Q&A: The Role of Nutrition in Parkinson’s Disease

1.     What is Parkinson’s Disease and why diet is important to mange or prevent symptoms?

Parkinson’s Disease is the most common neurological disease in aging people second to Alzeihmer’s Disease. Parkinson’s Disease affects 1 million people in the United States. In Parkinson’s Disease, a person’s brain slowly stops to produce dopamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for body movements and emotions. The cause could be genetic or environmental but still quite unknown.

Dopamine cannot be given directly to people because it cannot enter brain. There are, however, several medications which can enter brain to convert to dopamine like levodopa or are dopamine agonists which can mimic dopamine effects like Mirapex or inhibit brain enzymes that metabolize brain dopamine like Azilect.

Since amino acids in protein can compete with levodopa for gut absorption, protein modification of the diet is important. For those taking levodopa, the timing of protein intake and its ratio to carbohydrate intake can be adjusted.

Diet can also improve many symptoms of the disease or side effects of the medications. Osteoporosis, Vitamin D deficiency, constipation, nausea, loss of taste and smell are a few to mention.

2.     Which specific foods are highly recommended or not recommended?

Fava beans has gained high popularity as a food which contains levodopa but the amount varies in different species of this bean. The conditions like soil or rainfall or other crop factors can determine its levodopa concentration. It seems that the immature green beans inside the pods has the most levodopa. Doctors should be consulted if people with Parkinson’s Disease eat fava beans every day to adjust medication dosage. Another food called mucuna pruiens or velvet beans which is used in Ayurvedic Medicine in India contains levodopa.

Antioxidants can be useful to prevent cell death as free radical excavengers. A plant based diet containing colorful fruits and vegetables is beneficial.

Including foods high in omega- 3 fatty acids like fish and nuts which have anti inflammatory properties and play a role in cell membrane health is recommended. They can also prevent stroke and other sources of inflammation.

On the other hand, foods that contain pesticides and toxins can harm cell health and should be avoided. Some studies have shown correlation between milk intake and risk of Parkinson’s Disease which could be due to pesticide content of dairy products.

More studies are needed to confirm the role of certain nutrients and foods in Parkinson’s Disease but in general having a healthy diet which includes fruits and vegetables, low fat dairy and meats like fish, nuts and whole grains with plenty of fluids is highly recommended. Weight maintenance with a proper diet is also quite critical.

3.     Do you recommend supplements?

If there is vitamin or mineral deficiency like vitamin D or iron deficiency, supplements are prescribed. Taking extra vitamins or even antioxidants as a form of supplement has not shown to make much difference. In fact, recent studies have shown that antioxidant supplements can even increase the risk of certain conditions like cancer and heart disease. It is highly recommended that patients with Parkinson’s Disease take most of their nutrient needs from food unless they have some feeding issues or access problems. People losing weight can benefit from nutrition supplements like ensure and boost for added calories and protein to prevent malnutrition.

4.     How can people with Parkinson’s disease eat better when they lose their sense of smell and taste?

Many eat more sugar and salt when they lose their sense of taste and smell which can cause health risks. Loss of taste and smell can cause people lose interest in food and lose weight. There are a few recommendations to help people to eat better and gain some sense of smell and taste. Drinking water, serving the food the way it looks, exercise, eating when hungry, eating with other people, adding spices like garlic, ginger and herbs, chewing well, eating different foods and avoiding very hot foods are recommended to alleviate this problem.