Optimizing vitamin D levels may be a simple way to reduce some Parkinson’s disease symptoms, including falls, sleep problems, depression and anxiety, according to a study that compared 182 patients with Parkinson’s and 185 healthy people without the disease.1 It’s previously been shown that vitamin D deficiency is common in people with Parkinson’s disease, and this study found no different.
Those with Parkinson’s had significantly lower vitamin D levels compared to those without. Further, Parkinson’s patients with lower vitamin D levels also fell and suffered from insomnia more often, while also being more likely to struggle with depression and anxiety.
People with Parkinson’s disease also had significantly lower bone mineral density (BMD) in the lumbar spine and femoral neck, although no associations were found between BMD and vitamin D levels.
Overall, the study, published in the journal Acta Neurologica Scandinavia, suggests vitamin D supplementation may be an effective therapy for relieving non-motor Parkinson’s symptoms.2 Senior study author Dr. Chun Feng Liu said in a news release:3
"As various non-motor symptoms place a burden on individuals with Parkinson's disease and their caregivers, vitamin D might be a potential add-on therapy for improving these neglected symptoms."
The link between Parkinson’s disease and vitamin D
There is a strong link between the “sunshine vitamin,” otherwise known as vitamin D, and Parkinson’s disease, the second most common neurodegenerative disorder in the U.S. (Alzheimer’s is No. 1).4
In 2011, it was revealed that men who worked outdoors had a lower risk of Parkinson’s disease. Although the study didn’t measure the men’s vitamin D levels, sunlight is the best source of vitamin D,5and the men spending their daylight hours outside likely had higher vitamin D levels than their peers who worked primarily indoors.
Also in 2011, research was published showing that vitamin D deficiency was more common in Parkinson’s patients than in healthy people or those with Alzheimer’s disease. Specifically, 55% of people with Parkinson’s disease had insufficient vitamin D, compared to 36% of healthy people and 41% of those with Alzheimer’s.6
Again in 2013, “[o]utdoor work was inversely associated with risk of PD,” (even though the study concluded there was no “substantial” role in developing PD),7 while a 2019 literature review and meta-analysis also concluded that vitamin D insufficiency and deficiency, along with reduced exposure to sunlight, were significantly associated with an increased risk of Parkinson’s disease.8
How does vitamin D influence Parkinson’s?
As for why vitamin D may be beneficial for Parkinson’s, it’s important to understand that vitamin D is now regarded as a hormone that plays a role in multiple aspects of health, ranging from the inflammatory response to regulation of the cardiac and vascular systems.9 Researchers explained in Medical Science Monitor:10
“Vitamin D performs its biological functions by binding to vitamin D receptors (VDRs), which are members of the steroid hormone receptor superfamily. VDRs are widely expressed in many tissues, including the kidney, bone, the intestine, muscle, the pancreas, and the central nervous system.
… Vitamin D deficiency has been proposed to act as a suppressor of gene expression, one of the key genes that is suppressed in vitamin D deficiency is the tyrosine hydroxylase (TH) gene, which plays an essential role in regulation of dopamine biosynthesis and the expression of neurotrophic factors.”
In Parkinson’s disease, neurons in the substantia nigra area of the brain deteriorate. Dopamine is made by cells in the substantia nigra, which is also responsible for signaling the spinal cord to control the body’s muscles.11 When neurons in this area degenerate, the amount of dopamine available is reduced.
“The biochemical imbalance manifests with typical clinical symptoms that include resting tremor, rigidity, bradykinesia, i.e., a gradual slowness of spontaneous movement, and loss of postural reflexes or, in other words, poor balance and motor coordination,” researchers noted.12
Vitamin D is also known to play a role in processes that may be disturbed by Parkinson’s disease, including neurotrophin, inducible nitric oxide synthase, glutathione and monoamine synthesis and apoptosis, according to a study in JAMA Neurology (formerly Archives of Neurology).13
The link between Parkinson’s and vitamin D is so strong that one study found people with high vitamin D levels (defined as what I would consider a minimum level for health, > 20 ng/ml) had a 65% lower risk of Parkinson’s compared to those with low vitamin D levels (< 8 ng/ml).14
Optimizing your vitamin D is beneficial for overall health
Optimizing your vitamin D level is one strategy that can boost your health in myriad ways, even above and beyond its role in Parkinson’s prevention and symptom relief. A deficiency in vitamin D has been implicated in such problems as multiple sclerosis15 and chronic heart failure.16
Vitamin D also significantly reduces oxidative stress in your vascular system, which can prevent the development of heart disease.17 In addition, optimizing your vitamin D levels is one of the absolute best flu-prevention strategies available and can also slash your cancer risk.
