Eating well can help you take control of your health. In fact, choosing to eat healthy foods can improve your Parkinson’s disease (PD) symptoms. And some research suggests that sound nutritional choices could have disease-modifying effects, meaning that they could potentially slow PD progression. Changing your eating habits can be a challenge, but there are many small adjustments you can make to your diet that will add up to big benefits. Learning about them is the first step.
The following article is based on the latest research and a Parkinson’s Foundation Expert Briefings about nutrition, hosted by John E. Duda, M.D., from University of Pennsylvania Movement Disorder Centers, a Center of Excellence.
Managing PD Symptoms with Diet
Research supports these strategies for managing the following PD symptoms and medication side effects:
Fluctuations. Some people who take levodopa (Sinemet) notice that their medication is less effective when taken with a high-protein meal (a meal including foods like meat, fish and eggs). To address this difficulty, your doctor may recommend taking levodopa 30 minutes before, or 60 minutes after, you eat. That’s because levodopa is absorbed into the digestive system by the same route as protein — when taken together, both compete to be absorbed into the body.
Even after adjusting medication timing, some people still have difficulty absorbing it. This can lead to fluctuations — the levodopa wears off too soon or you experience changes throughout the day between the medicine working well and not having any benefit at all.
A protein-redistribution diet is a popular solution for fluctuations. That means eating most of your daily protein at dinnertime — the last meal of the day — to minimize Sinemet interference during most of the rest of the day. In research studies, fluctuations improved in about 80 percent of people who made this dietary change. People who benefitted most were those who started the regimen early in the course of their PD, before fluctuations became severe.
Iron also can prevent your body from taking up levodopa medications. Do not take iron supplements or multivitamins with iron within two hours of Sinemet.
Daytime sleepiness. Studies show that taking caffeine in two to four cups of coffee a day can improve daytime sleepiness.
Orthostatic hypotension is sustained low blood pressure and dizziness on standing. There are several ways to reduce this symptom:
- Avoid large meals, as they divert blood to the digestive system.
- Increase the amount of salt in your diet.
- Reduce alcohol consumption.
- Drink one and a half to two quarts a day of fluids (six to eight 8-ounce glasses, including water, coffee and other beverages). You can also use a tall cup that has lines to mark your progress and help you keep track throughout the day.
Constipation. If you have less than one bowel movement per day, try to:
- Drink more fluids.
- Consume more fiber, from fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, nuts and seeds. Aim for 30-40 grams of fiber per day. Choose foods that have five or more grams of fiber per serving.
Cognitive changes. Many studies have shown that the Mediterranean diet can lower the risk of cognitive impairment for everyone. This diet is rich in whole grains and vegetables. It also includes fish, as well as small servings of low-fat dairy and lean meat, and uses olive oil instead of butter.
Bone health. People with PD often have low blood levels of vitamin D, which is essential for strong bones and may also play a role in warding off depression and cognitive change. Make sure your doctor tests your vitamin D. It can be difficult to get enough vitamin D through diet. Your doctor may recommend supplements.
Malnourishment and weight loss. If your food tastes bland, you’ve probably lost some of your sense of smell — a common PD symptom. To make food more appealing, so that you feel like eating more, try seasoning it with herbs, spices and other flavors. If you or your loved one with PD has experienced significant weight loss, ask your doctor for a referral to a nutritionist. This member of your health care team can offer different strategies for maintaining a healthy weight depending on your age and PD symptoms.
Your Diet and the Microbiome
One of the big stories in medicine is the role of the gut microbiome (the bacteria and other microorganisms that live in the digestive system) in health and disease.
Several studies have found that people with PD have much lower levels of Prevotella species of bacteria — a type thought to be good for maintaining gut health. They also have higher levels of bacteria associated with inflammation, which can be harmful.
How does that relate to your diet? What you eat affects which bacteria can thrive in your digestive system. Studies have shown that eating a Mediterranean, or whole-food plant-based diet, creates an environment where Prevotella and other healthy bacteria can flourish. Fiber and other components of whole plant foods and sometimes referred to as ‘prebiotics’ because they feed the “good” bacteria in the gut, which may be beneficial for people with PD.
Can Eating Well Alter the Course of PD?
Scientists know a lot about the molecular changes that underlie Parkinson’s. You may have heard of alpha-synuclein, the protein that forms clumps in brain cells, oxidative stress, mitochondrial dysfunction, and inflammation. The search is intense for therapies that can stop or reverse these processes. Can nutrition or dietary choices do anything to change them or alter the course of PD?
Some laboratory and animal research suggest that diet could have an effect, especially plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds. Every plant-based food contains hundreds of chemicals called phytochemicals. These are not nutrients, but substances that may, alone or in combination, affect many of the processes thought to be involved in PD including oxidation, chronic inflammation, protein aggregation and mitochondrial dysfunction.
Phytochemicals have not been proven to change disease progression in people with PD, but neither is there typically any harm in eating a diet that includes whole, unprocessed plants. This diet has proven benefits for preventing heart and vascular disease and can reduce PD symptoms, like constipation and risk of cognitive change.
The best way to increase anti-oxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds in your blood and brain is by eating plants — all the different parts of them. Choose fresh, or frozen whole foods and avoid boxed or canned foods as much as possible. There is no one food that is best — aim for variety every day. And be sure to include nuts and seeds. Sprinkling a tablespoon of ground flax seeds on other foods is a simple way to improve your diet.
Healthy Eating with PD
Eating a whole food, plant-based diet, often called a Mediterranean diet, can help you live well with PD. Eat what you need to eat to be happy — but also eat more of the food that is good for your health.
If you have Parkinson’s, every healthy lifestyle change can help. Choosing to eat well also leads to a feeling of empowerment that helps you in your daily life with PD. While it can be challenging to eat better, most people make minor diet changes gradually that become major changes over time. Always consult your physician before making major changes.
Nutrition Q & A
Nutrition plays a key role in managing Parkinson’s symptoms. Below, we answer common nutrition questions with science-based answers:
Is there a recommended diet for people with PD?
Research suggests that eating a whole-food plant-based diet, rich in a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables and high in fiber, can help some PD symptoms.
Should I eat organic produce?
It is plausible, but not proven, that the pesticide residues on fruits and vegetables could affect PD. For advice on avoiding foods with pesticides, download the Environmental Working Group’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce.
Can supplements help PD?
People who test low may need vitamin D supplements. If you eat a completely plant-based, vegan diet, you will need vitamin B12 supplements. No supplements have been proven beneficial for PD. Tell your doctor if you are taking any supplements.
Are fava beans good for PD?
Fava beans contain levodopa, the active substance in many PD medications. Eating them as a supplement is an area that needs more research and has not been proven to help. Avoid commercial preparations of fava bean extract as they are not regulated and may not contain the ingredients on the label.
Should I give up gluten?
The vast majority of people can eat gluten without ill effects. It is a protein found in some whole grains, which are probably good for people with Parkinson’s for the fiber and other nutrients that have in them.
Are probiotics good for PD?
Probiotics do not contain the health-promoting gut bacteria that are missing in people with PD. However, some studies suggest that probiotics can be helpful for constipation in PD.
For more insights on this topic, listen to our podcast episode “The Role of the Microbiome in PD: Part Two”.