Neurodegenerative Diseases and Gut Health: The Gut-Brain Axis

Neurodegenerative Diseases and Gut Health: The Gut-Brain Axis

Over the decades, the average lifespan has increased with the development of advances in medicine and technology. With many people living well into their 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, new health issues have also increased. Sadly, neurodegenerative diseases are one such health issue. 

New research is constantly coming out as scientists fight to find a cure or way to prevent these life-altering diseases. That’s good news! Even better news is that, based on this new research, there are things you can do right now to prevent the onset of a neurodegenerative disease. The key to this? Your gut-brain axis. 

What are Neurodegenerative Diseases? 

Forgetfulness. Tremors. Acute loss of memory. Failure to recognize family members. Feelings of depression and anxiety. These are all examples of the debilitating symptoms of neurodegenerative diseases. These diseases cause degeneration, damage, and death to the neurons that make up your nervous system. 

Ultimately, it is a disease in your brain. Your brain is a complex organ made up of billions of cells that help keep you alive and functioning, the most important of which are neurons. These cells are the backbone of your entire nervous system. Your nervous system controls your movements, thoughts, and reactions to the outside world. It also controls your body processes such as breathing, digestion, and more. You can see how it’s important. As neurons are damaged, your brain’s ability to transmit information to the rest of the body is damaged.  

What are the symptoms?

Your brain’s failure to communicate with the rest of your body can have implications on almost every bodily function. As neurons are injured and brain cells degrade, minor or severe changes in behavior can occur. Your motor function can also be impaired. The following is a list of the most common symptoms of neurodegenerative diseases: 

  • memory loss
  • forgetfulness
  • apathy
  • anxiety
  • agitation
  • a loss of inhibition
  • mood changes

There are several different types of neurodegenerative diseases, and the exact symptoms you experience will depend on which particular disease you have. Here is a list of the more common neurodegenerative diseases: 

  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Huntington’s disease
  • Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Lewy body dementia

Treatment for these illnesses often includes medicine that attempts to reduce symptoms. The main goal for many who suffer from a neurodegenerative disease is to maintain quality of life as much as possible. 

Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease 

Two of the more common neurodegenerative diseases are Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease. In Alzheimer’s, microscopic lesions occur in various sites over the brain, creating “grey matter.” At first, they will affect cognition but eventually spread through the entire brain. In Parkinson’s Disease, cell death occurs in a particular region of the brain. It affects two vital neurotransmitters: dopamine and norepinephrine. This causes many normal body functions to break down.

As brain-focused cures for these diseases remain elusive, more and more research explores a link between neurodegenerative diseases and your gut health!

What is the Gut-Brain Axis 

The gut is commonly referred to as the second brain. Ever been told to listen to your gut instinct? Interestingly enough, your gut and your brain actually do communicate, and on a daily basis! Constant messages are being sent from your gut to your brain and vice versa. This is called the gut-brain axis.

Previous research thought that neurodegenerative diseases occurred solely in the brain, but new research is exploring the interconnectedness of the gut-brain axis regarding these health issues.

So how are your gut and your brain connected? The vagus nerve is what connects the central nervous system to the gastrointestinal tract, more commonly known as your gut. Inputs from your CNS can impact your gut, and inputs from your gut can impact your CNS. It’s a beautiful relationship and one that works to keep your body healthy and functioning optimally. 

The importance of Gut Health 

In fact, your GI tract is so important to your body’s overall health that an unhealthy gut can cause serious issues. Leaky gut, autoimmune disease, and weight gain are just a few problems associated with an unhealthy stomach. What’s the key to a healthy gut? Your gut microbiome.

Your GI is home to billions of microscopic organisms, such as fungi, bacteria, and viruses. This community of microbes plays a crucial role in everything from your immune system to weight regulation. Increasing evidence demonstrates that your gut microbiome is an important part of understanding neurodegenerative disease. 

In one recent study, the stool of 128 dementia and non-dementia patients was analyzed. Scientists found significant differences between the two, such as lower levels of bacteroides in dementia patients. This doesn’t demonstrate cause and effect, but it does give rise to a new avenue of research. It also shows just how important maintaining a healthy gut can be! 

The link between neurodegenerative disease and gut health 

Maintaining a healthy gut is important but you may be wondering how exactly neurodegenerative disease and gut health are related. Other than communicating with each other, does the link go any deeper? The answer is yes. Researchers suspect that an altered microbiome can impact neurodegeneration in a few ways. 

Blood-Brain Barrier Permeability

There is a semi-permeable barrier that separates your brain from the rest of the bloodstream. It allows only certain molecules to pass. An imbalanced microbiome has been shown to increase the permeability of this barrier. This allows pro-inflammatory molecules to pass through and disrupt your central nervous system. These molecules play a role in the development and progression of neurodegenerative disease. 

Immune Response and Inflammation 

An imbalanced microbiome means that there may be more “bad” bacteria living in your gut than “good” bacteria. This can damage the integrity of the lining of your intestinal tract, allowing these molecules to “leak” into your bloodstream. Your body then produces an immune reaction as it creates an inflammatory response to fight the assumed intruders. Again, pro-inflammatory molecules can disrupt your CNS. 

Gene Expression

In some cases, individuals will have a genetic predisposition to neurodegenerative disease. However, more research is revealing that lifestyle factors, especially those that impact your gut microbiome, have a major influence on how your genes are expressed. If you create a situation where you have an imbalanced microbiome, you may have a greater chance of expressing such a gene.

How to Support a Healthy Gut Microbiome 

If you’ve been living with an unhealthy gut, don’t sweat it. There is a way to restore and heal your gut microbiome. It involves some lifestyle changes, but the payoff is worth it! The following is a list of things you can do to begin living with a healthy gut microbiome: 

  • Remove inflammatory foods from your diet, such as processed foods, sugars, and refined oils. 
  • Work to reduce chronic emotional stress. 
  • Replenish your gut with nutrient-dense foods such as fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, and high-quality proteins. 
  • Repopulate your gut with “good” bacteria by taking a probiotic supplement or eating an abundance of fermented food such as kefir, kombucha, and sauerkraut. 
  • Get enough sleep each night. 

More research is needed to explore the link between neurodegenerative disease and gut health fully. However, maintaining a healthy gut microbiome is beneficial to your overall health, and may prevent the development of chronic disease and neurodegeneration. The best part is that it’s something you can control yourself!  

If you want professional help to ensure your gut is healthy and want to address any underlying causes that could be contributing to a neurodegenerative disease, please reach out to Dr. Lisa Ballehr. She is a functional medicine doctor in Mesa, AZ, who uses functional medicine approaches to treat health issues once and for all. Take her FREE online health assessment now to get started. 

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