A low-carbohydrate, ketogenic diet (LCKD) significantly improved motor symptoms in patients with Parkinson’s disease, according to a small pilot study.
The 12 participants with mild Parkinson’s disease all reported improvements in symptoms like stiffness, tremor, and walking ability after following the diet for an average of three months. This is comparable to those taking the medication levodopa, which helps relieve these symptoms but has side effects including nausea and hallucination.
The ketogenic diet has been used for nearly a century as a treatment for children with epilepsy. It involves eliminating carbohydrates from the diet and replacing them with protein and fat so that the body goes into a metabolic state called ketosis.
Ketosis causes the body to rely on burning its own fat rather than carbohydrates from food sources like sugar or starch. This process can lead to weight loss — which may help reduce some of the symptoms associated with Parkinson’s disease — as well as reduced blood sugar levels and other health benefits.
The new study included 12 people (average age 60) who had been diagnosed with early-stage Parkinson’s disease at least two years earlier. All participants followed the ketogenic diet for an average of 3 months, during which time their mobility was tested using a standard tool called the Unified Parkinson’s Disease Rating Scale.
Ten out of 12 participants reported improvements in mobility after following the diet compared to before they started it. Three even saw significant improvement — one participant´s mobility score improved by 44 percent, while another´s improved by 40 percent after three months on the diet.
Those taking levodopa also reported similar levels of improvement, according to researchers led by Angela Poff, Ph.D., RDN, an assistant professor at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina.
However, because this was a small pilot study that included only people whose medications were being managed well enough that they were able to eat regularly without having serious side effects, more research is needed “to determine whether this is generally true of people with PD not on dopaminergic drugs or restricted diets or if there is something unique about individuals who are able to maintain normal caloric intake while in ketosis” Poff said. In addition, she said more research is needed “to determine whether there are differences between individuals who are able to maintain regular caloric intake while remaining in ketosis and those who require carbohydrate supplementation due to poor tolerance when attempting complete restriction of carbohydrates.”
If future research confirms that reducing carb intake can improve mobility among people with early-stage Parkinson’s disease, “then this could represent another potential tool for managing symptoms short-term until therapeutic advances are made” Poff said.
The results were presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Washington D.C.
Keto and Parkinsons
Parkinson’s disease is caused by the degeneration of dopaminergic neural pathways. These pathways regulate movement and reward-seeking behavior.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a crucial role in movement control and the reward system. Some studies indicate that people with Parkinson’s are lacking dopamine in their brains, while other studies show that they have too much dopamine in areas of their brains where they shouldn’t have any at all.
This inconsistent data could be explained by the fact that Parkinson’s is a complex disease, with multiple causes, including environmental toxins and genetic predisposition.
Further research is needed to confirm whether people with Parkinson’s are deficient or not in dopamine. But one thing seems to be clear: there is an alteration of dopaminergic transmission in the brain, which causes symptoms such as tremors, rigidity, and bradykinesia (slowness of movement).
However, there can be more than one cause for these symptoms. Other neurotransmitters may also play a part in the development of Parkinson’s. For example, norepinephrine has been linked to the development of this disease. This neurotransmitter regulates arousal and alertness. Norepinephrine deficiency has been linked to depression and ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder).
We know that ketogenic diets improve ADHD symptoms. So it makes sense to assume that ketogenic diets can help with Parkinson’s symptoms too. In fact, some studies confirm this hypothesis.
Using Ketogenic Diets for Parkinson’s Disease Symptoms: What Studies Say?
First, let’s see what studies say about ketogenic diets and ADHD. One study concluded that a ketogenic diet “can significantly improve core symptoms of ADHD”. The study was carried out on children, but we can assume the same effect would be seen in adults too.
Another study showed that a ketogenic diet improved symptoms of Tourette syndrome, which is also linked to dopamine dysfunction. However, the researchers didn’t measure whether there were changes in dopamine levels.
Now let’s focus on Parkinson’s disease. Some studies have shown that high-fat diets can help with this disease. For example, one study showed that rats fed a high-fat diet didn’t develop Parkinson’s symptoms when exposed to a toxin known to cause these symptoms. This is promising because it suggests that ketogenic diets may help prevent Parkinson’s. But how about treating the symptoms once you already have this disease? Studies suggest that there are beneficial effects as well:
A study conducted on people with Parkinson’s disease showed improvements in several major motor skills after following a ketogenic diet for 4 weeks. More specifically, patients experienced improvements in walking speed and “gait freezing episodes.” Interestingly, these improvements were still observed 8 weeks after ending the intervention.
Another interesting finding was an increase in HDL cholesterol levels during the intervention period and an increase in LDL cholesterol levels 8 weeks after stopping the intervention. Many people think LDL cholesterol is bad because it increases the risk of cardiovascular diseases but this isn’t necessarily true: some studies show that increased LDL cholesterol doesn’t lead to increased risk of cardiovascular diseases at all.
In fact, sometimes increased LDL cholesterol is associated with better heart health outcomes. What we know for sure though is that HDL cholesterol protects your heart from cardiovascular diseases, so having high HDL levels is always good news!
A different study confirmed previous findings: patients who followed a low carbohydrate diet had improved motor skills and reduced rigidity. However, note that these results came from just one case report so they need to be replicated by other research groups before they can be considered valid and reliable evidence. Also, note that the patient lost weight during his intervention period which could have influenced his results as well – more on this below!
A randomized controlled trial found no significant difference between following either a low-carb or Mediterranean diet for 6 months on motor scores.
Motor scores are usually used as outcome measures when researching Parkinson’s disease interventions so this result should be taken seriously – both diets seem to have similar benefits! However, remember point #1 above—these results are based on just one case report so we cannot draw any conclusions based only on this single person’s experience!
Another randomized controlled trial found no significant difference between following either a very low carbohydrate or conventional diet for 6 months. Another randomized controlled trial found no significant difference between following either a very low carbohydrate or Mediterranean diet for 12 months.
While some researchers show promise in using keto-type diets to treat neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s, independent replication studies are needed before any definite conclusions can be drawn. Limiting your carb intake may be one more thing you can try if you have mild early-stage Parkinson’s disease.
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