My dad had a movement disorder similar to Parkinson’s disease, but far worse (Diffuse Lewy Body). It’s an awful problem. If you read this blog, you know I love when medicine gets caught with its proverbial pants down. Or as a gifted New York Times writer once said, a “Naked in Times Square moment.” Why? Because I believe we’re just beginning to exit the dark ages in medicine. Sure we’ve improved from leeches and bloodletting, but most of our progress has come in conquering infectious disease and some of the big things that can kill us young. As a medical community, we really haven’t made much progress in conquering chronic disease, pain, or other things that can disable us as we age or just make us nonfunctional. So it was with a chuckle and a smile that I recently reviewed a new paper that turns the world of Parkinson’s research on its proverbial head by drawing a connection between Parkinson’s and gut bacteria.
What Is Parkinson’s Disease?
Parkinson’s disease (PD) is a progressive neurological disease that has no cure, and worsens over time. Treatments can help manage it, but as the disease becomes more advanced, treatments become less effective. Its primary effect is on the body’s motor system, and symptoms can vary, but common presenting symptoms include tremors, rigidity, and slow movements. Symptoms gradually become more extreme and can include slurred speech, dementia, and lack of expression. The Parkinson’s Disease Foundation estimates about 1 million people in the United States suffer from Parkinson’s disease with over 60,000 newly diagnosed cases each year.
While we know the basic cause of Parkinson’s (progressive degeneration of nerve cells in an area of the brain known as the substantia nigra), we don’t really know why this happens. When the nerve cells become impaired, this leads to a decrease in dopamine production. Without proper dopamine levels, movements lack control, resulting in the common symptoms of Parkinson’s. Additionally, in Parkinson’s patients, there is a build up of Lewy bodies, an abnormal protein, found in the nerve cells. Theories of how the nerve cells get injured in the first place include everything from genetics to environmental toxins to traumatic injuries.
The New Research on Parkinson’s and Gut Bacteria That May Change Everything We Thought We Knew
The new study on Parkinson’s disease suggests that it may actually start in the gut first and move to the brain from there. The evidence is in the gut bacteria, which seems to be different in Parkinson’s patients. In recent years, damaging fibers found in the nerves in the brain of Parkinson’s patients have also been found in their gut. In this new study, some mice were injected with bacteria from the guts of Parkinson’s patients while others were injected with bacteria from the guts of healthy patients. The mice receiving the gut bacteria from Parkinson’s patients rapidly deteriorated. The other mice did not. The scientists concluded that while more research needs to be done, “these findings reveal that gut bacteria regulate movement disorders in mice and suggest that alterations in the human microbiome represent a risk factor for PD.”
There has been a lot published in recent years on the importance of the good bacteria in your gut. Good gut bacteria helps defend your body, functioning like a second immune system and killing off bad bacteria. They also consume calories, helping to control weight.
A lot has also been published on the many things that can increase bad bacteria and disrupt that delicate gut balance. Examples include poor diet and medications, such as antibiotics, and recently artificial sweeteners have also been shown in mice to alter gut balance, causing hyper-insulin secretion, or pre-diabetes. In extreme cases, antibiotics can cause the bad bacteria such as Clostridium difficile (C.difficile), a hard-to-treat infection, to build up and make patients very sick.
One research finding that really concerns me is the effect gut bacteria may have on stem cells. A bad diet can create more of that abnormal gut bacteria as this bad bacteria thrives on the unhealthy foods we eat. This can cause a leaky gut, and, in turn, have a negative impact on the stem cells in fat. This leaky gut can lead to metabolic syndrome, and with it, obesity, high blood pressure, inflammation, and even allergies.
The upshot? This new study finding links between Parkinson’s and gut bacteria demonstrates that your gut bacteria may have profound impacts on everything from your brain to your immune system. While this study will have to be repeated and tied to humans, if validated, it may alter forever how we treat Parkinson’s. In particular, fecal microbiota transplant (FMT, or transferring a healthy person’s good gut bacteria to a patient’s gut) may be a viable therapy. The drug companies and the Pharma-University-FDA industrial complex are going to hate that one! In the meantime, maintaining a healthy gut bacteria composition may be critical. You can get yours checked at a company I’ve used (and have no relationship with) at this link. You also might want to consider a good probiotic (this is the one I take, again I have nothing to do with this company).