Conventional therapeutic approaches to Parkinson’s disease usually involve surgery and medications to address symptoms and supply the body with dopamine. However, patients can also undertake a number of holistic lifestyle changes to improve their quality of life. Researchers, nutritionists and patients advocate for a healthy diet, regular exercise, sound sleep and a positive outlook on life—all of which cannabis can help support.
Nerve cell inflammation in Parkinson’s disease is thought to contribute to the degeneration of dopamine-producing neurons in the brain—research indicates that decreasing inflammation in affected areas may help slow progression of the disease. Therefore, a diet rich in antioxidants and aimed at reducing inflammation may be beneficial to Parkinson’s patients. And incorporating cannabis into that diet—which has anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective properties—may also be helpful.
“The first thing I always ask people is, ‘What do you eat?’” says Liz Rudner, an expert in holistic wellness who works with Parkinson’s patients. “It all starts with food—if you’re eating well, your body is going to react to that.”
Liz is also the cofounder of MoonMan’s Mistress, a company that focuses on nutrient-dense edibles for the health conscious and those with dietary restrictions. She incorporates cannabis into her products because of its health benefits. “We really see ourselves as a health and wellness brand that just happens to be in the cannabis space,” Liz explains.
“With Parkinson’s disease, it’s all about phytocannabinoids and omegas—things that are going to be anti-inflammatory. We want to make sure our ingredients won't cause additional inflammation in the body—they should help reduce it,” she says.
Wellness Consultant Jan Lavelle was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease eight years ago and began incorporating cannabis into her lifestyle as a supplement. She’s also careful about what she eats, making sure that it’s “as close to the earth as possible.”
Jan takes a CBD tincture three times a day, which she says helps with movement, stiffness, pain and any kind of discomfort. She adds that it took her about a month or so for the tincture to build up in her system. “People take [CBD] and think they are going to feel good right away—it’s not like that,” she says.
Getting adequate sleep is an essential component to any healthy lifestyle, and people with Parkinson’s disease often suffer from insomnia due to many factors, including pain, side effects from medications, and psychological issues such as anxiety and depression.
“I don’t know anyone with Parkinson’s disease who doesn't have sleeping issues,” says Jan. “Sleep is more important than anything...It restores and revamps your body. If you can take something natural to help you sleep—that’s key.”
Preliminary research suggests that cannabidiol (CBD) can help treat insomnia, while tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) can help you fall asleep faster, though the latter may also have an effect on the quality of sleep. However, plenty of cannabis users report having success treating insomnia with the use of either THC or CBD, or even both—it all depends on the user.
Jan says that CBD tends to keep her up, so she uses CBD tinctures during the day and smokes an indica strain at night because of its immediate effects. “It totally relaxes your body; it’s all I use for sleep,” she says.
Liz also notes that she’s seen her clients’ sleep improve with cannabis consumption: “The most radical change I’ve noticed is one patient was sleeping an hour a day, and now she’s sleeping 5.5 hours a day after a week [of working with us].”
Visit the webpage of any organization or foundation dedicated to Parkinson’s disease, and you’ll notice it touting the benefits of an exercise regimen. Research has found that a comprehensive and structured exercise program can help improve mobility in Parkinson’s patients and may even have neuroprotective and neurorestorative benefits—in other words, exercise may help slow or even reverse disease progression.
Jamel Ramiro, Liz’s cofounder in MoonMan’s Mistress, is also a personal trainer who specializes in movement; he works with Parkinson’s patients by creating exercises to develop their balance.
One patient Jamel works with also boxes, which Jamel says has many benefits. “With boxing, you do a lot of repetitive combos: pad work, hand drills, jab crosses and uppercuts—that exercises your mind and the footwork involved provides you with balance.”
Jamel says that this particular patient likes to use CBD to recover after his workouts. Indeed, some professional athletes use cannabis in their training regimen because its anti-inflammatory nature helps them recuperate after an intense workout. It seems consuming cannabis post-workout can also help some Parkinson’s patients in the same way.
Jan also exercises, although her approach is a bit different—she prefers practicing Iyengar yoga, hiking, and pursuing activities that emphasize slow movement and breath work. She’s even attended a Qigong retreat for Parkinson’s patients, saying that it was both comforting and inspiring to see so many people changing the narrative of what it’s like to live with Parkinson’s disease.
The visible symptoms of Parkinson’s disease—pain, rigidity and difficulty moving—often overshadow the mental health issues that some patients face. Jan has firsthand experience with this, saying, “With diseases like this…there’s no cure; it’s so easy to get depressed.”
The endocannabinoid system is known to be involved in the stress response, and a 2007 study by McGill University found that low doses of THC could act as an effective antidepressant in animal models. Perhaps this is why many people say that cannabis helps maintain their mental health.
Jan, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s at 44, lives a very full life: She runs her own bookkeeping company, has a 12-year-old son and is physically active. She’s dedicated to healthy living—finding a way to wind down after a long day is important for her mental health, she says. She also emphasizes the importance of being open-minded and having a positive outlook. For Jan, cannabis helps with all of these aspects.
“My most relaxed state comes from THC because it takes me out of my day and out of my head. I’m not good at relaxing, so smoking marijuana at night lets me mellow out,” she says.
Both Liz and Jan make one thing clear: For Parkinson’s patients to truly see improvements with a holistic approach, they must make a commitment to living a healthy lifestyle.
“There is no push button fix,” says Liz. “You have to eat well, you have move well, and you have to sleep well—you have to do all three. Any time you take one of those components out, that’s when your body starts shutting down.”
Jan agrees and goes on to say that cannabis can only do so much—embracing healthy living is key, and cannabis is only one part of the puzzle.
“It’s a combination—you have to do everything. I feel like I’m getting stronger every day. I don’t think anyone in my yoga class would know that I have Parkinson’s,” she says.
Photo credit: Aaron Ang