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Adopting lifestyle changes can slow the progression of Parkinson's disease and improve your quality of life. What do you need to know?

If you have Parkinson’s disease, you may struggle to carry out daily responsibilities that used to be no problem at all — but with some lifestyle changes, you may be able to ease your symptoms. This means you’ll have to change your approach to even the most straightforward tasks. Of course, the symptoms and challenges Parkinson’s disease brings do vary greatly from patient to patient, but Parkinson’s patients do face problems similar enough that some lifestyle changes are nearly universally helpful. 

Adopting or continuing an active and healthy lifestyle right after your Parkinson’s disease diagnosis can even mean you'll be able to hold off on pharmacological treatments for the disease — which come with potential adverse effects — for a while. What do you need to know?

Parkinson's disease and sleep

We surely don't need to point out that everyone benefits from sufficient amounts of restful sleep, but in Parkinson's disease patients, restorative sleep plays an essential role in increasing dopamine levels. You'll ideally get somewhere between seven and nine hours of sleep every night, but in addition, a short nap or two can help you boost your energy levels.

Contact your physician if you've noticed strange symptoms relating to sleep, including:

  • Rapid eye movement (REM) behavior disorder, a disorder in which people act out their dreams — things like hitting your partner when you think you're fighting off monsters or saving the world (in your dreams) indicate that you (and anyone who sleeps next to you) may have fallen victim to this.
  • Restless legs syndrome, in which you feel the uncontrollable urge to move your legs, especially at night.
  • Problems moving in your bed at bedtime, or a tremors that are interrupting your sleep.
Create a bedtime schedule that works for you, and make sure to stick with it. This routine could include waking up and going to bed at a similar time each day, as well as making sure to get a lot of natural light during the day while keeping your bedroom dark when you go to bed. Stay off your electronics before going to bed and in bed, don’t exercise or have any caffeine in the four hours before you go to bed, and cool your bed down before bedtime if possible. Lastly, get a cozy pillow and mattress that will help fight your stiffness, if you can. 

Working out frequently

A work out program can help you in many ways — exercising regularly can boost your strength, improve your flexibility, reduce your feelings of stiffness, improve your stamina, help you be more coordinated, and even slow down the rate at which your Parkinson's progresses.

We're not suggesting you become a body builder, but neither do Parkinson’s disease patients need to limit themselves to particular forms of exercise. This means you should feel absolutely free to choose a form of exercise you actually enjoy, a positive side effect of which is that you'll probably work out more often. If you're stumped so far, try Tai Chi — a kind of martial art that benefits health. Patients with Parkinson’s disease who practice Tai Chi report an improvement in balance, meaning this may be for you if you don't already have a preferred way to workout. Your physician can also refer you to a physical therapist who can work with you. 

Balancing issues

If you have Parkinson’s disease, you probably know that balancing is an issue and Parkinson's makes you more prone to falls. Your doctor will have a wealth of information on helping you prevent falls and improve your balance, but a walking stick or walker can also really help you out. 

When exercising and walking, don’t overestimate your abilities and remember that you can no longer do everything the way you used to. Tips include not moving too fast, setting your heel down first while you are walking, walking forward (not backward), and not carrying things while you’re walking. Also shift your direction by walking around rather than swinging your body, and walk with a straight posture as well as glancing in front of yourself rather than down.

Therapists and specialists

Your primary treating physician is probably the person you'll rely on most in determining your medical care, but you'll nearly always benefit from other specialists and therapists as well. 

Consider, depending on your symptoms:

Eating healthy and nutritious food

Parkinson's patients can really benefit from working with a dietitian to create a healthy and balanced diet that works for them. A healthy diet — which includes plenty of hydration — will influence your life by:

  • Boosting your energy
  • Lessening your symptoms
  • Helping you prevent or reduce the constipation and other gastrointestinal problems that are so common in Parkinson's patients
  • Increasing the efficacy of medications you are taking
In the more advanced stages of Parkinson’s disease, adjustments to your diet could be necessary due to swallowing problems. More liquid foods (such as soups and oatmeal) and chopped or soft foods will be easier to eat. Weight loss and malnutrition can aggravate Parkinson’s disease symptoms, so it is important to monitor your calories and the quality of the nurtients you are getting. Parkinson’s disease frequently contributes to dehydration, bone density loss, constipation and weight loss. This is why it’s important maintain a balanced diet that takes your needs into account. 

Some tips include:

  • Staying away from alcohol.
  • Avoiding saturated fats.
  • Committing to a low-sodium diet.
  • Saying no to refined sugar.
  • Making sure to help yourself to plenty of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, as well as eating foods rich in vitamin K, vitamin D, magnesium and calcium to strengthen your bones.
  • Drinking enough water is essential, and though your exact needs are individual, this generally means at least eight glasses a day.

Safety-oriented modifications to your house

It’s a good idea to install safety modifications to make your life easier and help prevent injury, especially as your Parkinson's progresses. You can ask your occupational and physical therapists what safety equipment to install, but raised toilet seats, tub rails, and handles in your hallways can all be helpful. 

Support groups: Connect with other patients

Your family and friends can help you with your practical needs relating to your Parkinson’s, but they won't understand what you are going through unless they are affected by the same condition. Many patients find it very useful to have some kind of contact with others who have Parkinson's, whether this comes in the form of  an in-person or online support group. Not only can these groups be great for emotional support, other patients can also share what lifestyle adjustments have worked for them — potentially something that can really help you. You can ask your social worker, physician, or nurse for recommendations on online or local support groups to join.

Fighting stress

Your symptoms will, understably, induce stress as you worry about the future and find you are no longer able to do the things you could before — but if your stress levels are through the roof, your symptoms may well get worse. Depression is so common among Parkinson's patients that it's almost a symptom of the disease itself, and one that can really rob you of your quality of life. Though support groups can help here, too, do let your doctor know if you've been depressed for a while. The good news is that depression can be treated. Talk therapy and antidepressants are both options. 

  • Hedera, P., & Davis, T. L. (2017). Can lifestyle modification slow progression of Parkinson disease? Neurology, 89(17), 1760–1761.
  • Photo courtesy of SteadyHealth.com

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