Previous research found that a vitamin D level of 47 ng/ml was associated with a 50% lower risk of breast cancer.18 Further, researchers at University of California, San Diego School of Medicine reported that raising your vitamin D level to at least 40ng/ml can slash your risk of all invasive cancers by 67%.19
The best way to optimize your vitamin D level
Regular sunlight exposure is the ideal way to optimize your vitamin D (as well as glean the other health benefits of sun exposure), but many people have difficulty getting out in the sun, whether it’s due to working indoors, weather or physical limitations.
As such, many will need to take an oral vitamin D3 supplement, especially during winter months. The only way to gauge whether you might need to supplement, and how much, is to get your level tested, ideally twice a year, in the early spring, after the winter, and early fall when your level is at its peak and low point. This is particularly important if you're pregnant or planning a pregnancy, or if you have cancer or Parkinson’s disease.
The level you're aiming for is between 60 and 80 ng/mL, with 40 ng/mL being the low cutoff point for sufficiency to prevent a wide range of diseases, including cancer.
Research suggests it would require 9,600 IUs of vitamin D per day to get 97.5% of the population to reach 40 ng/mL,20 but individual requirements can vary widely, and you’ll need to get your levels tested to ensure you take the correct dosage required to get you into the optimal range.
GrassrootsHealth makes testing easy by offering an inexpensive vitamin D testing kit as part of its consumer-sponsored research. By signing up, you are helping further vital health research that can help millions in coming years. (All revenues from these kits go directly to GrassrootsHealth. I make no profit from these kits and only provide them as a service of convenience to my readers.)
What else influences your Parkinson’s risk?
Parkinson’s disease is on the rise. While there were an estimated 680,000 Americans aged 45 years and over with Parkinson’s disease in 2010, that number is expected to rise to approximately 930,000 in 2020 and 1.238 million in 2030.21
Causes remain unknown, but it’s been suggested that, “Both genetic and environmental factors have been reported to contribute to the development of Parkinson’s disease, including specific genetic mutations, gender, exposure to pesticides, and the use of calcium channel blockers.”22
Pesticides may contribute to dopaminergic neuron death,23 and even low-level exposure may mimic the effects of mutations that cause Parkinson’s disease.24,25
In one study, when researchers exposed dopamine-producing neurons to two pesticides (paraquat and maneb), it prevented mitochondria from moving properly, leading to energy depletion within the neurons.26 A number of other factors may also influence your risk, including the following:
- Gut microbes — Research published in the journal Neuron27 suggests Parkinson’s disease may originate in cells in the gut and travel to the brain via the vagus nerve, the tenth cranial nerve that runs from your brain stem down to your abdomen. Supporting a healthy gut is therefore one important factor in lowering your Parkinson’s risk.
- Diet — Eating Solanaceae, or nightshade vegetables, especially peppers, may be protective against Parkinson’s.28 Following a ketogenic diet, a dietary approach that focuses on minimal carbohydrates, moderate amounts of protein and high healthy fat consumption, has also shown promise.29
- Exercise — One Swedish study,30 which included 43,368 people, concluded that more than six hours of moderate exercise weekly may reduce your risk of developing Parkinson's disease by 43% compared to exercising for fewer than two hours per week.31
- Avoid head trauma — According to research published in Neurology,3 even mild concussion, or mild traumatic brain injury, defined as loss of consciousness for up to 30 minutes or alteration of consciousness and/or amnesia for up to 24 hours,32 increases Parkinson’s risk by 56%.33 While some head trauma cannot be avoided, the findings have implications for athletes and others who may face the risk of concussions regularly.
- Avoid toxic exposures — in addition to pesticides, exposure to toxins such as solvents and metals may also be associated with Parkinson’s disease.34
Parkinson’s disease is a progressive condition with no known cure, which is why taking steps toward prevention, including optimizing your vitamin D level, is important. In the case of vitamin D, it’s promising to know that it may also help to reduce symptoms in people who already have the disease, particularly in the case of non-motor symptoms like falls, sleep problems, depression and anxiety.
The role of Vitamin D in disease prevention
A growing body of evidence shows that vitamin D plays a crucial role in disease prevention and maintaining optimal health. There are about 30,000 genes in your body, and vitamin D affects nearly 3,000 of them, as well as vitamin D receptors located throughout your body.
According to one large-scale study, optimal Vitamin D levels can slash your risk of cancer by as much as 60 percent. Keeping your levels optimized can help prevent at least 16 different types of cancer, including pancreatic, lung, ovarian, prostate and skin cancers.