Leaders of the Vegan Movement Develop Parkinson's: Case Studies

Herbert Shelton (1895 - 1985), a naturopath and chiropractor and the influential founder of the American Natural Hygiene Society and Nature Cure movement in America and prolific health writer advocated a natural food vegetarian diet of mostly raw fruits, vegetables and nuts. I read all of his highly motivating books, newsletters and writings in my teens. He lived in Texas, was physically fit, grew lots of his own food and ate carefully and fasted periodically. Of course he did not get cancer, he did not get heart disease, but he died of Parkinson's disease and was so severely affected by the age of 78 that even walking was difficult. In 1973 when I met him he was already severely hunched over and had a difficult time walking and caring for himself. Though he lived many years with this significant disability, the quality of his later years was extremely poor.

Prominent Vegetarian and Health Advocate, this leader in the natural health movement and a personal friend to me also suffered from and eventually died from a fall related to his Parkinson's disease. During his young adult life he embarked on the path of healthy living and vegetarianism. A follower of Shelton's works, he operated a large health food store, one of the first to sell organic fruits and vegetables in America; he became a leader in the health food industry. Of course he was not at risk of cancer or heart disease with his excellent diet, but he developed Parkinson's which limited the quality of his later years.

When he was developing his Parkinsonian tremors, I ordered blood tests and was shocked to see his blood results showing almost a zero DHA level on his fatty acid test, in spite of adequate ALA consumption from nuts and seeds eaten daily. I had never seen a DHA level that low before. Since that time I have drawn DHA blood levels on other patients with Parkinson's and also found very low DHA levels.

Was it a coincidence, that these leaders in the natural food, vegetarian movement, who ate a very healthy vegan diet and no junk food would both develop Parkinson's? I thought to myself--could it be that deficiencies in DHA predispose one to Parkinson's? Do men have worse ability to convert short chain omega-3 into long chain DHA? Is that why Parkinson's affects more men than women? Is there evidence to suggest that DHA deficiencies lead to later life neurologic problems? Are there primate studies to show DHA deficiencies in monkeys leads to Parkinson's? The answer to all of these questions is a resounding, yes.

More than 1 million Americans suffer from Parkinson's Disease (PD), a neurodegenerative disease that is clinically characterized by resting tremor, muscular rigidity, gait problems and impaired ability to initiate movements. Recent scientific findings show diets rich in omega-3 fatty acids, in particular DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), have a protective effect on this type of neurodegenerative disease. Studies in animals clearly show that supplementation of DHA can alter brain DHA concentrations and thereby modify brain functions leading to reduced risk of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.1

A recent study examined mice which were exposed to two diets; one group was fed a diet with DHA and other omega-3 fatty acids; while the other group was given ordinary food, lacking DHA. After a period of time they were given a dose of a chemical that causes the same damage to the brain as Parkinson's disease. The mice on the DHA diet seemed to be immune to the effects of the chemical, whereas the mice that ate ordinary food developed symptoms of the disease.

According to the researchers, among the mice that had been given omega-3 supplementation - in particular DHA - omega-3 fatty acids replaced the omega-6 fatty acids in their brains. Due to the fact that concentrations of other omega-3s (LNA and EPA) had maintained levels in both groups of mice, the researchers suggested that the protective effect against Parkinson's indeed came from DHA.2

Another conclusion drawn from this finding is that a brain containing a lot of omega-6 fatty acids may create a fertile ground for developing Parkinson's disease. These fatty acids, are abundant in foods rich in either vegetable oil or animal fat, which we already know contribute negatively to our health.

Another study observed the effect of DHA on monkeys treated with MPTP, a drug that induces Parkinson's like symptoms, and the results suggested that DHA can reduce the severity of, or delay the development of these drug-induced symptoms and therefore can offer therapeutic benefits in the treatment of Parkinson's. 3

Overall, this research provides evidence that DHA deficiencies can leave us vulnerable to developing diseases like Parkinson's and Alheizmer's. If you are a nutritarian, flexitarain, vegan, or vegetarian and you are not taking DHA or confirming your levels are adequate with blood work you are being negligent, and potentially increasing your risk of such a disease in later life. All the good efforts on proper nutrition can be undone with one deficiency such as Vitamin D, B12, or DHA. I see this every week in my practice.

