I remember telling my first patient with Parkinson’s disease that she needed to move because she lived in a subdivision that was built on an old landfill. Not only was she suffering, but she also reported that an unusual number of her neighbors had cancer or other very serious diseases that may be linked to toxins. It is thought that in Parkinson’s disease the destruction of brain cells occurs partially due to oxidative damage, which is increased by toxic chemicals. The subsequent reduced ability to produce dopamine in the brain leads to the motor deficits of Parkinson’s including resting tremors, rigidity, slow movements, and shuffling gait.
While there are natural treatments that can slow and/or improve the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, we are much better off focusing on prevention. New studies are pointing to some easy steps to help reduce the chance of getting this neurodegenerative illness. The link between exposure to pesticides and the development of Parkinson’s disease was confirmed by a 2013 meta-analysis looking at over 100 studies. It showed that the risk of Parkinson’s was increased by contact with pesticides, herbicides, and solvents. Farming in general and living in rural areas were also considered to be risks. As a small scale organic farmer as well as a naturopathic doctor, these issues particularly strike home. I recommend an emphasis on organic foods in the diet to avoid traces of pesticide residue on the food and to cut down on the number of farm workers who have to handle pesticides and herbicides.
Another common thread in Parkinson’s disease is elevated iron in the brain. Iron can contribute to oxidative damage by catalyzing the conversion of hydrogen peroxide to dangerous hydroxyl free radicals. Pesticides and other neurotoxic substances have been shown to cause increased production of hydrogen peroxide. The resulting reactive oxygen species can damage the genes, cell membranes, and mitochondria thereby reducing the ability of brain cells to function.
These findings tie together much of what we know concerning the development of Parkinson’s disease: oxidative damage, iron overload in the brain, and pesticide exposure. It also points to useful preventative strategies. Cultures that consume vegan or quasi vegan diets have lower rates of Parkinson’s disease. While this could be due to lower intake of saturated fats or higher antioxidant consumption, I suggest that this link is partially because of lower iron intake. Part of the neuroprotective effect of coffee could be related to its ability to bind iron. This would also explain why the consumption of black tea, which reduces iron absorption, is inversely associated with Parkinson’s disease risk.
Finally, just as antioxidants are an indispensable part of the treatment of Parkinson’s disease, they can also be vital for its prevention since many of the implicated pesticides and other toxic compounds are oxidative stressors. Studies have shown that patients with Parkinson’s disease have reduced antioxidant capacity, demonstrated by lower glutathione levels. Glutathione is an important antioxidant that helps neutralize toxins and heavy metals. N-acetyl cysteine and alpha lipoic acid are excellent supplement choices to help build up glutathione levels. Turmeric is known for its neuroprotective effects, and its active constituent curcumin was shown to help restore glutathione levels in a study using mice. At the same time, I encourage appropriate intake of iron to minimize buildup over time with its subsequent contribution to oxidative stress.
Even though these interventions were particularly studied for Parkinson’s disease, these basic concepts hold true for prevention of other neurological issues. Toxin burdens and decreased antioxidant status are important considerations for prevention of other neurological conditions, including some dementias like Alzheimer’s disease. Though genetics can play a role in susceptibility to particular conditions, we can choose dietary and lifestyle choices that reduce the likelihood of these manifestations. In addition, we can also work to create a healthier planet so that there are fewer toxic chemicals in all of our lives.
And check out my blog from last year on how happy bell peppers like this one can help prevent Parkinson’s disease.