Despite the plethora of research on Parkinson’s disease, progress toward finding a cure has been painfully slow. In its classic form, Parkinson’s is easily recognizable: Once you’ve seen it, you’ll never mistake its characteristic symptoms-a blank stare, a nearly constant tremor, rigidity of the extremities, and an affected gait with a leaning forward of the trunk. In many cases, however, the patient is much more mentally alert than he looks, making the disease that much more tragic, since the patient must live in constant awareness of symptoms that he has no control over.
Treatment often involves brain surgery. But a study published in the Journal of Neurochemistry contains breakthrough information that may eliminate the need for such barbaric surgery on Parkinson’s patients. Researchers have found a link between Parkinson’s disease and high levels of homocysteine, something that can be easily corrected by supplementing with a simple nutrient.
The dark history of Parkinson’s treatments
Parkinson’s disease is quite common in varying degrees in many people over 75. One survey indicates that 15 percent of people between 65 and 74 years old and more than half of everyone over 85 have abnormalities consistent with the presence of some level of Parkinson’s. But it’s not unusual for it to start in middle age (or earlier)-think of Janet Reno and Michael J. Fox-and for the disability to progress over time.
We know a considerable amount about what happens to a person’s brain after he has Parkinson’s, most notably a loss of brain cells. The big problem is that no one knows why those brain cells die to begin with-or how to keep them alive. As with most neurological diseases, finding an effective treatment lags far behind our anatomical and biochemical knowledge.
Theories on the cause have implicated environmental toxins and iron. I, for one, have always suspected that immunizations play a role in Parkinson’s and other degenerative diseases-including multiple sclerosis and ALS. Unfortunately, since there’s no conclusive research to back these ideas up, treating patients has remained a challenge.
There are drugs that effectively improve the symptomsfor a while. But they have a tendency to wear off quickly and have potential side effects that can worsen the condition. Levodopa has become the drug of choice in most Parkinson’s cases, but as with all drug treatments, it only works for a short period of time.
Surprisingly, some forms of surgery, which can only be described as ghoulish, are dramatically successful, but with a price.
“Destructive neurosurgical procedures,” as they have been called, were used decades ago. Believe it or not, doctors actually used a treatment that involved digging out part of the person’s brain. (Lobotomy, anyone?) Ninety percent of the patients reported a positive response to the surgery, but in exchange for what?
Complications included destruction of brain tissue from a blood clot that hemorrhages in the brain (cerebral infarction), an inability to speak (dysarthria), an inability to talk (hypophonia), an inability to think, and a partial inability to see.
That price is a bit high, so brain stimulation surgery is replacing the procedure. For this procedure, the surgeon uses an implanted electrode and a stimulator to shock selected areas of the patient’s brain. This treatment, called thalamic stimulation, has proven very effective in relieving tremors. It also increases periods of consciousness in advanced Parkinson’s disease. Brain stimulation surgery has a lower complication rate than destructive surgery, but it still seems barbaric.
Others are turning to transplanting fetal cells into the brains of patients with Parkinson’s disease. There is strong evidence that the fetal cells are “taking.” In other words, they’re surviving in their new brains. Problem is, no one really knows the benefits of such procedures at this point. And of course, there’s the ethical arguments to consider. A lot of people are dead-set against it, but, in our secular society, I predict the research will continue-one way or another.
All of these treatments occur “after the fact,” so to speak-once the patient is already suffering from the maddening symptoms of Parkinson’s. Obviously, prevention is always 100 times better than an attempted cure (especially one that involves cutting your skull open and fiddling with your brain), but until recently no one knew of anything that could work that sort of miracle.
How to reduce your risk of Parkinson’s by 71 percent
Ever since a bunch of angry, overtaxed citizens dumped crates of the stuff into Boston Harbor a couple centuries back, tea has been a distant second to coffee in America. But new research just might help tea- specifically black tea-gain some ground on coffee. According to a study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, drinking three quarters of a cup of black tea 23 times a month may decrease the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease by-hang on to your tea cozies-71 percent.
This stunning finding comes from Singapore, where researchers studied over 60,000 Chinese men and women. As you probably know, it’s green tea that’s currently lauded as the hero beverage of choice because of its high antioxidant content. In fact, other studies have even reported that green tea helps to battle Parkinson’s. But this new study actually found no Parkinson’s-fighting benefits to green tea.
The difference between green tea and black tea is time. Very simply, black tea is older-it’s just green tea that’s been fermented. The study found nothing to link the higher caffeine content of black tea to these benefits. In fact, the researchers aren’t exactly sure why black tea has these anti-Parkinson’s properties.
“The key difference between black and green tea lies in the types and amounts of flavonoids,” says Dr. Ann Walker of England’s Tea Advisory Panel, noting that black tea has more complex varieties of flavonoids, called “thearubigins and theaflavins.”
While no one knows exactly why black tea is so beneficial, it seems apparent that the benefits are indeed real. As for me, I’m not shocked by this latest revelation. I’ve told you before about the health boost you can get from all kinds of tea. Flavonoids are good for your heart, and the caffeine and antioxidants can ward off cancer.
What’s more, these dramatic benefits can actually be measured by blood tests after only three weeks of a black-tea-drinking regimen.
Even if this study is only half right, we’re STILL talking about a 35 percent decrease in your risk of getting Parkinson’s-and that’s nothing to sneeze at.
But drinking tea isn’t the only way to fight Parkinson’s
Fight Parkinson’s with folic acid
Researchers at the National Institute on Aging have found evidence that a lack of folic acid in the body may contribute to the development of Parkinson’s disease.
In the study, the researchers injected two groups of mice with a substance called MPTP (something that induces a Parkinson’s-like disease in animals). Then they included folic acid in the diet of one group of mice and compared those mice with ones that weren’t given folic acid. They found that the mice fed folic acid only developed mild illness, whereas those who didn’t receive the vitamin suffered severe symptoms.
Folic acid is essential in the conversion of homocysteine to cystathionine, a harmless substance that occurs naturally in the body and can be excreted in the urine.
A lack of adequate folic acid will cause a chain reaction in your brain. First, low levels allow homocysteine to build up in your brain. (One of the ways homocysteine is formed is from digesting “well-done” meat.) Too much homocysteine can damage brain cells in the substantia nigra, the area of the brain that produces dopamine. Dopamine levels are consistently low in patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease.
But there are steps you can take to keep those homocysteine levels under control.
Here’s what to do:
1. Eat plenty of green leafy vegetables, citrus fruits, whole wheat bread, poultry, and egg yolks. These foods contain significant amounts of folic acid.
2. If you prefer to take folic acid supplements, you can buy them in most health food stores and pharmacies. Take 5,000 micrograms per day. (I should mention that you’ll need a lot of pills since the FDA doesn’t let manufacturers put more than 800 mcg in one pill.)
3. Since vitamin B12 and vitamin B6 are also important in the metabolism of homocysteine, be sure to take these nutrients along with folic acid. If there is a history of Parkinson’s in your family, take extra doses: I suggest 500 milligrams of B6 daily and an injection of 1,000 micrograms of B12 at least once a month. You can purchase B vitamin supplements in capsule form in any health food store or pharmacy. For injections, however, you should consult a physician trained in nutritional medicine. For a referral to one in your area, contact the American College for Advancement in Medicine at (800)532-3688 or visit them on-line at www.acam.org.