History repeats itself: Some authors, doctors and leaders of the vegan movement today are heavily biased towards the idea of not needing these supplements. They simply give inadequate nutritional advice and in spite of all the science they still pooh-pooh taking long-chain omega-3 DHA. They are risking the quality of their own lives and that of their followers.

Likewise, I have seen so many vegan-promoting doctors and authors negate the need for taking B12, as well as dismiss the need to take vitamin D, stating minimal sunshine is enough. They also deny the need for omega-3 supplementation. There is so much scientific literature available today pointing to the contrary, however, this irresponsible information keeps radiating from the podium of lecture halls.

It reminds me of all the statements in the past, that the need for B12 was exaggerated and that the small amount of bacteria on organic produce or in seaweed was sufficient.

TC Fry (1926 - 1996), another long-term Natural Hygienist, raw foodest, vegetarian-fruitarian, advocated you did not need supplements as food contained all that we need. He died of an atherosclerotic-related embolism at the age of 70. I saw his hospital record at his death and reviewed his blood work drawn immediately prior to his death. It was quite revealing. He had severe B12, deficiency, so long-standing that his B12 levels were almost undetectable and the lowest I have ever seen. It is kind of interesting reading internet interpretations of why he died, such as "did not practice what he preached," "cheated on his diet," "too much sex," "ozone treatments for his vascular disease". He died prematurely simply because long-standing B12 deficiency leads to extremely high homocysteine levels, which can cause intra-vascular inflammation and cardiovascular disease.

I have seen this over and over again in vegans not supplementing with B12. I even had a patient with extremely severe hyper-homocysteinemia and vascular disease who flew in to see me from Scandinavia. When I diagnosed the problem and discussed how to solve it, she still refused to take the B12 supplements, stating that Dr. Shelton and Dr. Vetrano said that nature provided us with all that we need in natural plant foods. She flew home angry that I disagreed. She died soon after.

Don't be fooled into thinking that by merely eating right you are doing all you can do to protect your health. People must be made aware that by neglecting to take the supplements that are essential to assuring nutritional excellence, they are putting themselves in harm's way. Specifically, not taking DHA, B12 and vitamin D can be potentially dangerous and even life threatening.

Dr. Fuhrman's DHA Purity is a pure, fresh, all vegan, concentrated liquid. This DHA is derived from algae grown under sanitary laboratory conditions.

1. Calon F ; Cole G Neuroprotective action of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids against neurodegenerative diseases: evidence from animal studies. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2007; 77(5-6):287-93

2. M. Bousquet, M. Saint-Pierre, C. Julien , N. Salem, Jr., F. Cicchetti and F. Calon Beneficial effects of dietary omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid on toxin-induced neuronal degeneration in an animal model of Parkinson's disease. The FASEB Journal. 2008;22:1213-1225.

3. Samadi P ; Grégoire L ; Rouillard C ; Bédard PJ ; Di Paolo T ; Lévesque D Docosahexaenoic acid reduces levodopa-induced dyskinesias in 1-methyl-4-phenyl-1,2,3,6-tetrahydropyridine monkeys. Ann Neurol. 2006; 59(2):282-8

Image credit: merwinglittle dear

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Comments (12) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Steve - April 15, 2009 10:28 AM

Thanks for this important post DrF.

My understanding is that the "China Study" suggests that health improves with removing animal foods from the diet, down to about a serving or so per week.

Is this contradictory, or is the best prescription still a very small amount of animal foods within an overwhelmingly plant centric diet

Regards, Steve

Dan - April 15, 2009 11:20 AM

Thanks for sharing this information. I have been supplementing with DHA, but I'm not convinced that a lack of it is a cause for increased rates of Parkinson's in vegans.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11516224

"Does a vegan diet reduce risk for Parkinson's disease?
McCarty MF.

Three recent case-control studies conclude that diets high in animal fat or cholesterol are associated with a substantial increase in risk for Parkinson's disease (PD); in contrast, fat of plant origin does not appear to increase risk. Whereas reported age-adjusted prevalence rates of PD tend to be relatively uniform throughout Europe and the Americas, sub-Saharan black Africans, rural Chinese, and Japanese, groups whose diets tend to be vegan or quasi-vegan, appear to enjoy SUBSTANTIALLY LOWER RATES.

