Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative disorder that causes symptoms such as tremors, rigidity, slowness of movement and balance problems. There is no known cure for the progressive disease, and drug treatments — often offered as a first-line treatment — do not slow the underlying neurodegeneration that characterizes the condition.1
Parkinson’s symptoms often go untreated or are poorly treated, leading to significant negative effects on patients’ quality of life. As such, a study by researchers at the University of Kent in the U.K., which found a noninvasive form of ear canal stimulation may improve Parkinson’s symptoms, is raising hopes for the stimulation as an effective treatment.2
Ear stimulation improves Parkinson’s symptoms
In 2016, a case study was published using caloric vestibular stimulation (CVS), a form of neuromodulation, in a 70-year-old man with Parkinson’s disease.3 He self-administered the treatment at home “via a portable, solid-state, device that discharged time-varying thermal waveforms via ear pieces housed in a headset.”4
After using the device twice a day for 20-minute sessions over a period of three months, the man had a 50% reduction in both motor and non-motor symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, and the relief persisted for at least five months after the treatment was stopped.
At the time, the researchers concluded, “Caloric vestibular stimulation may offer a novel, home-based method of relieving everyday symptoms of PD [Parkinson’s disease], and merits further evaluative study.”5 That further research — a double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized study — was recently published in the journal Parkinsonism & Related Disorders.6
It involved 33 people with Parkinson’s disease who received either CVS or a placebo treatment. Participants administered CVS at home twice daily for eight weeks. Those who received the active CVS treatment had greater reductions in motor and non-motor symptoms, including improved movement and mobility, than those in the placebo group.
The treatment also helped the participants carry out everyday activities and led to “improvements in decision-making, memory, mood and sleep.”7 The improvements in symptoms were still apparent five weeks after the end of active treatment, but they started to recede by 24 weeks’ follow-up.
“At six months’ follow-up, most of the gains had returned to baseline status although there was some evidence of residual effect,” the researchers noted. “These clinical improvements were obtained without significant safety concerns; no serious adverse events likely to be device-related were reported, and subjects described their experience with the device as largely positive.”8
In other words, the ear stimulation appears to be an effective and safe form of treatment that patients can use in their own homes to get symptom relief. As for why the device works, the researchers suggested it may help to synchronize neural activity.9
Parkinson’s is on the rise
According to the Parkinson’s Foundation Prevalence Project, by 2020 930,000 people may be living with Parkinson’s disease in the U.S., and this is expected to increase to 1.2 million by 2030.10
The U.S. National Institutes of Health reports that about 50,000 people are diagnosed with Parkinson’s in the U.S. each year, and “Because the rate of PD increases in older adults, the burden will increase unless prevention and treatment improve.”11
The cause of Parkinson’s disease is unknown, but exposure to external toxins like pesticides may increase the risk by 80% in some cases.12 Exposure to toxins such as solvents and metals may also be associated with Parkinson’s disease,13 while only a few percent of cases are believed to be associated with genetic causes.
When pesticide exposure is involved, resulting mitochondrial dysfunction or oxidative stress may be responsible for some of the damage. As noted in Environmental Health Perspectives, “In experimental models, the pesticides paraquat, which causes oxidative stress, and rotenone, which inhibits mitochondrial complex I, both induce loss of nigral dopaminergic neurons and behavioral changes associated with human PD.”14
Further, people with a mutation in the synuclein gene, which is associated with an increased risk of Parkinson’s, may be particularly susceptible to the damaging effects of pesticides.
Alpha-synuclein is a type of protein naturally found in the human body. When the proteins are misfolded, they may clump together and cause damage to nerve cells that lead to areas of dead brain matter called Lewy bodies.15 These areas of dead brain cells lead to Parkinson’s disease symptoms such as problems with movement and speech.16
According to research published in the journal Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology,17 dopamine-producing neurons that had the genetic risk factor for Parkinson’s introduced were affected by low doses of pesticides, which could mimic the effects of gene mutations known to cause Parkinson’s disease.18
“People with a predisposition for Parkinson’s disease are more affected by these low-level exposures to agrochemicals and therefore more likely to develop the disease,” study author Scott Ryan of University of Guelph said in a news release. “This is one of the reasons why some people living near agricultural areas are at a higher risk.”19
As such, avoiding exposure to pesticides by not using them in your home or garden and eating organic or biodynamically grown food as much as possible is an important tool for lowering your Parkinson’s risk.
