Do you find yourself digging through the snack cabinet at night for a cookie or piece of chocolate or downing sugary coffee drinks in the morning? Interestingly, these sugar cravings may be linked to your Parkinson’s disease. Sugar is vital for survival, but consuming too much can negatively affect your health and actually worsen your Parkinson’s symptoms.
Is craving sweets a symptom of Parkinson’s disease? Or is a desire for sugar caused by your medication or your gut microbiome? Let’s dig into seven facts you need to know about sugar and Parkinson’s disease.
If you’re craving sweet foods more since your Parkinson’s diagnosis, you’re not alone. Recent studies have found that people with Parkinson’s disease report changed eating habits and intense cravings for sweets. Other studies have shown that people with Parkinson’s disease have a strong preference for sweet foods such as cakes, chocolates, and ice cream.
According to the researchers, this Parkinson’s-related preference may involve more than simply craving a flavor — the body may need simple sugars or carbohydrates that break down quickly. These studies also show that people with Parkinson’s disease eat more simple sugars than do people who don’t have Parkinson’s.
Some MyParkinsonsTeam members have discussed these cravings. “My husband eats more sweets than he did before,” wrote one member. “He has always loved sweets, but it’s all the time now! Even in the middle of the night!”
“I definitely crave sweets more than ever,” said another member.
Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative disorder that affects the brain’s ability to produce dopamine. This neurotransmitter (chemical messenger) is essential for memory, movement, and other cognitive functions. Dopamine is also a “feel-good” hormone that plays an important role in the brain’s reward system — it’s associated with pleasure, motivation, and satisfaction.
Without enough dopamine, you’ll experience motor and nonmotor Parkinson’s symptoms such as muscle rigidity, tremors, slow movement, and depression. Therefore, Parkinson’s disease is treated with medications that raise dopamine levels in the brain.
Eating sugary foods triggers your brain to release dopamine. This may explain why people with Parkinson’s disease crave sugary foods — to boost brain dopamine levels and feel better.
Although the short-term effect of a high sugar intake in Parkinson’s disease hasn’t been determined, consuming added sugar over the long term can lead to inflammation, fatty liver disease, and diabetes.
Just why people with Parkinson’s disease crave sugar remains unknown, but there are many possible explanations.
Loss of dopamine and the brain cells that make it (known as dopaminergic neurons) lead to Parkinson’s disease. Low dopamine levels are also linked to depression. Around half of people with Parkinson’s disease have a form of depression.
Some research suggests that people with depression and Parkinson’s disease tend to eat more simple sugars compared with people without those conditions. If you have Parkinson’s, you may choose sweet foods in an unconscious effort to boost your dopamine levels and overcome your symptoms.
Living with Parkinson’s disease can also be extremely stressful. It can be a challenge to receive a diagnosis, and the symptoms make it harder to do actions and tasks that were once easy. In fact, people with Parkinson’s notice that when they feel stressed or anxious, their symptoms get worse.
“When I’m stressed or have anxiety, my tremors get worse,” reported one MyParkinsonsTeam member.
“Yes, stress is very bad for Parkinson’s disease, but it’s hard to avoid,” agreed another.
Some people cope with stress by eating sugary or comfort foods, but there are healthier ways to help keep your stress under check. For starters, aim to get the recommended amount of sleep and eat a balanced diet. You can also practice mindfulness techniques like meditation or breathing exercises.
MyParkinsonsTeam members have also found that certain medications may be to blame for their cravings, as discussed in comments such as these:
Pramipexole dihydrochloride (Mirapex) interacts with the brain’s dopamine receptors, so this drug is used to improve muscle control and movement. However, one of its side effects is compulsive behavior, including overeating or binge eating, shopping, and gambling.
Although the risk of developing these compulsive behaviors is very low, it’s best to be aware of the possibility. Talking to your doctor and being mindful of your thoughts and actions can help you set limits and manage symptoms.
Your gut is home to trillions of microorganisms collectively called a microbiome. Your gut microbiome helps make beneficial substances known as short-chain fatty acids. Bacteria in your gut break down fiber into short-chain fatty acids, which are thought to play a role in brain health.
Short-chain fatty acids can also help prevent insulin resistance, which occurs when glucose (your body’s preferred form of sugar) can’t easily enter your cells to be used for energy. Insulin resistance may make you crave sugar even after a full meal.
What you eat defines your gut microbiome. Animal studies suggest that a diet rich in refined sugar may reduce levels of short-chain fatty acids. Interestingly, researchers have also reported that people with Parkinson’s disease have an abnormal shift in their gut microbiome, with fewer bacteria making short-chain fatty acids.
Your brain requires a lot of energy and uses around 20 percent of your body’s glucose. Blood sugar levels that constantly fluctuate can negatively affect your brain’s function. High blood sugar levels from diabetes also cause inflammation in the brain, which can contribute to Parkinson’s disease.
These effects damage your brain’s cells, leading to neurodegeneration and worse symptoms. Studies have found that people with type 2 diabetes and Parkinson’s disease are more likely to have an abnormal gait (manner of walking) and have trouble thinking and reasoning.
The development of type 2 diabetes is often linked to a diet high in sugar, salt, and fat. Finding ways to manage your cravings and control your blood sugar may help you better manage your motor and nonmotor symptoms.
While you don’t have to give up sugar altogether, it’s important to watch your daily intake and eat a healthy diet. Easy ways to do this include limiting processed foods with added sugars and eating home-cooked meals.
A 2017 study found that canned foods (fruits and vegetables), sodas (both diet and nondiet), ice cream, fried foods, beef, and cheese are all associated with the fast progression of Parkinson’s disease.
At the same time, a Mediterranean diet is beneficial and is linked with decreased risk and slower progression of Parkinson’s disease. The Mediterranean diet is rich in protein, fiber, and healthy fats from fresh vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, eggs, whole grains, and fish.
Snacks high in protein and fiber can help reduce sugar cravings. Sweet fruits like berries and melon can also help satisfy a craving for desserts. To learn more tips for managing cravings, talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian.
MyParkinsonsTeam is the social network for people with Parkinson’s disease and their loved ones. More than 99,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with Parkinson’s.
Have you been wanting to eat more sweets than you did before your Parkinson’s diagnosis? How have you managed your cravings for sugar? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation on your Activities page.