Involuntary tremors. Increased forgetfulness. Difficulty with finding words. Feelings of depression and anxiety. These are just a few of the devastating effects associated with neurodegeneration – a slow progressive breakdown of the brain’s ability to function correctly. And while the brain and nervous system may be the target of these debilitating disorders, there is mounting evidence suggesting that neurodegenerative diseases may actually originate from an unexpected place – the gut.
So, What Exactly Is a Neurodegenerative Disease?
Your brain is a complex and intricate organ that’s made up of billions of cells that you rely on every second of every day to keep you alive and functioning. Of these billions of cells, some of the most important cells are what are known as neurons. Neurons are essentially the building blocks of your entire nervous system. They communicate with one another to perform every function of the brain.
A neurodegenerative disease causes progressive degeneration, damage, and death to the neurons that make up your nervous system.1 Because your neurons rely on communication with each other, as more and more neurons are damaged, your brain’s ability to properly transmit information to the rest of your body begins to break down.
What Are the Symptoms of a Neurodegenerative Disease?
This miscommunication between neurons can cause devastating effects to nearly every function of the brain including:2,3
- Movement: Tremors, excessive involuntary movement, stumbling, weakness, paralysis
- Speech: Difficulty with word-finding, inability to communicate
- Memory: Progressive long or short term memory loss, increased forgetfulness
- Personality: Mood changes, apathy, anxiety, agitation, aggression, loss of inhibition
Exactly what symptoms appear depends on what area of the brain a neurodegenerative disease originates from. Some of the more common neurodegenerative diseases include:4
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Lewy body dementia
- Huntington’s disease
- Parkinson’s disease
- Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis
- Multiple sclerosis
All of these diseases can have debilitating and irreversible effects on your nervous system. Let’s take a little bit deeper look at one of the more well-understood neurodegenerative diseases – Parkinson’s disease.
What Is Parkinson’s Disease?
In Parkinson’s disease cell death originates predominantly in a very specific region of the brain known as the substantia nigra. The neurons in this particular region of the brain are responsible for producing two critical neurotransmitters – dopamine and norepinephrine.5
One of dopamine’s primary roles in the body is the regulation of movement while norepinephrine plays a crucial role in controlling automatic bodily functions like heart rate and blood pressure.
As these neurons die off and your body has less and less of these vital neurotransmitters available, normal functions begin to break down resulting in the symptoms associated with this disorder such as:5
- Tremors – usually in the hands, legs, or head
- Stiffness of the trunk or limbs
- Slowness of movement
- Impaired coordination and balance
- Depression and emotional problems
- Difficulty swallowing, chewing, or speaking
- Irregular blood pressure
- Decreased movement of food through the digestive tract
Interestingly, more and more research is finding that there might just be a link between neurodegenerative diseases, like Parkinson’s, and your gut microbiome.
What Exactly Is Your Gut Microbiome?
Your digestive tract harbors a wide array of microscopic organisms such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses. This complex community of microbes is collectively known as your microbiome.6
While you might associate the word “microbes” with contagious and dangerous disease-causing germs, the truth is a little bit more complicated than that.
You see, it’s more of a spectrum. While some microbes are in fact dangerous and cause disease, others are actually extremely important and can have massive implications for your health. The complex ecosystem of microorganisms that call your gut home play a crucial role in everything from your immune system to how easily you gain or lose weight.
While science is still uncovering exactly how important your microbiome is, there’s mounting evidence showing that your gut microbiome may be the key to understanding neurodegenerative diseases.
How an Altered Microbiome Can Cause Neurodegeneration
More research is needed to truly understand the exact mechanism of how an imbalanced microbiome can contribute to the development of neurodegenerative disorders. But researchers speculate that an altered microbiome likely contributes to neurodegeneration in a few ways.7,8 Let’s dive into what the research is uncovering.
Increased Blood-Brain Barrier Permeability
Your blood-brain barrier is a semi-permeable barrier that separates your brain from the rest of your blood. This barrier is designed to tightly regulate which molecules are allowed to pass between the brain and your peripheral bloodstream.
An imbalanced microbiome can increase the permeability of your blood-brain barrier – allowing pro-inflammatory molecules to infiltrate your nervous system. These proinflammatory molecules play a role in the development and progression of neurodegenerative disease.