Sam - April 15, 2009 3:40 PM

Thank you for the article Dr Fuhrman. A few questions:

1. What test(s) are required to determine adequate levels of DHA (such as MMA for B12)?
2. If DHA levels are determined to be low even after consuming freshly-grounded flaxseeds, walnuts, and large quantities of dark greens (i.e. kale) on a daily basis, why/how is your DHA supplement any different/better for someone than these natural sources? I'm not against your supplement. I'm mostly curious as to what the actual problem is here if someone isn't absorbing/converting adequately from their normal dietary intake (ex:lack of conutrient intake?).

Steve - April 15, 2009 6:28 PM

Sam, I believe the problem is that natural plant sources of w3 fats don't have much of the longer chain fats (such as DHA). Therefore the body has to convert the basic w3 fat provided by these foods (alpha linolenic) to EPA and DHA. This conversion is relatively inefficient (and in some people next to non-existent).

Cheers, Steve

ferry - April 15, 2009 9:41 PM

how about spirulina? is that a good supplement?

Carrie - April 15, 2009 11:30 PM

Wow, I'm not sure I can follow Disease Proof any more after reading such a biased post that manipulates 'science' to push a specific viewpoint. This was a blatant advertisement for dietary supplements, including Dr. Fuhrman's products. The final sentence is trying to scare people into purchasing supplements: "Specifically, not taking DHA, B12 and vitamin D can be potentially dangerous and even life threatening."

Yes, it was obviously a coincidence that two (two!) leaders in the vegan movement suffered from Parkinson's. Two people is not anywhere near an adequate sample size. Implying that one common characteristic directly caused a disease in these two individuals is ridiculous.

I appreciate it when you bring peer-reviwed scientific studies to our attention. But stories about specific people with specific nutrient deficiencies are rarely generalizable to the entire population. Using single-patient case studies to prove a point is misleading and unscientific.

There are wild differences in vegan, vegetarian, flexitarian, and nutritarian diets. Vegans with completely B12-deficient diets need to take B12 - this is a given. But I think it's a huge leap to imply that all people who eat anything but a meat-filled diet need to take DHA supplements, when the role of DHA in health is not yet fully understood. Do you honestly believe that there is no such thing as a healthy diet and that ALL humans need to buy your supplements?

Dr Fuhrman, you are a physician, not a research scientist. You should consider having an expert in biomedical & molecular nutrition review your posts. You should also consider taking some CEU credits in statistics and the scientific method.

Joel Fuhrman, MD - April 16, 2009 7:16 PM

For other people reading this I would like to clarify the foolish remarks above and address them, so nobody is hurt by thinking this person might know something. We could remove the comment, so people are not hurt by it, but certainly something can be learned by addressing it.

First of all, I am physician with twenty years experience of seeing meat-eaters, vegans, flexitarians and even nutritarians develop health problems and seeking the solution. I doubt there are many physicians in America who have seen thousands of vegan and near-vegan patients, many who were not thriving and seeking the cause and solution. They typically sought me out because they were not thriving or have a medical issue. My unique expertise is seeing people with significant medical problems and using nutritional excellence, scholarly nutritional knowledge and careful medical investigation to discern and fix the problem so that the body can restore normalcy.

Nowhere in the article did I suggest that all people who don’t eat fish (not meat) need to take DHA. However, I did make it clear that if they don’t they should at least check their levels with a blood test. We are all subtly different, some with very different needs, but we should not gamble with our future health, just thinking we are okay. Do what you want, but please keep your dangerous opinions away from people I am trying to help. Yes, I am saying that there are some people do better on a diet that contains some DHA from fish, or if they do not want to eat any fish, should use some supplements.

Neither did I state that DHA deficiency causes Parkinson’s. Rather, I suggested as the animal studies do support, that is makes one more susceptible to environmental causes of Parkinson’s and neuronal aging. I may be one of the only people who can give this advice and I cannot rely on research scientists forty years from now to figure this out, when I have the information now.

