There has been a lot of talk in the last few years about the brain-gut connection, and how Parkinson’s Disease may start in the gut.
In this article we’ll explore:
What the gut microbiome is
The impact of the gut microbiome on Parkinson’s symptoms
The causes of poor gut health
A 4-step daily routine you can use to jump start your own gut health
What is the Microbiome?
Your body houses a collection of microscopic organisms, called your “microbiome”, which includes trillions of bacteria, fungi, viruses, and other microbes.
Most of your microbiome is found in your intestines and colon, also known as your “gut”, and these gut bugs do a lot!
They’re responsible for digesting food, starting immune system responses, guard against infections, remove toxins from your body and produce a host of vitamins and neurotransmitters that are critical for daily function and health (1,2).
Your gut microbiome is as original as your fingerprint, but there are certain combinations of microbes that are the hallmarks of a healthy gut (3). “Good” and “bad” bacteria, for instance, are both found in a healthy gut but work in symphony. This is called “gut symbiosis”. Problems can surface when “bad” bacteria, fungi, viruses, or parasites disrupt this balance, often referred to as “gut dysbiosis”.
A disruption in the gut microbiota can cause the intestinal lining to break down, allowing toxins and other foreign substances to pass through the gut lining and into the bloodstream triggering a systemic inflammatory response(4). This breakdown of gut lining is referred to as “leaky gut” syndrome.
There are a variety of symptoms associated with leaky gut:
Food sensitivities or allergies
Digestive problems (constipation, gas, bloating)
Skin issues like acne, eczema, and rosacea
If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, it’s likely that your gut health has been compromised.
Causes of Poor Gut Health
Damage to the microbiome and gut can be due to a variety of factors.
The biggest factor that affects the health of your gut is the food you eat on a regular basis. Diets that are high in processed foods, refined sugars, and low in fiber leave the gut vulnerable to dysbiosis. Systematically phasing these foods out and replacing them with higher quality, gut healing foods is an important step in returning to gut symbiosis.
Stress on your system - whether it’s mental, physical, or emotional - over a long period of time wears down your immune system by way of your HPA axis and also negatively impacts your gut microbiome (13). Your adrenal glands (which are responsible for producing cortisol in times of duress) are stimulated constantly and your body can’t focus on healing and repair.
Medication is important and helpful in many ways. However, certain drugs - like antibiotics, NSAIDs (eg. ibeuprofen, naproxen, and Celebrex), and proton-pump inhibitors (used to treat acid-reflux) - can have a negative impact on the microbiome and can contribute to leaky gut.
NOTE: Do not discontinue any medication without first consulting your physician.
Your body’s ability to repair the lining of your gut depends heavily on having the right amount of nutrients circulating in your system, especially iron, Vitamin C, Vitamin A, Vitamin D, and zinc. Parkinson’s has been associated with a variety of nutrient deficiencies (14), so ensuring your diet and supplementation profile are as nutrient-dense as possible is a must.
Environmental chemicals - such as pesticides, artificial sweeteners, and heavy-metals - can effect the composition and function of the gut microbiota (2). An important metal to note is aluminum, which is a well known neurotoxin that accumulates in a part of the brain called the substantia nigra of individuals with Parkinson’s disease (15).
Brain-Gut Connection and Parkinson’s Disease
A disrupted gut has been linked to a variety of diseases including depression, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, inflammatory bowel disease, and multiple sclerosis (3). Now we’re also starting to see researchers diving deeper into the connection between the gut and Parkinson’s disease.
One hypothesis is that a-synuclein (the misfolded protein found in the central nervous system of people diagnosed with Parkinson’s) pathology may spread from the gut to the brain via the vagus nerve (5). Other evidence suggests gut microbiota changes associated with intestinal inflammation may contribute to initiation of α-synuclein misfolding (6).
If you’ve already been diagnosed with Parkinson’s, the health of your gut still matters.
Studies in mice have found that the composition of the gut microbiome significantly impacted motor symptoms (7). In the largest study of small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) and Parkinson’s, researchers found SIBO was present in 25% of people diagnosed with Parkinson’s and independently predicted worse motor function (8).
Constipation- likely due to slowed gut motility in combination with gut dysbiosis and poor dietary habits - is a non-motor symptom that has been reported up to 20 years before a Parkinson’s diagnosis (9), and can significantly decrease the effectiveness of Parkinson’s medications.
Parkinson’s Gut Health Jump Start
It’s no surprise that the hunt is on for new therapeutic approaches for Parkinson’s that target the gut microbiota (10-12). Fortunately, you don’t have to wait for the next scientific breakthrough to get a jump start on improving the health of your gut.
