Why protein is important for people with Parkinson's

Protein is the second most common compound in our bodies after water. All our organs are built from it, including our skin. It’s key for brain development, healthy bones and muscle repair. But what is protein? What types are there? And why is it important for people with Parkinson’s?

What are proteins?

Proteins are made of ‘building blocks’ called amino acids. The body needs amino acids to work properly.

Some amino acids can only come from eating protein-rich foods. Because of this they are known as ‘essential’ amino acids. ‘Non-essential’ amino acids are made by the body and a healthy, balanced diet will support this.

Which protein-rich foods can provide the essential amino acids I need?

Our food can be divided into 2 main types of protein. Animal sources, such as meat, fish, cheese and eggs, and some plant sources, like soya and quinoa, are ‘complete’ proteins. Eating just 1 of these types of food each day provides all the essential amino acids our bodies need.
Pulses, lentils and tofu are examples of ‘incomplete’ proteins. You need to eat a combination of these foods to give your body all the essential amino acids it needs.

Protein and the brain

Protein helps our bodies to carry out key functions to stay healthy, including looking after our brains. 

Our brains are made up of neurons – cells which transmit information around the body. They use proteins to communicate with each other.

The amino acid tyrosine is found in many different foods. It is needed in the brain, along with nerve cells, to help produce a chemical called dopamine. People with Parkinson’s don’t have enough dopamine because some of these nerve cells have died. We don’t yet know exactly why this happens but researchers think it’s a combination of genetic and environmental factors.

Protein and levodopa

Some people with Parkinson’s find that protein seems to interfere with how well levodopa is absorbed by their body. Because of this, you may benefit from taking your medication 30-60 minutes before you eat a meal.

However, levodopa can sometimes make people feel sick. Eating a low protein snack (such as a cracker, biscuit or slice of toast) when you take your dose may help to reduce this side effect.

Parkinson’s and the protein redistribution diet

A protein redistribution diet is another way to make levodopa more effective and to help reduce the feeling of sickness. It involves concentrating your protein into a certain time of the day.

This could mean:

  • Reducing the amount of protein you eat early in the day. This may help to increase your body’s response to medication and avoid unpredictable motor fluctuations
  • Eating your main protein meal in the evening as a slower response to medication may not be as important at this time

The Parkinson’s NICE guidelines highlight the importance of discussing a protein redistribution diet with a specialist.

How much protein should I eat?

The amount of protein you need each day depends on your body size. On average, a person who weighs between 60-70kg needs between 45-53g of protein. For example, you might eat a total of 47g in a day made up of 2 eggs (12g), a portion of meat or oily fish (20g) and a cup of kidney beans (15g).