At the World Parkinson Congress last September, I walked in on the tail-end of an academic session that dealt with nutrition. The speaker ended with a strong pitch that we all read – and follow – Dr. Michael Greger’s book How Not to Die, the first half of which contains a chapter titled “How Not to Die from Parkinson’s Disease.” (Other chapters in the first half of the book include “How Not to Die from Kidney Disease,” “…from Diabetes,” “…from Breast Cancer,” and so on.)
The second half of the book talks about nutrition in general, and suggests what kind of diet will keep you healthy and alive for many years.
What does someone with Parkinson’s disease do so that he/she doesn’t die from it? I’ll review the Parkinson’s chapter here, then summarize the concluding section on general nutrition.
The chapter “How Not to Die from Parkinson’s Disease” opens with an anecdote about the author’s father, a professional, award-winning photojournalist who developed Parkinson’s disease, which caused his hands to tremble so much he could no longer pursue his career. His father dealt with PD for sixteen years, then entered a hospital where he suffered a painful, drawn-out death.
The rest of the chapter looks at the things in our environment, especially in our food, that either promote or inhibit your getting PD. The chapter is only twelve pages long, but contains 134 citations to medical research, all of which bolster the author’s points. (Note: All quotes below come directly from this chapter, and I’ve excluded the citation numbers. If you want to follow up with the studies Dr. Greger refers to, buy the book!)
And what are the main points? That we eat a lot of food which is heavily laced with pesticides and other toxic chemicals, which in turn create nasty conditions in our gut that go on to promote the development of PD in our brains.
For example, the chapter’s section on dairy products (which Dr. Greger says we should avoid), opens with this passage:
“Parkinson’s patients have been found to have elevated levels of an organochlorine pesticide in their bloodstreams, the class of largely banned pesticides that include DDT. Autopsy studies have also found elevated levels of pesticides in the brain tissues of those with Parkinson’s. Elevated levels of other pollutants like PCBs were also found in their brains, and the higher certain PCB concentrations, the higher the degree of damage found specifically in the brain region thought to be responsible for the disease, called the substantia nigra.”
DDT? Are you scratching your head over the mention of DDT, the infamous pesticide that was used widely in homes and on farms in the United States until it was banned in 1972?
Yes, DDT. Along with other now-banned chemicals, DDT still exists in the environment, and you ingest it by eating contaminated animal products, especially dairy. As Dr. Greger notes,
“A meta-analysis of studies involving more than three hundred thousand participants found that overall dairy consumption was associated with significantly increased risk of Parkinson’s disease.”
Mothers also pass on DDT stored in their bodies to babies in the womb. Researchers collected blood samples from three hundred umbilical cords, just after the mother gave birth. They found that 95 percent of umbilical cord blood samples contained detectable DDT residues.
But it’s not just DDT. Our bodies absorb toxic heavy metals (e.g., arsenic, lead, mercury) when we eat poultry, seafood (especially tuna), and dairy products. The same goes for other banned substances: PCBs, other formerly-legal-but-now-prohibited pesticides, dioxins, and industrial pollutants. Factory-raised beef and pork, and farm-raised tilapia fish, are especially laden with industrial poisons.
What can we do about this? Dr. Greger suggests eating as low on the food chain as possible. In other words, a plant-based diet.
While the back half of the book outlines his entire dietary plan for everyone, here’s what he proposes in the chapter devoted to Parkinson’s disease:
- Increase your intake of nicotine. But not by smoking! As many Parkies know, smoking cigarettes greatly reduces your risk of getting Parkinson’s disease. Of course, it also ruins your lungs and sets you up for all kinds of cancer (lung, pancreatic, esophageal, bladder), as well as emphysema, stroke, and heart attacks. However, nicotine, the neuroprotective ingredient in tobacco, also exists in tomatoes and bell peppers. A research study which examined five hundred newly-diagnosed Parkies and compared them to five hundred controls found that “[e]ating nicotine-rich vegetables, especially peppers, was associated with significantly lower risk of Parkinson’s disease.”
- Eat apples and berries. Especially blueberries and strawberries. Why? Well, a Harvard University study of about 130,000 people found that people who frequently ate berries had a significantly lower risk of getting PD. How does this work? Apparently, berries are full of flavonoids, which can cross the blood-brain barrier and prevent alpha synuclein proteins from clumping together. (Many Parkies know about misfolding alpha synuclein protein, but if you’d like more information about its relationship to Parkinson’s, click here.)
- Drink more coffee. “In a randomized controlled trial, giving Parkinson’s patients the caffeine equivalent of two cups of coffee a day (or approximately four cups of black tea or eight cups of green tea) significantly improved movement symptoms within three weeks.” (And if you drink eight cups of green tea every day, you’ll be significantly moving quickly to the toilet again and again to urinate.) (Joke!)
- Avoid meat, chicken, fish, eggs, and dairy products. They’re all saturated with a ton of toxins.
Here’s the chapter’s concluding paragraph:
“There are a number of simple things you can do that may decrease your risk of dying from Parkinson’s disease. You can wear seat belts and bicycle helmets to avoid getting hit in the head, you can exercise regularly, avoid becoming overweight, consume peppers, berries and green tea, and minimize your exposure to pesticides, heavy metals, and dairy and other animal products. It’s worth it. Trust me when I say that no family should have to endure the tragedy of Parkinson’s.”
And now for the back of the book, where Dr. Greger lays out his complete plan for eating healthy foods and avoiding diseases like PD, cancer, diabetes, suicidal depression, and more.
He begins with a traffic light analogy: green light (go!), yellow light (caution!!); red light (avoid!!!):
- Green light: unprocessed plant foods
- Yellow light: processed plant foods and unprocessed animal foods
- Red light: ultra-processed plant foods and processed animal foods
He then presents a list called “The Daily Dozen,” which elaborates further on what you should eat and do each day:
Dr. Greger’s Daily Dozen
- Beans (including soybeans, split peas, lentils, hummus): 3 servings
- Berries (fresh, frozen or dried): 1 serving
- Other fruits: 3 servings
- Cruciferous vegetables (including cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, bok choy): 1 serving
- Greens: 2 servings
- Other vegetables: 2 servings
- Flaxseeds (1 tablespoon): 1 serving
- Nuts (including peanut butter, almonds, walnuts): 1 serving
- Spices (especially tumeric): 1 serving
- Whole grains (brown rice, hot oatmeal, quinoa, whole wheat pasta): 3 servings
- Beverages (mostly water): 5 servings
- Exercise: 1 session
After introducing this checklist for daily consumption, Dr. Greger offers a chapter on each of these dozen items, with plenty of suggestions for how to prepare the food, how to knock off multiple items in a single meal, and what to do if, say, you’re stuck at an airport and your choices are slim.
What does this book mean for me personally? It makes me want to tweak my diet. I’m already on board with most of the “daily dozen,” even the flax seeds. And I read all the time the on-going research articles that investigate whether Parkinson’s “begins in the gut” (click! click! click!).
But I can do more. I can cut out the huge quantities of milk that I drink, widen the variety of vegetables that I eat, ensure I eat a teaspoon of tumeric every day (not just occasionally), and enjoy more hummus and eggplant dip with raw veggies.
Enjoyment. I’d say that there’s double enjoyment here: first, eating these foods which taste so good, and second, feeling healthier in my life in general. Living longer in good health wouldn’t be bad, either.