Red wine may be a guilty pleasure, but new research shows it might also be a powerful weapon against the ravages of Parkinson's disease.
Why? The antioxidants in red wine, and fruit such as berries for that matter, might slow progression of the movement disorder, a new study suggests.
According to researchers, people with Parkinson's who eat three or more servings per week of foods high in antioxidants called flavonoids may reduce their odds of dying early compared with people who do not eat as many flavonoid-rich foods.
"Flavonoids are naturally occurring, plant-based dietary components, rich in fruit and vegetables. They give various colors in these plants," said senior researcher Dr. Xiang Gao. He is director of the nutritional epidemiology lab at Pennsylvania State University, in University Park.
"Adapting a healthy dietary pattern, high in colorful fruits and veggies, even after Parkinson diagnosis, could slow disease progression and improve survival rate," he added.
Still, the study can't prove that flavonoids prolonged the lives of Parkinson's patients, only that there may be an association, Gao said.
"In our previous study, published in Neurology in 2012, we found that flavonoids could prevent against Parkinson risk in the future among those who did not have Parkinson at the beginning of follow-up," Gao said. "The current study provides further evidence regarding neuro-protective effects of fruit and vegetables."
Flavonoids found in some fruits, teas and red wine can quickly cross the blood-brain barrier and ease oxidative stress, inflammation and atherosclerosis in the brain, which might reduce the impact of Parkinson's, the researchers said.
For the study, Gao and his colleagues collected data on more than 1,200 people with Parkinson's disease, average age 72, who had the condition for an average of 33 years. Every four years, the patients answered questions about their diet. Specifically, they were asked how often they consumed tea, apples, berries, oranges and orange juice.
During the study, 75% of the patients died. Of these, 513 died from Parkinson's, 112 died from cardiovascular diseases and 69 from cancers.
Those whose diet included the most flavonoids had a 70% higher chance of survival compared with people whose diet included the least amount of flavonoids, the researchers found.
The highest intake of flavonoids was about 673 milligrams (mg) a day and the lowest was about 134 mg a day. For reference, strawberries have about 180 mg of flavonoids per 100-gram serving, and apples have about 113.
Eating more flavonoid-rich foods before developing Parkinson's was tied to a lower risk of dying among men, but not women, Gao noted. But after Parkinson's was diagnosed, eating more flavonoids was linked with better survival rates for both genders, he noted.
As for which foods are best, the investigators found that those who consumed anthocyanins, found in red wine and berries, had on average a 66% greater survival rate than those who consumed the lowest amount of anthocyanins.
For the flavonoid flavan-3-ols, found in apples, tea and wine, those who consumed the most had a 69% greater survival rate than those who consumed the least.
Although how flavonoids act to improve Parkinson's survival isn't clear, adding berries, apples, oranges and tea to the diet may be an easy and low-risk way to improve outcomes, Gao said. He doesn't, however, advise people who don't drink alcohol to start, but those who do might want to switch to red wine, he suggested.
The report was published online Jan. 26 in the journal Neurology.
Dr. Michael Okun, national medical advisor for the Parkinson's Foundation and director of the University of Florida's Norman Fixel Institute for Neurological Diseases in Gainesville, said that suddenly adding flavonoids to your diet may not be the magic trick to a longer life for Parkinson's patients.
"The nature of the data from this study should not be interpreted as people with Parkinson's will live longer if they suddenly change their diet to include flavonoids," he said. "For example, mixing wine and Parkinson's is not always safe, as it can lead to injuries, usually related to falling."
That doesn't mean that flavonoids aren't good for Parkinson's patients and may even have specific benefits for people with the disease.
"Overall, flavonoids are great for your health, and this study adds to collective literature supporting a potential role in Parkinson's disease," Okun said.