There is only one thing worse than watching a loved one be taken captive by the ravages of Parkinson’s disease. That is watching three loved ones be defeated by it.
Within a few years of each other, my mom, dad, and a beloved uncle all had developed various forms of this motor system disorder, all the result of the loss of dopamine-producing brain cells.
Parkinson’s disease has four primary symptoms: tremor, or trembling in hands, arms, legs, jaw and face; rigidity, or stiffness of the limbs and trunk; slowness of movement, also known as bradykinesia; and impaired balance and coordination. My relatives, like anyone with the disease, experienced difficulty walking, talking and completing other simple tasks as the symptoms became more pronounced.
Other symptoms of this progressive disease include shaking or tremor; depression and other emotional changes; difficulty in swallowing, chewing and speaking; urinary problems or constipation; and sleep disruptions. Most people who develop Parkinson’s eventually require nursing care, as all of my relatives did in some form.
Parkinson’s disease has been a known condition since ancient times, first referred to by the name “shaking palsy.” Not until 1817 was more known. At that time, London doctor James Parkinson wrote a detailed medical essay describing the condition. About 60 years later, French neurologist Jean Martin Charcot recognized the importance of Parkinson’s work and named the disease after him.
Today diagnosis is based on medical history and a neurological examination. It is the second most common neurodegenerative disease after Alzheimer’s, with approximately 60,000 new cases diagnosed every year in the United States.
Most frightening to people who contract the disease, there is no cure. Although there are treatments that can relieve some of the symptoms, they nearly always progress. Currently, about a million people suffer with Parkinson’s in the United States, and tens of thousands die from it every year.
The exact cause of the disease is not yet known; however, there is compelling research that points to several factors that contribute to it, and other factors that are protective against it or help to slow it. In other words, if you are at risk because of genetic factors, there are things you can do to minimize your risk, even if you have the gene that would predispose you to it.
A meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies that involved more than 300,000 people found a significantly increased risk of Parkinson’s disease with dairy consumption, including milk, cheese and yogurt. The researchers estimated that for every cup of milk or its equivalent consumed per day, Parkinson’s risk increased 17 percent.1
There are other possible explanations for this dairy link, but one that is being explored is that milk is contaminated with neurotoxins from pesticides.
Parkinson’s patients typically have elevated levels of an organochlorine pesticide in their bloodstream, which includes DDT (which was banned years ago but is still hidden in our environment).2 There are more than a hundred studies linking pesticides to an increased risk of getting the disease. Some of those studies show as much as an 80 percent greater risk.3
Up to a billion pounds of pesticides are used annually in the United States. Just living (or working) in an area where there is a lot of pesticide spraying may increase a person’s risk. I think about the fact that my three relatives lived most of their lives in farm-heavy Wisconsin coupled with the more relaxed attitude that generation had to also using pesticides around the home, now known to be a risk factor.4
Even as some researchers search for causes, others are examining ways to prevent, stop or slow the disease. One interesting finding is that caffeine consumption appears to protect against its development. The equivalent of about two daily cups of coffee worth of caffeine appears to significantly improve symptoms in those who have the disease and protect those at risk from contracting it.5
In addition, fewer people who eat a variety of phytonutrients developed Parkinson’s disease. In particular, berry consumption leads to a significantly lower risk of contracting the disease.6 A plant-based diet may protect against Parkinson’s as well, and also helps those who already have the disease.7
While leading organizations that educate and inform patients about Parkinson’s rarely offer these options, you can do four things today to help reduce your risk of getting the disease: exercise, and avoid dairy products, pesticides and getting hit in the head.
If you already have Parkinson’s disease, switch to a plant-based diet that emphasizes whole grains, legumes, berries, and other fruits and vegetables in their most whole form.
Please leave a comment below and let me know what your experiences are with Parkinson’s disease. And let’s get stronger together.
1. Jiang W, Ju C, Jiang H, Zhang D. Dairy foods intake and risk of Parkinson’s disease: a dose-response meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. Eur J Epidemiol. 2014 Sep;29(9):613-9.
2. Park M, Ross GW, Petrovitch H, et al. Consumption of milk and calcium in midlife and the future risk of Parkinson disease. Neurology. 2005;64(6):1047-51.
3. Kamel F. Epidemiology. Paths from pesticides to Parkinson’s. Science. 2013 Aug 16;341(6147):722-3.
4. Narayan S, Liew Z, Paul K, et al. Household organophosphorus pesticide use and Parkinson’s disease. Int J Epidemiol. 2013 Oct;42(5):1476-85.
5. Palacios N, Gao X, McCullough ML, et al. Caffeine and risk of Parkinson’s disease in a large cohort of men and women. Mov. Disord. 2012 27(10):1276 – 1282
6. Gao X, Cassidy A, M Schwarzschild MA, et al. Habitual intake of dietary flavonoids and risk of Parkinson disease. Neurology. 2012 Apr 10;78(15):1138-45.
7. Renoudet VV, Costa-Mallen P, Hopkins E. A diet low in animal fat and rich in N-hexacosanol and fisetin is effective in reducing symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. J Med Food 2012 15(8):758 – 761.
8. Baroni L, Bonetto C, Tessan F, et al. Pilot dietary study with normoproteic protein-redistributed plant-food diet and motor performance in patients with Parkinson’s disease. Nutr Neurosci 2011 14(1):1 – 9.