Written by: Kevin Cann
Hippocrates was quoted as saying “All disease begins in the gut.” It may just be taking us until now to realize that he was right. Google any disease/disorder and gut health and I am sure there is some quality information out there that shows poor gut health is linked to it.
Recent epidemiological research published out of Aarhus University in Denmark is showing a link between gut health and Parkinson’s disease. You may be thinking how a disease that effects our brains can actually start in the gut. This is the amazing part of the human body. Even though we have numerous systems, they are all interconnected and communicate constantly with one another.
Quick disclaimer regarding this study. This is epidemiological research and shows correlation without causation. It is the starting point of research, and more studies need to be conducted to see if poor gut health leads to Parkinson’s. Also, this does not mean that if you take a probiotic every day that you will not get the disease. Diseases are very complex in their origins and it is very likely there are numerous means of developing them. Nothing will ever replace a healthy diet, quality sleep, and exercise in terms of preventing disease.
Researchers out of Aarhus University looked at 15,000 patients that have had their vagus nerve severed. The vagus nerve is one of the largest nerves in the body and connects our gut to our brain. I thought this was odd at first, but apparently in the 1970s and 1980s severing the vagus nerve was a common procedure to alleviate ulcers.
Researchers looked at these patients with the belief that if Parkinson’s begins in the gut it must travel up the vagus nerve to the brain. Interestingly enough this hypothesis appears to be correct. Patients who had their entire vagus nerve removed had half the chance of developing Parkinson’s disease 20 years down the road. Those patients that only had a small piece removed were not protected from developing Parkinson’s later in life.
Gastrointestinal distress is common amongst patients with Parkinson’s disease, making this research even more interesting. Patients with Parkinson’s often suffer from constipation, dysphagia, and issues of gastric emptying (1). Most believe that these gastrointestinal issues are tied to the neurological decline of the patient, but they may have it backwards.
The idea to look at patients with their vagus nerve removed did not come out of thin air. Animal studies have shown that there is a connection between vagus nerve dysfunction and the development of Parkinson’s disease.
Clinical studies have shown that the dorsal motor nucleus of the vagus nerve is one of the first areas of the brain affected in Parkinson’s. Studies performed on rats showed that stimulation of the vagus nerve actually led to impairment in the dopamine system of the rats. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is found to be dysfunctional in Parkinson’s patients. In fact, most of the medications for the disease affect this pathway (2).
This research may help explain why the rates of Parkinson’s disease has increased since the 1970s. I do not think anyone will argue that our gut health is much worse off now than it was back then. Our diets are filled with processed foods and the overprescribing of antibiotics, as well as other medications for that matter, have done quite some damage on our overall gut health.
The good news is that all of this is completely reversible with a few lifestyle changes. Our gut is an environment of living organisms that need nourishment the same way that we do. In fact, they are us. Eating a diet filled with nutrient dense foods gives our gut bacteria the nutrients that they need to thrive.
Taking a quality probiotic can also help change the tides of your gut health more quickly. Probiotics help lay the foundation of good gut health while the nutritious foods you are eating allows them to grow and flourish. You cannot just take a probiotic and continue making poor lifestyle choices. Taking a probiotic mixed with a diet of processed foods will not alleviate any current symptoms you may be experiencing and it will not decrease your risk of developing Parkinson’s disease later in life.
We have seen the positive effects positive dietary changes have had on other neurological disorders. Dr. Wahls is doing some great research with dietary intervention and multiple sclerosis (MS). We have also seen the positive effects dietary changes can have on diseases like Alzheimer’s. Perhaps all of these changes have one thing in common, a positive change to our gut health. This may just be one step closer to proving Hippocrates correct. Maybe all diseases do begin in the gut and we should always look there first.