Can Gut Health Be Key to Preventing Parkinson’s?
Parkinson’s disease, a progressive neurological disorder marked by shaking, stiffness, and problems with balance and coordination, has long confounded physician-scientists, even as more people are diagnosed with the condition worldwide. However, research is slowly but steadily uncovering links between our gut and brain, providing hope that these connections may help identify the disease early and even provide biomarkers to delay its worse symptoms.
New research connects digestive issues and Parkinson’s risk
The latest research, published in the journal Gut, found that certain common digestive issues appear to be precursors to Parkinson’s in some patients. That is, people who have dysphagia (trouble swallowing), gastroparesis (delay in emptying stomach), constipation, and IBS without diarrhea were more likely to develop Parkinson’s later. In fact, the first three conditions more than doubled the risk, while Irritable Bowel Syndrome was associated with a 17% greater risk for the disease.
“Parkinson’s experts have known for a while that there is a gut-brain connection,” says Ihtsham ul Haq, M.D., FAAN, Division Chief of Movement Disorders at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. “That association has become part of the pattern we use for diagnosis. This new study provides one more piece of information, but we don’t yet have a unifying idea to tie it all together.”
Unraveling the mysteries of Parkinson’s
Putting together the puzzle that is Parkinson’s has become ever more pressing as the world’s population grows older. The incidence of Parkinson’s increases with age. Currently, almost 1 million people in the U.S. have PD, with 90,000 new cases being diagnosed every year, according to the Parkinson’s Foundation. The number of PD cases is predicted to top 1.2 million by 2030. More than 10 million people are living with PD around the world, and it’s the second-most common neurodegenerative disease after Alzheimer’s disease.
A hypothesis by German anatomist Heiko Braak in 2003 — now known as the Braak theory – posits that Parkinson’s actually starts in the gastrointestinal tract, when a foreign agent enters the body through the nose or gastrointestinal system and then moves on to the central nervous system. (Similar gut/brain links have also been found for Alzheimer’s and cerebrovascular disease.) These connections have prompted researchers to explore the pathology of these links, including active research of bacterial gut flora. In addition to digestive problems, almost all Parkinson’s patients have lesions on the nerve-supply system of the gastrointestinal tract.
Dysphagia, Gastroparesis, Constipation, and IBS
While the Gut journal study adds to the growing evidence of the PD-and-gut link, it is the first-of-its-kind multicenter study that shows how these four GI symptoms (dysphagia, gastroparesis, constipation, and IBS without diarrhea) are linked to an increased risk for Parkinson’s disease. To test their hypothesis, researchers analyzed the medical records of almost 25,000 people with Parkinson’s. They compared these with other medical records of individuals with brain bleeds or clots and Alzheimer’s, as well as people with healthy brains.
The analysis of five years’ worth of data found that the same four digestive issues were linked to a higher chance of receiving a PD diagnosis later. Interestingly enough, the removal of a patient’s appendix appeared to provide some form of protection.
Dr. Haq cautions that more research is needed to determine the why and how of the gut-brain connection. Right now, physician-scientists have uncovered only a strong correlation. There are other early symptoms that help clinicians assess the risk of developing Parkinson’s, he points out. For instance, difficulty with smell or taste and crying out in one’s sleep are also linked to the brain disorder.
“These are signals for us, something that alerts us” to the possibility of Parkinson’s, he explains. Early intervention — before neurological symptoms appear — may help stop brain cell damage and disease progression.
How to improve gut health and lessen Parkinson’s risk
In the meantime, Dr. Haq suggests these lifestyle choices to improve both your gut microbiome and overall health:
- Eat healthy. Choose colorful fruits and vegetables every day and consume high-fiber foods. Avoid added sugar and processed foods. Drink plenty of water.
- Exercise. “We know that exercise works,” he says. “Keeping your body and mind active is important.”
- Keep your doctors’ appointments and report changes you may notice – from gut issues to changes in smell and taste.
- Avoid environmental toxins. Also, keep away from various pesticides, solvents, manganese, and other metals, as excessive exposure has been linked to Parkinson’s disease.