Parkinson’s disease is one of a larger group of neurological conditions called motor system disorders. Historians have found evidence of the disease as far back as 5000 B.C. It was first described as “the shaking palsy” in 1817 by British doctor James Parkinson. Because of Parkinson’s early work in identifying symptoms, the disease came to bear his name.

In the normal brain, some nerve cells produce the chemical dopamine, which transmits signals within the brain to produce smooth movement of muscles. In Parkinson’s patients, 80 percent or more of these dopamine-producing cells are damaged, dead, or otherwise degenerated. This causes the nerve cells to fire wildly, leaving patients unable to control their movements. Symptoms usually show up in one or more of four ways:

  • tremor, or trembling in hands, arms, legs, jaw, and face
  • rigidity, or stiffness of limbs and trunk
  • bradykinesia, or slowness of movement
  • postural instability or impaired balance and coordination.

Though full-blown Parkinson’s can be crippling or disabling, experts say early symptoms of the disease may be so subtle and gradual that patients sometimes ignore them or attribute them to the effects of aging. At first, patients may feel overly tired, “down in the dumps,” or a little shaky. Their speech may become soft and they may become irritable for no reason. Movements may be stiff, unsteady, or unusually slow.

Parkinson’s Disease Risk Factors

Although a primary cause for Parkinson’s disease is yet to be identified, a number of risk factors are clearly evident.

Advancing age– Although there is the occasional case of the disease being developed as a young adult, it generally manifests itself in the middle to late years of life. The risk continues to increase the older one gets. Some researchers assume that people with Parkinson’s have neural damage from genetic or environmental factors that get worse as they age.

Sex- Males are more likely to get Parkinson’s than females. Possible reasons for this may be that males have greater exposure to other risk factors such as toxin exposure or head trauma. It has been theorised that oestrogen may have neuro-protective effects. Or, in the case of genetic predisposition, a gene predisposing someone to Parkinson’s may be linked to the X chromosome.

Family history– Having one or more close relatives with the disease increases the likelihood that you will get it, but to a minimal degree. This lends support to the idea that there is a genetic link in developing Parkinson’s.

Declining oestrogen levels– Post menopausal who do not use hormone replacement therapy are at greater risk, as are those who have had hysterectomies.

Agricultural work– Exposure to an environmental toxin such as a pesticide or herbicide puts you at greater risk. Some of these toxins inhibit dopamine production and promote free radical damage. Those involved in farming and are therefore exposed to such toxins have a greater prevalence of Parkinson’s symptoms.

Genetic factors– A Mayo Clinic led international study revealed that the gene alpha-synuclein may play a role in the likelihood of developing the disease. Studies showed that individuals with a more active gene had a 1.5 times greater risk of developing Parkinson’s. These findings support the development of alpha-synuclein suppressing therapies, which may in the long run slow or even halt the disease.

Low levels of B vitamin folate– Researchers discovered that mice with a deficiency of this vitamin developed severe Parkinson’s symptoms, while those with normal levels did not.

Head Trauma– Recent research points to a link between damage to the head, neck, or upper cervical spine and Parkinson’s. A 2007 study of 60 patients showed that all of them showed evidence of trauma induced upper cervical damage. Some patients remembered a specific incident, others did not. In some cases Parkinson’s symptoms took decades to appear.

Parkinson’s Disease is a rare and curious phenomenon, affecting approximately 1 in 300 people. Risk factors mentioned above influence its likelihood to only the tiniest of degrees. Most individuals will have one or more of the risk factors above and never experience any of the symptoms. The one risk factor we all possess is aging, which is a condition that is currently incurable! However, more and more is becoming understood as to how and why these various risk factors influence likelihood of Parkinson’s. As knowledge grows, so does the possibility of a cure.

Natural alternatives

The side-effects of pharmaceutical drugs can be bypassed with natural remedies and lifestyle adjustments. Through the use of herbs, nutritional therapy and exercise, the symptoms of Parkinson’s are soothed.

Mucuna pruriens – Used in Ayurvedic medicine for centuries as a natural source of dopamine, it has fewer side-effects than synthetic versions while results are seen more quickly and longer lasting. Boosts mental alertness, subdues depression and increases libido.

Vitamin E – Helps protect against Parkinson’s disease. Good sources include leafy greens, nuts, seeds and wheat germ.

Selenium – A potent antioxidant that increases glutathione levels in the brain — a crucial antioxidant that protects the substantia nigra from deterioration. Brazil nuts are an excellent source.

CoQ10 – Individuals with Parkinson’s usually have low levels of this nutrient. Protects neurons from toxins and encourages energy production in cells. Works synergistically with Vitamin E. Dietary sources include fish, organ meats and whole grains.

Fish oils, Gingko biloba and curcumin are also useful in alleviating symptoms.

Physical activity is vital for those diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Tai chi, yoga, walking and even tango lessons help improve balance and motor coordination. Music therapy, massage and acupuncture also have a positive effect. In The New York Times article “Marching Through Life With Parkinson’s” patients get creative with movement. David Wolf of Buffalo practices fencing, declaring: “There’s nothing like running someone through with a sword to make your day.” Dr. Jaffe “dances the tango and whacks a heavy punching bag to reduce her symptoms and enhance function.” Jaffe observes, “The punching bag helps my arms and relieves my frustrations. It feels so good to hit the thing.”

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