Q I have recently been diagnosed as having Parkinson's disease, so I am naturally very interested in anything that may help keep it under control, especially since I resisted all attempts to enlist me for clinical trials of a new drug combination. In fact, I refused to go on drugs at all, since the likely side effects sounded worst than the condition I'm in! I consulted a medically qualified homoeopath and under his guidance take mercurius, which seems to be helping. But if I can also help myself through diet, so much the better.- C J C, Exeter.
A You are wise to be interested in alternative treatments for Parkinson's. Mainstream medicine is utterly confused by this disease, where the extrapyramidal system controlling movement is disturbed, and consequently has experimented (unsuccessfully) with ever more desperate solutions.
The cornerstone of medical treatment of Parkinson's disease is levodopa or L-dopa (L-dihydroxyphenylalaline). Autopsy studies on the brain of patients with Parkinson's show that they have a massive deficiency of dopamine (Fed Proc, 1973; 32: 183-90). A precursor of dopamine, synthetic L-dopa is taken in an attempt to restore the imbalance between dopamine and acetylcholine.
However, L-dopa often causes a load of side effects - abnormal movements of the extremities, face and trunk, short-term memory loss and confusion, and nausea and vomiting - which sound suspiciously like all the symptoms of Parkinson's that you are attempting to treat. Consequently, most doctors must walk a tightrope in dosage prescribing, providing enough medication to rid the patient of symptoms while not prescribing a dose that is high enough to bring on side effects.
Fortunately, a number of nutritional measures can help you to cut, if not entirely eliminate, the need for medication, according to our panellist Dr Melvyn Werbach, who has exhaustively researched the literature for evidence of nutritional treatments for Parkinson's (Nutritional Influences on Illness, Tarzana, CA: Third Line, 1993).
Your first port of call should be to rule out heavy metal toxicity, particularly with mercury or aluminium. In one study, 42 patients, compared with a set of matched controls, showed that occupational exposure to aluminium, manganese or iron more than doubled the risk of Parkinson's disease, and increased it by 13 times after 30 years (Can J Neurol Sci, 1990; 17: 286-91).
High blood mercury levels have also been shown to be present in Parkinson's patients (Neuroepidemiology, 1989; 8: 128-41).
It's also wise to make sure that your copper blood levels aren't too high. Significantly higher levels of copper in the cerebrospinal fluid have been found in Parkinson's patients; the higher the levels of copper, the worse the patient's symptoms ( Lancet, 1987; ii: 238-41). If you are on the Pill, it's important to get off it immediately, since the Pill causes copper levels in the body to soar. (A nutritionist will then help to settle your copper levels back into line.) Excessively high levels of iron, usually acquired occupationally, also contribute to Parkinson's (Can J Neurol Sci, 1990; 17: 286-91).
If you are on L-dopa, according to Dr Werbach, the mainstay of your nutritional programme should be a diet that is low in protein. L-dopa is a large amino acid that must compete with numerous other amino acids to pass across the blood-brain barrier. Since the object is to get as much L-dopa to your brain as possible, you need to eliminate the competition which, of course, is fed to your body via protein.