Lastly, if you read the article carefully, you will also see that I brought those two well-known individuals up as sample case studies, mentioning that I have checked blood levels on many Parkinson’s patients as well to confirm this finding. As I stated in the article, these were not the only Parkinson patients that I have seen with low DHA levels. brought those two up, because they were so well known. In fact, I have taken hundreds of fatty acids levels on patients with various diseases, especially Parkinson’s looking for a pattern. Nevertheless, these individuals were telling because they ate so super healthfully for most of their lives, no junk food, mostly organic and were premier examples of people who you would expect to live their later years in excellent health.

And yes, B12 deficiency can be deadly. Vitamin D deficiency can serious increase one risk of cancer, and DHA deficiencies can predispose one toward serious neurologic difficulties in later life. Modern blood testing and nutritional excellence, adjusted for individual needs, to prevent deficiencies, can give us an unprecedented opportunity to live longer and in better health in our later years and not just rely on luck. So if you were smart, you would take your head out of the sand.

john polifronio - April 21, 2009 6:58 AM

I'm at a loss to understand why so-called vegetarians, meat eaters, etc., are not able to bend to a small degree, and allow for the reality that rigid dietary patterns are almost certainly unwise, if not dangerous. Why is the word "strict," impossible with vegetarians? Why must vegetarians avoid "all" meat of any kind, at all times? Why isn't it possible for vegetarians to be strict and "not so strict" in the application of their diet? The notion of "strict adherence," does not suggest science to me, but smacks of a cult or a religion.

I concentrate on eating as little of hi-calorie foods, as I can; to eat the highest quality food obtainable, to eat a diet of "mostly" fruits and vegetables, "mostly" plant based, but also seek to add a small amount of animal protein, especially hi-omega-3 fish, and an even smaller amount of poultry and carefully selected red meat, such as the highest quality liver obtainable. But, the bulk and basis of my diet is plant based and quasi-vegetarian. I consider myself a vegetarian because I eat a primarily vegetarian diet. In this regard, if I must adopt the view that the word vegetarian applies to my case, even if vegetarians deny my membership in their religion, I'm content to define this word for myself. If my diet is 90% plant based, I consider myself a vegetarian, but not a "strict" one; not a fanatical one.

Tchiya Amet El Maat - September 21, 2009 3:10 PM

I knew T.C. Frye. He spoke at a festival I produced in Austin back in 1994. I remember after he passed away, I ran into his wife at a Health Food Store. I asked her, "What happened?" She told me, that after he became fruitarian, everything changed. She spoke to me with much wisdom and tears in her eyes, and stated, "You cannot be any more pure than your environment." She went on to say that fruitarian is great, IF you live out in nature, where there is fruit growing on trees, clean air and fresh water. Living in the city, one is surrounded with toxicity. Even driving to the organic market is toxic, cuz you are using toxic fuel to get there. What I learned from this is to be a little bit more flexible with my standards, especially when traveling. I make regular and consistent time for seasonal cleanses and fasts, and every now and then, eat something outrageously off my regular vegan diet, like cheesecake or something extravagant. Maybe a cookie or muffin with eggs and sugar. Still don't eat dead animals. I really do not think that vegan diet leads to Parkinson's disease. Think of all the vegans that DIDN'T develop it.....think of all the meat eaters that DO.

anonymous - November 19, 2010 2:58 PM

I consider myself a vegan, but I do take fish oil, vitamin D, and methylcobalamin (and b-complex). Not everyone can get tested for deficiency, so it's a guessing game to some extent.

Chris - March 23, 2011 11:44 AM

Parkinson's, like Alzheimer's, is an amyloid fibril disease. Mad Cow is the same, so couldn't these vegans have gotten it from a long ago exposure---maybe from meat?

Many famous meat eaters have had amyloid fibril disease----Ronald Reagan, Norman ROckwell, Woody Guthrie, Rita Hayworth.

Weston A Price Foundation are lobbyists for meat and dairy. They've jumped all over this, because it defelcts from all the harm we are certain is cause from animal protein.

Jill Princehouse - October 20, 2012 6:34 PM

Is it true that especially as we age, we are progressively less able to convert ALA to DHA and EPA, especially to DHA? So, perhaps everyone over a certain age, e.g., 70 should take an algal DHA supplement and if so, how much?

Where can we obtain a specific DHA level? I had an omega 3 test and the results were so confusing as to make no sense.

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