Agricultural equipment spraying crops against bright orange sky

In the original description of Parkinson’s disease by none other than Dr. James Parkinson himself, he described a characteristic feature of the disease: constipation, which may precede the diagnosis by many years. In fact, bowel movement frequency may be predictive. Men with less than one bowel movement a day were four times more like likely to develop Parkinson’s an average of 12 years later. This could be simply a really early symptom of the disease tied to decreased water intake, however. Many Parkinson’s patients report never really feeling very thirsty, and perhaps that led to constipation. “Alternately, one may speculate that constipation also increases the risk of Parkinson’s disease as constipation results in a longer stay of the feces in the bowel and thus more absorption of neurotoxicants,” neurotoxins from the diet.

Two studies suggest an association between constipation and Parkinson’s, but, at the same time, 38 studies link the disease to pesticide exposure and by now more than 100 studies link pesticides to an increased risk of up to 80 percent.

Many of these studies are on occupational exposure, like that experienced by farmworkers, who may reduce their risk of Parkinson’s by wearing gloves and washing their clothes, but Parkinson’s has also been linked to ambient exposure.

In the United States, where approximately a billion pounds of pesticides are applied annually, just living or working in high-spray areas may increase Parkinson’s risk.

It’s the same with using pesticides in the home. I didn’t realize how common household pesticide use was, and a study out of UCLA suggests it might not be such a good idea. 

Pesticides may cause DNA mutations that increase susceptibility for Parkinson’s or play a more direct role. Many neurodegenerative diseases appear to be caused by the buildup of misfolded proteins. In Alzheimer’s, it’s the protein amyloid beta; in Creutzfeldt-Jakob and mad cow disease, it’s prions; in Huntington’s, it’s a different protein; and in Parkinson’s disease, it’s a protein called alpha synuclein. A variety of pesticides—8 out of the 12 tested by researchers—were able to trigger synuclein accumulation in human nerve cells, at least in a petri dish, though the study has since been retracted so it’s unclear what the data actually showed.

The buildup of synuclein may play a role in killing off specialized nerve cells in the brain, 70 percent of which may be gone by the time the first symptoms arise. Pesticides are so good at killing these neurons that researchers use them to try to recreate Parkinson’s disease in animals. Is there any way to stop the process? As of this writing, there aren’t yet any drugs that can prevent this protein aggregation. What about flavonoid phytonutrients, natural compounds found in certain fruits and vegetables? Flavonoids can cross the blood-brain barrier and may have neuroprotective effects, so researchers tested 48 different plant compounds to see if any could stop the clumping of synuclein proteins into the little fibers that clog up the cell. And, indeed, they found a variety of flavonoids that can not only inhibit the spider web-like formation of synuclein fibers, but some could even break them up. It turns out flavonoids may actually bind to synuclein proteins and stabilize them.

In my video Berries vs. Pesticides in Parkinson’s Disease, you can see healthy nerve cells and the neurites, the arms they use to communicate to one another. After exposure to a pesticide, however, you can see how the cell is damaged and the arms are retracted. But, if you first incubate the nerve cells with a blueberry extract, the nerve cell appears better able to withstand the pesticide effects. So, this implies that flavonoids in our diet may be combating Parkinson’s disease as we speak, and healthy diets may be effective in preventing and even treating the disorder. However, these were all petri dish experiments in a laboratory. Is there any evidence that people eating berries are protected from Parkinson’s?

A study published quite a long time ago suggested the consumption of blueberries and strawberries was protective, but it was a tiny study and its results were not statistically significant. Nevertheless, that was the best we had…until now. In a more recent study, those eating a variety of phytonutrients were less likely to develop Parkinson’s disease. Specifically, higher intake of berries was associated with significantly lower risk. The accompanying editorial, “An Apple a Day to Prevent Parkinson Disease,” concluded that more research is necessary, but, until then, “an apple a day might be a good idea.” Of course, that’s coming from a man. Apples appeared protective against Parkinson’s for men, but not women. However, everyone appeared to benefit from the berries.

We may not want to have our berries with cream, though, as milk may be contaminated with the same kind of neurotoxic pesticide residues found in the brains of Parkinson’s disease victims.


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NUTRITIONFACTS.ORG is a strictly non-commercial, science-based public service provided by Dr. Michael Greger, providing free updates on the latest in nutrition research via bite-sized videos. There are more than a thousand videos on nearly every aspect of healthy eating, with new videos and articles uploaded every day. NutritionFacts.org was launched with seed money and support by the Jesse & Julie Rasch Foundation. Incorporated as a 501c3 nonprofit charity, NutritionFacts.org now relies on individual donors to keep the site alive.

Dr. Greger is a physician, New York Times bestselling author, and internationally recognized speaker on nutrition, food safety, and public health issues. A founding member and Fellow of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, Dr. Greger is licensed as a general practitioner specializing in clinical nutrition. Currently he proudly serves as the public health director at the Humane Society of the United States. Dr. Greger is a graduate of the Cornell University School of Agriculture and the Tufts University School of Medicine.

His latest book, How Not to Die, became an instant New York Times Best Seller. 100% of all proceeds he has ever received from his books, DVDs, and speaking engagements has always and will always be donated to charity. Dr. Greger receives no compensation for his work on NutritionFacts.org.

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