Nutrition’s Emerging role in Treatment of Parkinson’s Disease

Targeted nutritional interventions have recently been discovered to have a role in the management of many chronic diseases, from the obvious like diabetes and heart disease, to the less obvious neurologic illnesses. The purpose of this post is to focus on the current research regarding nutrition and Parkinson’s. 

This research is still in its infancy, but a recent review article published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience has consolidated what is known to date, what is unknown, and the proposed mechanisms of action.

First, here is a diagram of food groups and specific nutrients that have been studied and found to be in the following three categories: neuroprotective (green), conflicting in results (yellow) and neurodegenerative (red). 

Red – Neurodegenerative 

  • Milk

Yellow – Conflicting evidence

  • MUFA – monounsaturated fatty acids
  • PUFA – polyunsaturated fatty acids
  • Vitamins C, D, E and Riboflavin (B2)
  • Carbohydrates
  • Meat

Green – Neuroprotective

  • Vegetables
  • Fruit
  • Carotenoids (yellow and orange pigment in fruits and vegetables)
  • Genistein (found in fava beans, soy beans and coffee beans)
  • Tea
  • Caffeine
  • Resveratrol (in wine and grapes)

Now let’s get specific! We’re focusing on research related to Parkinson’s Disease.

So what is Parkinson’s Disease?

Parkinson’s Disease is characterized by the loss of dopaminergic neurons in the substantia nigra pars compacta. Dopamine receptors are central to many neurological processes including motivation, pleasure, cognition, memory, learning, and fine motor control, as well as modulation of neuroendocrine signaling.

Loss of Dopamine
Dopamine Molecule

Thus, Parkinson’s Disease clinically manifests as slowed movements, difficulties with balance, tremor, eventually with psychiatric symptoms such as depression.

Both genetic and environmental factors contribute to disease onset and progression.

Inflammation linked to Disease

Most involve mitochondrial dysfunction, inflammation, or oxidative stress on the endoplasmic reticulum (it helps create and package proteins in cells).

Neuroprotective mechanisms of nutrition would thus involve protecting mitochondria, reducing inflammation, and reducing oxidative stress on the endoplasmic reticulum. Nutrients that are neurodegenerative would have the opposite effect.

We have ample evidence of nutrition’s ability to cause potent inflammatory or anti-inflammatory effects. However, recent research has gotten more specific.


Milk (not cheese or dairy)

The first group studied and the only one found to be actively neurodegenerative is milk.

This was found to be of stronger effect in men that in women. One proposed mechanism has been dairy’s effect of lowering one’s uric acid levels which have been found to be inversely correlated with the risk of Parkinson’s Disease.

It is additionally proposed that possible dopaminergic neurotoxins such as pesticides or polychlorinated biphenyls (the most commonly known is BPA) that are found in dairy could be a contributing factor.

This link was theorized by post-mortem studies of the brains of Parkinson’s Disease patients and finding increased organochlorines in the brains of PD individuals when compared to control brains from healthy individuals. This was not correlated to other ‘members’ of the dairy family such as cheese and yogurt.

Now, let’s move on to the neuroprotective compounds.


Whole Foods- Fruits, Vegetables, Coffee and Tea

Each of these nutrients and phytonutrients have anti-inflammatory properties. In the ‘whole foods’ category we find fruits, vegetables, coffee and tea. This is noteworthy, since many times in research when compounds are isolated and taken out of their whole-foods source they cease to have the effects seen in the whole-food form.

The compounds that often give the strong colors to foods are generally compounds that are potently anti-inflammatory. The structures that are able to absorb a ‘free radical’ and/or the things that often cause inflammation in the body, also are able to cause a reflection of color in the light spectrum. 

Caffeine, Carotenoids, Resveratrol independent of source

The next three compounds found in this category are all isolated compounds within these foods: caffeine (independently from coffee and tea), carotenoids (the orange pigment in fruits and vegetables) and resveratrol (the color in grapes and wine). These are already widely-studied compounds that are found to be anti-inflammatory in many previous research studies.

Conflicting Evidence

Vitamin C, D, E, and B2, Meat, Fat, and Carbohydrates

The jury is still out on isolated vitamins C, D, E and B2, meat, different types of fat and different types of carbohydrates.

Does Food Quality Make the Difference?

It is possible that the food ‘quality’ of the meat, carbohydrates and fats are what makes the difference as to whether these food groups are digested and metabolized into neuroprotective or neurodegenerative by-products, which makes them hard to study accurately.

For example, there is a large difference in the biochemical make-up of extra virgin olive oil versus that of French fries cooked in a highly processed and heat exposed, hexane extracted vegetable oil. In many studies, one is found to be anti-inflammatory and the other to be highly inflammatory though they are both in the same macronutrient group of ‘fat’.

The same can be said of meat from a 100% pastured cow that lived a stress-free life roaming in the sunshine versus one that was kept largely in a pin and fed grain (not its natural food source).

Furthermore within the carbohydrate group we could say that both broccoli and sour patch kids are ‘carbohydrates’ though one has anti-inflammatory and low glycemic and the other has highly inflammatory and is high glycemic.

In summary, this article suggests that a diet similar to the Mediterranean diet which is high in fruits and vegetables, has a moderate amount of omega -3 or healthy fats, tea, caffeine and wine appear to have neuroprotective properties.

I’d like to highlight the word MODERATE in regards to caffeine and wine – this means 1-2 cups of black coffee or tea a day and 1 small glass of wine for a woman and less than 2 for a man a couple of times a week!

It appears that the ‘all around healthy’ diet has a few things in common among all the experts:

A whole food focused plant-based high in vegetables and/or fruit, that is focused on food quality with adequate protein and varied enough to get all of nutrients, vitamins and minerals needed

I suppose my first college profession really did condense this down into his one mantra that he drilled into us that first semester

‘variety and moderation’ are key in all things!

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