Peaking NH21’s interest this week; news from the California Institute of Technology, where scientists believe they have, “transformed understanding of Parkinson’s disease” resulting in a “paradigm shift that opens entirely new possibilities for treating patients.” (1)

It seems that after years of studying people’s heads for clues; it may actually be bacteria in the gut that are causing the devastating brain disorder; raising hope of new treatments of the proverbial carrot-and-stick variety; drugs to kill the offending microbes, and probiotics to support the body’s preferred ecosystem.

As defined by the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation; PD is a chronic and progressive movement disorder, meaning that symptoms continue and worsen over time. Parkinson’s involves the malfunction and death of vital nerve cells in the brain; primarily affecting neurons in an area called the ‘substantia nigra’. (2)

Some of these dying neurons produce dopamine, a chemical that sends messages to the part of the brain that controls movement and coordination. As PD progresses, the amount of dopamine produced in the brain decreases, leaving a person unable to control movement normally.

Exactly what causes the loss of nerve cells is unclear, and cure is currently beyond the reach of medical science; with treatment focusing on slowing its inevitable progression and managing the symptoms as best as possible.

Yet most experts agree that a combination of genetic and environmental factors is responsible, adding to the sense of excitement around potential probiotic therapy, which, as natural health practitioners have known for centuries, very much forms part of a person’s modifiable lifestyle habits.

Nature AND Nurture

Researchers have previously identified specific genetic mutations that can cause Parkinson’s disease, and note that certain gene variations appear to increase the risk of Parkinson’s disease. (3) They have not yet however, been able to affect much change with this knowledge in order to treat Parkinson’s.

The human genome consists of some 21,000 genes that code for the production of bodily structures and character traits etc. A fair few one might think, albeit less than the microscopic water flea, and about half that of the common rice plant. (4) It seems we are not so highly evolved a species as we might have thought.

The human gut however, houses some 100 trillion microbes from around 4000 different species. These commensal organisms, working to complement our biology, provide around 4 million additional genes that help us to digest supposedly ‘indigestible’ carbohydrates, produce vitally important vitamins including K for blood clotting, and B12 for red blood cell production, plus regulate inflammation.

Neurons in the brain are extremely delicate. Known as ‘permanent cells’, they lose their ability to proliferate at around the time of birth; unlike ‘labile cells’ of the skin and mucous membranes that continue to multiply throughout life. Unfortunately, once they are damaged, neurons stay damaged with little or no chance of healing and repair; making protecting them throughout life an important task.

Exposure to certain toxins and various environmental factors have also been linked to increased risk of developing Parkinson’s disease, no doubt because of their inflammatory effects on both the brain’s delicate neurons and the gut’s microbes.

Industrial herbicides and pesticides are also regularly associated, as is alcohol; which among other things disrupts microbes so fundamentally that they have not been able to evolve resistance; so much so that alcohol is used in the treatment of antibiotic-resistant bacterial strains such as the deadly MRSA, the hospital ‘superbug’ that kills hundreds of people annually.

Dr Arthur Roach, from the charity Parkinson’s UK, notes that, “In recent years, evidence has been growing that Parkinson’s may begin in the gut, but the chain of events involved has so far remained a mystery. There are still many questions to answer, but we hope this will trigger more research that will ultimately revolutionize treatment options for Parkinson’s.” (5)

Parkinson’s Disease is certainly a complex neurological disorder, and it is likely that the body’s gut microbes are neither the sole reason why 10 million people worldwide are currently living with the condition; nor our only hope for effective cure.

Yet we can be cautiously optimistic as research continues to study the relationship between humans and their microbiota; having coexisted since the first homos sapiens walked the earth. Other areas of research into therapeutic applications for ‘heathy’ bacteria include autism, ADHD, diabetes and depression.

The fear though, is that as soon as a strain of bacteria is ‘identified’ and ‘proven’ by clinical trial, it will be patented and sold for profit by large corporations; whilst the work of natural healthcare practitioners continues to be slandered as ‘quackery’ and oppressed by medical authorities.

The effect of a probiotic on the gut microbiota is fleeting. Changes in microbial composition occur rapidly, and disappear equally fast upon removal. As such, supplemental use of probiotics can be beneficial for acute (short-term) health conditions, or for general maintenance of the gastrointestinal health in the longer-term, provided they are administered every day. Even then, they are at best only equal, if not less beneficial, than eating an abundance of dark green vegetables; our gut microbes preferred food source.

Ultimately, whatever the species and whatever medical science manufactures for targeted therapy, probiotics are a remedy only, a salve, a band-aid. They pass through us but don’t hang around for very long. To obtain their benefits you must keep taking them; and even if you do take them daily, adding probiotics alone is, in the words of Evolutionary Biologist Allana Collen, “like sending a foot soldier to war without a box of ammunition.”

For a long-term therapeutic effect, we need to provide an internal bodily environment where beneficial microbes can thrive, day after day, without needing outside intervention to replenish their numbers. This is best achieved by eating a variety of fresh, seasonal, whole foods, in their natural state with the bare minimum of processing.

It goes without saying that reducing environmental and lifestyle pollutants such as alcohol should also form part of an effective protocol; as would a reduction in use of broad-spectrum antibiotics that wreak havoc of the gut’s microbiome and may in the future be shown to be causative of degenerative conditions such as Parkinson’s.

But that is a huge and often controversial discussion worthy of an essay in its own right; and for this writer’s neurons, there has already been enough inflammatory comment for one day! To be continued…

References:

(1 & 5) http://www.bbc.com/news/health-38173287

(2) http://www.pdf.org/about_pd

(3) http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/parkinsons-disease/basics/symptoms/con-20028488

(4) Collen, Alanna. (2015) 10% Human. William Collins, London.