Your diet and Parkinson’s disease
New research by Harvard University in the US and the University of East Anglia in the UK have found that men who ate foods rich in plant compounds (flavonoids), such as apples and berries, had a significantly lower risk of developing Parkinson’s disease.
The study, published in Neurology, involved about 130,000 men and women who had been tracked for 20 years. None of them had Parkinson’s when the study began; however, by the end of the study, more than 800 had been positively diagnosed with the disease.
The study analysed their diets; lifestyle factors and age were also taken into consideration. This is where the proof was found that men who had taken in more flavonoids throughout their diet had a 40 per cent lower risk of Parkinson’s than those who consumed the least flavonoids.
It was noted that the main sources of flavonoids were apples, blueberries, strawberries, tea, red wine (in moderation), oranges and orange juice. The same link was not made between women consumers.
The study showed that apples and berries appeared to be especially protective for men. Those eating five or more servings of apples per week were roughly half as likely to develop the disease compared to those eating less than one serving a month. Similar comparisons are made with the consumption of strawberries and blueberries alone.
Interestingly, berries were the only type of food rich in flavonoids that could be associated with a reduced Parkinson’s risk in women. Those consuming the largest amount of strawberries and blackberries had a 20 per cent lower risk of the disease compared to those eating much less.
The sub-class of flavonoids called anthocyanins are believed to have an effect on the brain. They appear to reduce oxidative stress, suppress inflammation and trigger detoxifying enzymes. These effects all appear to play a role in the disease (Neurology, 2012).
There are other dietary ways of cutting the risk; these include the Mediterranean diet. However, this must include fresh fruit, vegetables, fish and olive oil. Researchers looked at 450 people, with or without Parkinson’s, and found out that those who tended to follow the correct Mediterranean diet were less likely to suffer the disease.
Antioxidant rich foods, such as those high in vitamin E and beta-carotene, may be protective against Parkinson’s too. (Eur. J. Neurol., 2011). These foods include broccoli, kale, almonds, sunflower seeds, sweet potatoes, carrots and mangos. Antioxidants counter the effects of ‘free radicals’ in the body and thought to play a part in the development of Parkinson’s disease. (Ann. Pharmacother., 2006).
In addition, foods high in vitamin B6 such as tuna, chicken, turkey, bell peppers, cashew nuts and chickpeas may also be helpful for prevention of the disease. Scientists have discovered that people with the highest intakes of vitamin B6 from their diet were significantly less likely to suffer from the disease than those with lower intakes. (Br. J. Nutr., 2010).
Protection could also be gained from minerals in the diet. Another study showed that higher intakes of iron, magnesium and zinc were associated with a reduced risk of the disease in a study of 600 people. (J. Neurol. Sci., 2011). Foods rich in minerals such as Brazil nuts, spinach, brown rice, raisins, avocado, adzuki beans, sesame seeds, oats, chickpeas and lentils were all found to be beneficial.
Researchers also looked at those who had the disease or had developed it while taking part in the studies. It was discovered that dairy foods could boost the chances of getting Parkinson’s if consumption was large.
High intakes of dairy foods nearly doubled the risk of Parkinson’s in men (Ann. Neurol., 2002). There appeared to be a slightly increased risk for women who consumed large amounts of dairy foods too. It was thought that rather than the actual dairy foods, it may be the toxic chemicals contained in the foods which are causing the disease. These could have damaging effects on the brain.
It was also found that high consumers of fruit juice were associated with an increased risk in men. However, it is thought that, as with dairy foods, this may be more related to the toxic chemicals contained in the fruit juice. This could also apply to some fruits, which reinforces the argument to buy organic products, or products you know have not been sprayed or contaminated in any way.
The recent findings add to the evidence that Parkinson’s is less connected to genetics, and more connected to environmental factors. The experts agree that the genes alone are responsible for less than 10 per cent of all Parkinson’s cases, and even then the environment may play a part.
This latest research contributes to our understanding of the disease and offers up potential ways to prevent it. It also paves the way to treating the disease by focusing on diet and lifestyle rather than simply on drugs and medication.