One question that I get all the time, is how to manage their diet with medications, protein, and their Parkinson’s symptoms. Today, I am thrilled to bring you someone who knows Parkinson’s disease, was a registered dietitian, has written and advised extensively on the subject of Parkinson’s and diet (I am vegetarian and some of the following recipes are my guest’s suggestion), and now, will share her knowledge with you! I am so excited to present my interview with Kathrynne Holden:
Question 1: What pointed your focus in nutrition to Parkinson’s? Was it a personal focus for a loved one or a need that you saw that had to be addressed?
I discovered a need that had to be addressed. In university, we studied medical nutrition therapy for heart disease, cancer, diabetes, stroke, and many other conditions; also food-medication interactions, of great importance for dietitians. After graduation I offered free counseling at our senior center, and a gentleman asked if there was any special diet for Parkinson’s disease. In seven years of study I had never heard of Parkinson’s disease, so I said I would do some research and get back to him. What I learned on Medline was staggering. There was a vast array of nutritional obstacles, including a major food-medication interaction: levodopa and protein. Yet there were no nutritional guidelines, either for patients or health professionals. I determined to narrow my focus to Parkinson’s disease alone. In the process, I coauthored research, wrote two manuals for dietitians as well as books for people with Parkinson’s and their families, and contributed to two physician’s manuals on Parkinson’s. Currently several of us are petitioning our parent organization, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, to include Parkinson’s Disease as a condition requiring nutrition therapy. If successful, insurance coverage might be a result as well.
Question 2: What should every person with PD know about diet and this illness?
Karl: Maybe, you can list a few suggestions. For me, I noticed that my meds efficacy and my digestion improved from being a long-time vegetarian. I discovered that my pills activated faster when I took them with caffeine and that Not until I visited Hawaii did I find out that Macadamia nuts were a natural laxative. These were helpful tidbits that I had to find on my own.
Kathrynne: Karl, you’ve hit on one of the most important points. Medication effectiveness, digestion, and constipation are concerns for almost everyone. But the solutions can be quite different from one person to the next. And no one knows you as well as you do, so it’s important to be your own detective, and learn what works best for you. But here are some points to consider.
For constipation, besides fluids and a high-fiber diet, some foods that can help include, as you note, macadamia nuts, kiwifruit, cashew nuts, cooked prunes, beets, flax seed, whole grains, and well-soaked chia seeds. You’ll need to experiment to find what works best for you.
For those using levodopa, some people report that taking it with a carbonated drink such as seltzer water speeds its absorption.
It’s also important to take levodopa 30 minutes before meals containing protein, so it can dissolve and enter the small intestine for quick absorption. Do not take it with, or right after, meals, because the stomach hasn’t emptied and the levodopa can’t pass through to the small intestine. Also, because Parkinson’s can slow the motion of the gastrointestinal tract, it can take 90 minutes or longer for the stomach to empty. If it doesn’t seem like your levodopa is effective, it may be due to slowed stomach emptying, a question to discuss with your doctor.
Also, when timing of meals and levodopa is complicated it can help to use quick-absorbing “liquid levodopa.” The Parkinson Foundation has instructions for making it. Go to Parkinson’s Disease Medications: https://f5h3y5n7.stackpathcdn.com/sites/default/files/attachments/Medications.pdf On page 73 find the “Formula for Liquid Sinemet.”
Question 3: We are all very different in our symptoms, medicines, and stages of illness but is there a universal truth that can benefit all our diets?
Yes. It’s important to realize the value of whole foods, as opposed to vitamin and mineral supplements. Parkinson’s is a stressful condition, and stress, along with other conditions, creates “free radicals” – very reactive particles that cause damage in the body and brain. But antioxidants stabilize free radicals, making them harmless.
Foods are a much better source of antioxidants than supplements, because foods contain substances that support each other and make the antioxidant more effective. For example, a Brazil nut contains vitamin E, which you can also get from a pill. But the Brazil nut contains the entire array of tocopherols and tocotrienols that make up vitamin E, and it also contains selenium, an antioxidant mineral that works with vitamin E, forming an antioxidant combination much more powerful than either one alone.
Vegetables, fruits, and nuts are rich in antioxidants, as well as fibers that both help prevent constipation and serve as food for our “friendly bacteria” known as the microbiome. Some good examples are berries, grapes, plums both fresh and dried (prunes), carrots, beets, blue corn, broccoli, pecans, bell peppers. Another excellent food is fatty fish, such as salmon, for omega-3 fatty acids that benefit the brain.
Here are links to recipes using some of these foods, by George Mateljian, whose work in nutrition is excellent, I’m a great fan:
Sautéed Vegetables with Cashews
Super Carrot Raisin Salad
5- Minute Blueberries with Yogurt
Question 4: It is believed that Parkinson’s disease begins in the gut. Have you seen diet make an impact on your client’s symptoms as well as progression?
It seems likely that PD may begin in the gut via the vagus nerve, which is a pathway from the digestive tract to the brain. In an analysis, researchers found that individuals whose vagus nerve was severed were at a much lower risk for developing PD. But scientists believe that there are likely to be other causes besides the gut-brain pathway. Some also theorize that unhealthy gut microbes may communicate to the brain by way of the vagus nerve, and that maintaining a healthy microbiome might lower risk of PD.
Regarding diet’s impact on PD, yes. Persons with PD who turn to wholesome, nourishing foods, have offered such comments as “digestion has improved,” “PD symptoms have lessened,” “depression has lifted.” It appears that with a good diet, medications can be more effective, and there is a general sense of improved well-being.
It’s possible that this could be due to nourishing the gut microbiome – the colony of microorganisms that live in our gastrointestinal tract. We now know that dietary fibers are food for these beneficial microbes, keeping them in good health. They can then communicate with our DNA to influence our health. A healthy microbiome appears to help prevent the inflammatory bowel disease and irritable bowel syndrome that so often plague people with PD. It fights cancer, and may be a factor in preventing some types of depression. Some strains produce a dopamine byproduct that is associated with better mental health.
But they need to be fed the proper food – dietary fiber – in order to do their work. That’s why whole grains, vegetables, and fruits are so important, and why refined flour and sugar and highly-processed foods are so harmful – they leave nothing for the microbiome to feed on. I recommend eating a variety of whole grains, vegetables, and fruits, because each has different fibers, and the various types of microbes each need their own kind of fiber.
Question 5: What should we be avoiding in our diets to get the most from our food and to assist our medications?
I would avoid what I call “anti-foods” – those that are made from refined, highly-processed ingredients like white flour and sugar, hydrogenated fats, and artificial colorings and flavorings. Many of the ready-to-eat frozen meals and canned soups fall into this category.
Also, as much as possible I would avoid produce grown with herbicides and pesticides in favor of organically-grown produce. There is a growing association between pesticide and herbicide use and risk for Parkinson’s disease. Organic foods are often more expensive, but the Environmental Working Group posts a list of foods that are the most and least contaminated. See their website: https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/summary.php Good food will never let you down.
My thanks to Kathrynne Holden for making this interview possible. I am very appreciative that she shared so much great information on diet and Parkinson’s disease with us! I hope you find this interview helpful. Eat Well!
Kathrynne Holden, MS, RD (retired) is author of “Eat Well, Stay Well with Parkinson’s Disease,” “Cook Well, Stay Well with Parkinson’s Disease” and “Parkinson’s Disease and Constipation (CD)” See her blog at nutritionucanlivewith.com for more on nutrition for Parkinson’s disease.