Gut microbes linked to Parkinson’s
Research published in the journal Neuron20 may further challenge the notion that Parkinson’s has no known cause, as it suggests Parkinson’s disease may originate in cells in the gut and travel to the brain via the vagus nerve, the 10th cranial nerve that runs from your brain stem down to your abdomen.
Researchers injected misfolded alpha-synuclein into the guts of healthy mice, then tracked it to see where it ended up. One month later, it had turned up in the brainstem, while after three months it had traveled to the brain’s amygdala and midbrain. Within seven months, it had turned up in even more regions of the brain.21
Next, the researchers injected the misfolded proteins into the guts of mice that had a severed vagus nerve. After seven months, no signs of cell death were present in the mice brains, and it appeared that the proteins were not able to advance to the brain. The study also evaluated behavioral changes in the groups of mice, such as their ability to build nests.
After seven months, mice with intact vagus nerves that received the misfolded proteins in their gut built smaller, messier nests, a sign of problems with motor control. Mice that did not receive the injection, and mice that received the injection but had a severed vagus nerve, scored consistently higher on nest-building activities.22
Supporting a healthy gut is therefore one important factor in lowering your Parkinson’s risk. Parkinson’s link to gut microbes may also help explain why Levodopa, a drug that acts as a precursor to dopamine and is often given as a treatment to boost dopamine levels and alieve symptoms, doesn’t work for everybody.
Levodopa’s effectiveness may depend on the composition of the patient’s microbiota. In some people, gut microorganisms may metabolize the medication before it has a chance to cross the blood-brain barrier, rendering it ineffective.23
Mucuna pruriens, also known as velvet bean, kapikacchu and cowhage seed, is a vigorous climbing legume best known as a natural source of L-dopa, which has shown some promise for Parkinson’s treatment.24
Resistance training might reduce Parkinson’s symptoms
Other noninvasive, DIY tools may also improve quality of life in people with Parkinson’s, including exercise such as resistance training. This has been found to reduce depressive symptoms in elderly people with the condition, a noteworthy achievement since depression affects up to 40% of Parkinson’s patients.25 Improved quality of life was also reported after 20 weeks of resistance training.
Other unique forms of exercise, including simulated horseback riding, may also be helpful. Six weeks of simulated horseback riding improved cognitive impairment and balance in older adults with Parkinson’s disease in one study.26
It’s also an important part of prevention: One Swedish study,27 which included 43,368 people, concluded that more than six hours of moderate exercise weekly may reduce your risk of developing Parkinson’s disease by 43% compared to exercising for fewer than two hours per week.28
Dietary factors may influence Parkinson’s
As far as your diet is concerned, eating Solanaceae, or nightshade vegetables, especially peppers, may be protective against Parkinson’s.29 Following a ketogenic diet has also shown promise.30 According to Frontiers in Neurology:31
“There is growing evidence that ketone bodies, which are derived from fatty acid oxidation and usually produced in fasting state or on high-fat diets have broad neuroprotective effects.
Although the mechanisms underlying the neuroprotective effects of ketone bodies have not yet been fully elucidated, studies in recent years provided abundant shreds of evidence that ketone bodies exert neuroprotective effects through possible mechanisms of anti-oxidative stress, maintaining energy supply, modulating the activity of deacetylation and inflammatory responses.
Based on the neuroprotective effects, the ketogenic diet has been used in the treatment of several neurological diseases such as refractory epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and traumatic brain injury.”
A ketogenic diet is a dietary approach that focuses on minimal carbohydrates, moderate amounts of protein and high healthy fat consumption — the three keys to achieving nutritional ketosis. You can find out the details of how to follow this type of eating program in my beginner’s guide to keto.
With advances being made regularly into Parkinson’s prevention and treatment, including not only a ketogenic diet but also noninvasive CVS, it’s hopeful that people with this condition will be able to reduce their symptoms for a better quality of life and one day even have a cure.