition, such fiber-rich diets can ease constipation, which is a common PD symptom.

Caffeine

Incorporating caffeine into your diet is also a promising PD-preventive strategy. Numerous scientific studies have consistently linked caffeine consumption to a decreased risk for developing PD.

Caffeine is believed to be neuroprotective, which means that it protects the brain from damage, possibly from inflammation or a toxic chemical reaction called oxidative stress. Since both inflammation and oxidative stress are associated with triggering PD, calming these processes down may reduce dopamine nerve loss.

Exercise

Findings from clinical trials have shown that exercise, particularly moderate to vigorous physical activity, is associated with a lower risk of developing PD. The reasons why physical activity may protect against PD are not fully known.

Experts suspect that exercise reduces inflammation, oxidative stress, and the abnormal accumulation of a protein called alpha-synuclein in the brain. In Parkinson's disease, alpha-synuclein misfolds and forms toxic clumps called Lewy bodies within dopamine-producing nerve cells. These Lewy bodies contribute to the loss of dopaminergic nerve cells.

Regular physical activity also decreases the likelihood of obesity, which is associated with an increased risk of Parkinson's disease.

In addition, since vitamin D deficiency is associated with a higher risk of developing PD, increasing vitamin D levels from sunlight exposure (if exercising outdoors) may play a role in protecting you against PD.

Type

When choosing a form of exercise, examples of moderately intense aerobic activities include walking briskly, bicycling under 10 miles per hour, playing doubles tennis, or doing water aerobics.

Certain household chores—mowing your lawn, gardening, vacuuming, or mopping the floor—are also considered moderately intense forms of physical activity.

More vigorous types of activities include jogging, swimming laps, hiking uphill, bicycling greater than 10 miles per hour, or playing singles tennis.

Doctor's Guidance

When it comes to physical activity, it's best to start slowly and choose a form of exercise that is enjoyable and right for you. To stay safe, talk with your doctor before embarking on a new exercise regimen.

Frequency

More investigation is needed to determine how often you need to exercise to possibly prevent PD.

There may be a dose-response relationship. This means that the more hours of moderate to vigorous physical activity a person performs a week, the lower their potential risk for developing PD.

Until more is known, it's best to follow physical activity guidelines from professional organizations, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Heart Association (AHA).

The CDC and AHA recommend that adults engage in at least 150 min of moderate-intensity physical activity or 75 min of vigorous-intensity physical activity per week.

Other Benefits

It's worth mentioning that besides possibly protecting against Parkinson's disease, exercise has multiple other health benefits. Exercise releases "feel good" chemicals called endorphins, improves muscle strength and energy levels, and helps prevent chronic conditions, like cancer and heart disease.

If you already have PD, exercise is probably a part of your treatment plan. Research has consistently shown that many different types of exercise—for example, running, dancing, tai chi, and yoga—improve PD symptoms, including walking difficulties, depression, sleep issues, and cognition.

Summary

Engaging in regular exercise and adopting the Mediterranean diet or MIND diet may help prevent or delay the onset of Parkinson's disease. The Mediterranean and MIND diets focus on eating plant-based foods and low-fat proteins, especially fish. When exercising, choose moderate-to-vigorously intense physical activities to achieve the most potential benefit.

A Word From Verywell

Choosing to stay active and eating a nutritious, well-balanced diet is a responsible decision whether to prevent a disease like Parkinson's, to feel well, or to reduce other health risks.

While eating well and exercising are healthy lifestyle habits, be sure to see your doctor if you are experiencing possible early symptoms of PD. These may include tremors, stiffness, balance problems, or forgetfulness. Early diagnosis and treatment of PD lower the risk of disease progression.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can Parkinson’s disease be prevented?

    There is no absolute way yet to prevent Parkinson's disease. That said, engaging in certain lifestyle factors like exercising and eating a well-balanced diet like the Mediterranean diet might help lower your risk or delay the onset of symptoms.

  • What foods prevent Parkinson’s disease?

    While there is no single food or diet known to definitively prevent PD, the Mediterranean diet (or a similar diet) may help delay the onset of symptoms in some people.

    The Mediterranean diet is high in plant-based foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans, and moderate in low-fat proteins like fish and chicken.

  • Who is most at risk of Parkinson’s disease?

    Aging is the biggest risk factor for developing Parkinson's disease, so older adults are most at risk.

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