Foods to Avoid with Dystonia

Bonnie James BSP, ACPR, RHN

While there is no “optimal” diet for people with dystonia, nutrient dense foods play a pivotal role in supporting the body and brain through all aspects of recovery. Foods that may impede recovery, by putting additional stress on the body and dampening brain function, are best avoided, or consumed in moderation.  Let’s take a look at a few of the foods to avoid in this post.

Stimulants – Sugar, caffeine, alcohol

These are our beloved comfort foods!  They act upon neurotransmitters (ie. serotonin, dopamine, GABA) in such a way that makes us feel really good in the short term – a sugar rush, caffeine kick, or temporary relaxation from alcohol.  But once the effects wear off, we may be left feeling fatigued, anxious, moody, and desperately craving more.  Each of these substances has the potential to upset our delicate balance of hormones and neurotransmitters, thereby contributing to stress on the body, and affecting how we perceive and handle stress.  Additionally, they have all been associated with depletion of nutrients, such as magnesium, which is often already deficient in dystonia.

Sugar is not all bad.  In fact, the brain requires a steady supply of glucose in order to function properly and produce neurotransmitters.  Fruits are an incredible source of antioxidants and vitamins/minerals; honey, maple syrup, and other natural sugars provide enzymes, prebiotics, and even some vitamins.  The problems arise with frequent consumption of excess sugar and simple carbohydrates (ie. white bread), as well as caffeine and alcohol, all of which can trigger blood sugar fluctuations.  An inconsistent supply of fuel to the brain may result in anxiety, depression, feelings of overwhelm, lack of motivation, poor sleep, inability to focus, memory lapses, racing thoughts, difficulty handling stress, feelings of hopelessness, etc.  Just one of these symptoms alone can have a significant impact on recovery efforts.

Coffee, green/black tea, and red wine also come with benefits, helping us to rationalize our consumption.  However, for some individuals, even a single cup of coffee first thing in the morning may have detrimental effects on sleep.

Processed foods

Preparing and/or cooking fresh foods can be difficult or sometimes impossible for many people with dystonia, so processed foods can come in handy.  It is important to look for those with the least number of ingredients, and the most recognizable ingredients.  Many processed foods are loaded with artificial flavors, colors, preservatives, and other chemicals that our bodies do not know how to process.  Even though some are deemed “safe” based on testing of a single product, the cumulative toxic effects of exposure to various food additives, from multiple food sources throughout the day, is unknown.

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A few common ones to watch for are: Tartrazine (yellow No.5); MSG or monosodium glutamate (also hides under many other names including “natural flavor”); Nitrites/nitrates – preservatives used in deli meats; and maltodextrin. There are over 1500 different synthetic flavorings alone.  It is important to educate yourself on what you are putting into your body.  Depending on which chemicals you consume and the quantity consumed, they may be toxic to the nervous system, kidneys, or liver; negatively affect gut bacteria; lead to allergies, hyperactivity or behavioral changes; or have the potential to cause cancer.

Gluten and Dairy

There is much controversy over whether it is necessary to avoid gluten and dairy.  In dystonia, stress has a major impact on digestion, gut motility, absorption of nutrients, immune function, and the microbiome.  All of these play a role in determining whether proper enzymes for digestion of gluten and dairy are produced and how the body reacts to these foods.  With gluten, the hybridization and modification of grains may also be a factor.

Non-celiac gluten sensitivity is not always easy to detect.  It is possible to have no intestinal symptoms of gluten sensitivity, yet experience reactions in the brain and nervous system, or other areas of the body.  It may be worthwhile to remove gluten for several weeks or months, and consider working on repairing and replenishing the gut.

When it comes to dairy, lactose intolerance is common, especially as the production of lactase (the enzyme needed to digest lactose) decreases with age.  There are also other components of dairy that may lead to allergies or other symptoms, notably gut and skin issues.  Dairy does have benefits, containing prebiotics and other nutrients; however, depending on symptoms, it may be worth a trial elimination period.


The goal is not to eliminate all of these foods as quickly as possible, and not necessarily all at once.  To avoid cravings and withdrawal effects, it is best to slowly wean off one food or substance at a time, while substituting with some nutritious, yet satisfying, alternatives.

Most importantly, it is crucial that you allow yourself to stumble frequently when undertaking the difficult task of reducing or giving up some of your favorite foods.  It will take time to figure out what works for you, and what makes you feel better or worse.  Every time you try something different, you will learn more about yourself and your body.   You might be pleasantly surprised how quickly you notice a positive impact on your physical and mental health once you remove some of these foods from your diet.

Bonnie James BSP, ACPR, RHN

Pharmacist and Holistic Nutritionist

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Join the complete online recovery program for dystonia patients.