Posted on April 22 2018
This chapter in Dr. Michael Greger’s book, How Not To Die, is different in that it explicitly incorporates environmental sources of disease in addition to food sources. As it turns out, Parkinson’s disease is directly linked to environmental toxins and industrial pollutants. But one of the most alarming aspects of the chapter is the discussion of how these environmental contaminants come to contaminate our food as well, and how they conspire to raise our risk of Parkinson’s disease.
Parkinson’s disease is the second most common neurodegenerative disease after Alzheimer’s. About 25,000 Americans die from Parkinson’s every year. It is a disorder that affects one’s speed, quality and ease of movement (because of tremors, stiffness, impaired balance, and difficulty walking) and is currently not curable. As the disease progresses, the affected individual loses the ability to take care of him or herself, leading to one complication after another, and eventually death. It can take a long time, and therefore cause a lot of long-term damage to the individual and his or her family.
Parkinson’s is caused by the death of specialized nerve cells in a region of the brain that controls movement (the substantia nigra) and most often becomes apparent after the age of 50. Head trauma increases the risk of the disease, as does exposure to carcinogens and other toxins in food, water and the air we breathe. The sober reality is that we already have these pollutants in our bodies. Most frightening of all, researchers determined that 95% of more than 300 babies that had just been born had detectable levels of DDT residues in their blood. A University of California-Davis analysis of two to seven-year old California kids found that chemicals and heavy metals in their bodies exceeded safety levels by a larger margin than adults (because kids are growing, their intake of food and fluids relative to their weight is greater than for adults). Benchmark safety levels were surpassed for arsenic, the banned pesticide dieldrin, and industrial by-products called dioxins.
So, how do we ingest these pollutants? From the food we eat and the air we breathe. For example, the number one food source for arsenic among preschoolers was found to be poultry. These findings were made before Consumer Reports sounded the alarm about the amount of arsenic found in rice, which is a popular base component of many baby foods. The top source of arsenic for adults was found to be tuna. The top source for lead? Dairy foods. For mercury? Seafood.
Our agribusiness food sector uses some of these chemicals to protect crops and livestock from other pests and disease. But the chemicals themselves become a danger to humans at the top of the food chain. Consider that a dairy cow may eat 75,000 pounds worth of plants as it matures. Any fat-soluble pesticides and chemicals in the plants can get stored in her fat and build up in her body. Then those pollutants get transferred to humans through the milk that they drink and the meat that they eat (just like a pregnant or nursing mother can transmit these pollutants to her fetus or new born infant). And, of course, the livestock industry’s persistent practice of feeding slaughterhouse by-products to farm animals means that whatever chemicals were in the slaughtered animals get fed to the live animals, magnifying the build-up of chemicals in the meat that we eat.
So, what are the research data on the causes of Parkinson’s? Autopsy studies have found elevated levels of pesticides in the brain tissue of those with Parkinson’s. And, the higher the levels of chemicals like PCB in the brain, the higher the damage in the substantia nigra, the brain area thought to be responsible for the disease. Even though these PCBs were banned decades ago, they persist in the environment and continue to get into our food supply, particularly dairy products. A meta-analysis of studies involving more than 300,000 participants found that overall dairy consumption was associated with significantly increased risk of Parkinson’s disease. They estimated that Parkinson’s risk may increase by 17% for every daily glass of milk consumed.
Vegans are significantly less likely to have organochlorines and heavy metals (like mercury) in their blood streams. Organochlorines are a group of chemicals that includes dioxins, PCBs and insecticides like DDT. The levels of mercury in the hair of those eating plant-based diets were found to be ten times lower than those who ate fish. And, within three months of switching to a plant-based diet, the levels of mercury, lead, and cadmium drops significantly (and they build up again when meat and eggs are added back into the diet).
Aside from reducing the consumption of meat, eggs and dairy products, is there anything proactive that can be done to reduce the risk of Parkinson’s? It appears that berries are particularly helpful in the fight against Parkinson’s. Researchers found that preincubating nerve cells with a blueberry extract allowed them to better withstand the debilitating effects of a common pesticide. A Harvard University study of 130,000 people found that people who eat more berries do appear to have a significantly lower risk of developing the disease.
And, it turns out that our old friend coffee may be helpful. In nineteen different studies performed on the role coffee may play in Parkinson’s, coffee consumption was associated with about a one-third lower risk, likely due to the caffeine, so tea is also protective (but decaf coffee does not help), And, people with Parkinson’s were found to enjoy significantly improved movement symptoms within three weeks of beginning to consume two cups of coffee a day.
Finally, in the most surprising finding of all, five dozen studies over the past half century have collectively shown that smoking tobacco is associated with a significantly lower incidence of Parkinson’s disease. While the risk of other diseases from smoking may override the benefit of smoking in lowering the risk of Parkinson’s, is there a way to take advantage of this benefit without enduring the risk of smoking? Maybe. It appears that the neuroprotective agent in tobacco is nicotine. Perhaps vaping can administer the protective powers of nicotine while lowering the risk of smoking (this has not yet been tested). Or, eating foods high in nicotine may help. Bell peppers are relatively high in nicotine, and in a study of 500 newly diagnosed Parkinson’s patients compared to a control group, it was found that eating bell peppers was associated with a significantly lower risk of Parkinson’s.
So, if you are concerned about Parkinson’s, then reduce your consumption of meat, eggs, and dairy products and increase your consumption of plant-based foods, especially berries, coffee and bell peppers. But the larger issue raised in this chapter by Dr. Greger is the fact that our environment is brimming with all kinds of chemicals and pollutants which enter our food supply in a variety of ways. The organic food movement is one response to this situation. But growing your own food may be another. If you would like to grow food that minimizes these pollutants (that are in the earth, air and water all around us), then consider purchasing a Tower Garden to grow your own produce. With a compact Tower Garden situated inside your home, your produce grows with only air and water, no soil. You can control the quality of the air and water used to nourish your plants. It is the purist way to grow produce ever created. Drop into Objects of Desire Artful Living and inspect my indoor Tower Garden. I think you will be impressed.