The goal of this jump start is to begin to decrease inflammation, heal the gut lining, and restore healthy gut balance (good and bad bacteria) through 4 simple strategies that you can start today with very little investment and very little change to your diet.
Let’s take a look…
#1. Add a Digestive Detoxifying Elixir (upon waking)
An easy way to prepare your gut for the day is to drink a combination of raw apple cider vinegar (ACV), lemon, and warm water first thing in the morning on an empty stomach.
Raw apple cider vinegar is a scientifically proven antifungal, helps stabilize blood sugar, and stimulates digestion while lemons are high in Vitamin C. These help kick-start the detoxification of the liver, allowing it to produce bile and move toxins into your stool.
8 ounces of warm water
Juice from ¼ of a lemon
2 Tbsp of raw apple cider vinegar*
Combine and chug. (Plugging your nose helps with the bitterness!) Swish some water around your mouth and teeth after to help with the taste and protect your tooth enamel.
#2. Hydrate Properly (within 30 minutes of waking)
Hydrating properly early in the day will stimulate your digestion and help your body flush out toxins that have accumulated while you were sleeping. Adding a pinch of celtic sea salt to your water helps you hydrate efficiently, as well as nourish your adrenals and balance your blood sugar. Drinking a water bolus (at least 16 ounces in one sitting) can also boost blood pressure if you have a tendency to run low in the morning (16).
32 ounces of filtered, room temperature water
¼ tsp of celtic sea salt
Combine and drink at least 16 ounces. Do this before having any caffeine. Drink the second 16 ounces within the hour.
#3. Take a Power Walk (before 10AM)
Exercise stimulates digestion, and walking specifically produces a wringing motion in your torso that helps detoxify and move food along your digestive tract. When you walk early in the morning, the sunshine hitting your eyes helps regulate your circadian rhythm and lets your body know it’s time to wake up.
Take a 10-15 minute power walk around the block. Emphasize swinging your arms, or use walking poles for added benefit.
#4. Eat a Healthy Breakfast (first meal of the day)
The first meal of the day should be packed with nutrients, fiber, and antioxidants needed for gut healing and building a balanced gut microbiome. Eating “brain-boosting” foods like fresh fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, nuts, and seeds will also keep your blood sugar balanced so you have more energy throughout the day.
Aim to have the first meal of the day be the healthiest, and ride the wave of success the rest of the day!
Here are 3 “brain-boosting” breakfast options to try this week that take minimal preparation.
¼ large avocado, sliced
2 boiled eggs, cut in half
2 cups of green kale, torn up by hand
⅓ cup sauerkraut*
2 Tbsp organic coconut oil
Pinch of celtic sea salt
Pinch of ground pepper
Add kale and coconut oil to a skillet over low-medium heat. Sautee, stirring occasionally until kale softens. Sprinkle with celtic sea salt and remove from heat.
Add avocado, egg, and sauerkraut on top.
*Skip the sauerkraut if you are taking an MAO-B inhibitor which does not react well with fermented foods.
NUTTY BERRY QUINOA BOWL (makes 2-4 servings)
1 cup quinoa
2 cups coconut-almond milk
½ tsp of cinnamon
¼ tsp of cardamom
Soak 1 cup of dry quinoa overnight.
In the morning, combine all of the above in a medium pot.
Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer until quinoa is cooked through (approx 7-10 min).
Scoop quinoa into a bowl and add toppings (below) to fit your taste.
Eat and enjoy! Save the leftovers for tomorrow’s breakfast.
2-4 cups mixed berries - blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, or strawberries
¼ cup organic slivered almonds
2 Tbsp maple syrup
BERRY GREEN SMOOTHIE
2 scoops vanilla protein (I like PlantFusion)
3 1/2 cup coconut-almond milk (or any nut-milk)
1 cup frozen organic blueberries
1 cup frozen organic sweet cherries
2 cups of frozen or fresh spinach
2 Tbsp organic almond butter
Water or ice for texture
Add frozen spinach, blueberries, and cherries to the blender.
Top with protein and almond butter.
Pour coconut-almond milk over top.
Cover and blend, stopping to stir or add water/ice as needed to achieve a texture you like.
Do you want to take your gut healing to the next level?
The Parkinson’s Gut Health Protocol was created by a functional medicine dietitian specialized in brain health. This 6-week online course walks you through the 4 phases of gut healing step-by-step so you can reduce inflammation, restore your gut microbiome, and optimize your brain health.