Immune Activation and Promotion of Inflammation
Dysbiosis (an imbalanced microbiome) causes immune activation while promoting inflammation on two fronts. Firstly, a shift in the complex ecosystem among the microbes that reside in your gut can cause “bad” bacteria to begin to outnumber beneficial bacteria. Secondly, dysbiosis can damage the integrity of the lining of your intestinal tract. This barrier is designed to keep potentially harmful bacteria sealed up tightly in your intestines so it can be safely excreted. When this barrier is damaged, these molecules can “leak” into your bloodstream – triggering inflammation and immune activation.
Alteration of Gene Expression
Certain individuals may be genetically predisposed to developing neurodegenerative conditions. But more and more research is finding that lifestyle factors – particularly those that impact your gut microbiome – have a major influence on exactly how your genes are expressed.9
Think of it like this: your genes load the gun, and your environment pulls the trigger. Meaning if you do have genes that make you more likely to develop a neurodegenerative disease, creating an environment that promotes dysbiosis will significantly increase the chance of that gene being expressed.
The Link Between Parkinson’s and the Microbiome
Since Parkinson’s disease is the second most common neurodegenerative disease, significant research has been conducted on its potential underlying causes. And in recent years, studies have found a functional link between Parkinson’s disease and the composition of the gut bacteria.9 So far researchers have found that those with Parkinson’s have:10
- An overabundance of opportunistic pathogens
- Decreased levels of beneficial bacteria that produce health-promoting short-chain fatty acids (try taking Cal-Mag Butyrate or eating ghee or butter)
- Elevated levels of probiotic bacteria
This discovery could open new doors in how we treat Parkinson’s. It could even hold promise for prevention and possibly finding a cure for this debilitating neurodegenerative disease.
So, How Can I Support My Gut Microbiome?
There are four components to optimizing the health of your microbiome and healing any damage in your gut. They are, the four R’s: remove, restore, reinoculate, repair.:
The first step to supporting your microbiome is removing things that negatively impact the health of your digestive tract. This includes:
- Inflammatory foods: Processed food, refined oils, and sugar are all pro-inflammatory. Other foods like gluten, corn, soy, dairy, and eggs can also promote inflammation.
- Stress: The gut has been dubbed the “second brain” thanks to the strong connection between your brain and your gut. So it makes sense that chronic emotional stress negatively affects your digestive tract.
- Pathogens: Hidden infections, yeast overgrowth, and/or a high toxic burden can incite dysbiosis and trigger inflammation.
Once you remove the factors that drive inflammation and dysbiosis, the next step is to begin restoring your gut health.
In order to balance your microbiome, you’ll need to replenish your gut with the ingredients it needs for proper digestion and absorption. That means basing your meals around nutrient-dense foods like fresh fruits and veggies, healthy fats, and high-quality protein. It can also be helpful to give your digestion a boost with digestive enzymes and hydrochloric acid.
It’s essential to reintroduce beneficial bacteria so you can repopulate your gut with “good” bacteria. One way to begin reinoculating your gut is to load up on fermented foods like kombucha, kefir, sauerkraut, and yogurt. But the simplest and most effective way to ensure you’re reintroducing plenty of beneficial bacteria is by taking a daily probiotic supplement.
The final component of supporting your microbiome is to repair the integrity of the lining of your gut. If the lining of your gut is compromised – like in leaky gut syndrome – it can send your gut health into a tailspin. Eating a healthy diet, minimizing stress, and getting plenty of sleep is the foundation of repairing your gut. But it’s often helpful to also add in gut-healing supplements like collagen, glutamine, and omega-3 fatty acids and my personal favorite, bovine immune globulins.
Setting Yourself up for Success
More research is needed to truly understand the intricate role the gut microbiome plays in the development of neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s. But there’s no denying that the health of your gut has a monumental impact on your overall health and your likelihood of developing chronic diseases.
And this is excellent news because you have the power to prioritize the health of your gut and microbiome. Following the steps outlined above can go a long way in keeping your gut happy and healthy. The simple lifestyle choices you make on a daily basis are your most powerful weapon when it comes to protecting your health and longevity.
This is why I’m so dedicated to bringing my patients and readers the most up-to-date and relevant research – so you can be in the driver’s seat when it comes to your health. So if you’re ready to take your health to the next level, I encourage you to sign up for my newsletter. You’ll get all of my very best advice and resources delivered to your inbox. All you have to do is enter your name and email in the form below.
Now it’s time to hear from you. Were you surprised to learn that neurodegenerative diseases may actually originate in the gut? What steps are you taking to prioritize the health of your gut and your microbiome? Leave your questions and thoughts in the comments below!
* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The product mentioned in this article are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. The information in this article is not intended to replace any recommendations or relationship with your physician. Please review references sited at end of article for scientific support of any claims made.