Parkinson’s disease linked to the gut

Evidence suggests the causes for Parkinson’s disease may originate in the gut.

Parkinson's disease may start in the gut
Parkinson’s disease may start in the gut

The Guardian1 ran a story yesterday, pulling together some of the latest evidence linking the origins of Parkinson’s disease to the gut. It has long been thought that when a protein called alpha-synuclein is misfolded and clumps together in the brain, it is associated with nerve damage and a reduction in dopamine. This, in turn, is presumed to be responsible for the deterioration in the control of speech and movement, two of the key symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. But recent research in this field has been looking at the gut as a potential point of origin for the misfolded alpha-synuclein.

clinic doctor health hospital

The direct two-way channel between the gut and brain (the gut-brain axis) is being seen as an increasingly important mediator of human health.  A recent study with mice has added weight to the hypothesis that the misfolded alpha-synuclein originates in the intestinal tract and use the vagus nerve to travel to the brain. This follows earlier findings that indicate having your appendix removed reduces the chances of developing Parkinson’s in later life. Taken together these studies signpost the possibility that prevention of  Parkinson’s disease could focus on the gut rather than the brain.

However, there are a number of further steps that need to be made, not least a convincing explanation of what causes the misfolding of alpha-synuclein in the gut. As such, it is premature to conclude that the primary cause of Parkinson’s disease originates in the digestive tract. But this latest evidence underpins the importance of the gut in human health more generally. Understanding how to maintain a healthy gut microbiome through the use of prebiotics and probiotics is entering the mainstream. In addition, science is also drawing our attention to the pressing need to avoid substances that degrade or limit gut health, such as the chemicals that are present in a wide range of foodstuffs.

 

Notes

1 https://www.theguardian.com

Fibromyalgia breakthrough; pain linked to gut health

Could gut bacteria and therefore diet hold important secrets about the causes of fibromyalgia syndrome?

Gut health linked to fibromyalgia
Gut health linked to fibromyalgia

Perhaps I should begin by describing the range of symptoms most commonly associated with fibromyalgia syndrome (FMS). According to the NHS1, increased sensitivity to pain is typically experienced by sufferers of FMS, it can be so severe that even a light touch can be a problem. There is evidence2 that when fibromyalgia patients are exposed to pain-inducing stimuli, they demonstrate a stronger neurologic pain signature that a control group (people without fibromyalgia). However, the pain is not restricted just to the sense of touch, it can also be provoked by things a person might see, inhale or eat. People living with FMS might also experience great tiredness, problems sleeping, muscle stiffness and spasms, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), poor cognitive function and headaches. The syndrome is also frequently correlated with anxiety and depression. FMS can be a life-changing and debilitating condition, unfortunately, the causes are currently unknown, although abnormal levels of brain chemicals are thought to play an important role.

If the findings of a scientific study published last week3 are confirmed, FMS may have to be viewed in a totally new light. A team of scientists compared the gut microbiomes of 77 women with FMS to a control group. Significant differences were identified in the composition of the gut bacteria of these two groups. Through algorithmic analysis, the variance in the respective groups of microbiomes was found to be linked to FMS related issues (more than any other cause). So put simply, if the results translate to the wider population, people living with FMS are likely to have different gut bacteria than those without FMS. There is not any suggestion of causality here, that gut bacteria alone is the cause of fibromyalgia. However, we cannot avoid the speculative idea that changes to gut bacteria could mediate the symptoms experienced by FMS patients.

This is just one study, the results have to be replicated in order for provisional findings to be confirmed. But if demonstrated to be reliable, the evidence would signpost new ways to understand and possibly treat FMS. For example, can the composition of gut bacteria be changed away from that typically found in someone with FMS, to a profile resembling someone without FMS? If any such change led to a reduction or elimination of fibromyalgia symptoms, a new way to deal with this illness might be developed, perhaps linked to diet. This is particularly interesting when considered alongside studies that suggest chemicals found in everyday food such as bread may be able to disrupt the gut microbiome.

It will take a sustained period of research in scientific and clinical environments to confirm any of the speculative hypotheses discussed here. But at least two important issues emerge from this latest evidence. Firstly, that the gut-brain axis can be considered as a potential mediating factor is FMS, and secondly, that gut microbiome alteration may be correlated with non-visceral pain more generally. Therefore eating or not eating ‘healthily’ may be linked to an increasingly wide range of human health conditions.

 

Notes

1 NHS website
2 Towards a neurophysiological signature for fibromyalgia
3 Altered microbiome composition in individuals with fibromyalgia

Could the glyphosate in your bread be harming you?

Could glyphosate in your bread be harming your health and gut microbiome? Time to switch to organic

Glyphosate in our bread
Is bread harming our health?

Bread is perhaps the oldest and most prominent of all man-made foods, it predates agriculture and there is evidence of its continuous use in some parts of the world for over 20,000 years. In essence, all you need to make bread is grains (flour) and a little water, the kneaded dough will rise (leaven) if left, because of the presence of naturally occurring sourdough microbes in the air.  Then all you have to do is bake, sounds simple, doesn’t it?

The problem is that to make a greater profit from bread production, some of the natural processes, used for tens of thousands of years, have to be modified. For example, greater mechanisation in bread production1 allows lower quality (lower protein) grains to be used, reducing the nutritional value of the bread we consume. Modern chemicals are also having an increasing role in our food production, including grain farming. The Government’s own figures show that the area treated with glyphosate in the UK increased by a quarter between 2014 – 20162.

So why the ‘glyphosate revolution’ in food production, what value does it add and what are the likely consequences to our health? Glyphosate is an active ingredient in some weedkillers, such as Roundup (developed by Monsanto). It is used on the soil to kill weeds before young plants emerge, and in the case of wheat, it is sprayed onto ripening crops to improve yields in a process called ‘drying’. We know that glyphosate is in the soil, the water, in our grain, in our bread and therefore in us3.

There was a time in our recent past when we generally believed in scientists and our government’s ability to regulate science for the common good. Health problems linked to human contact with glyphosate have been discussed for many years. In 2015 the World Health Organisation (WHO) found that the available evidence indicated glyphosate was ‘probably carcinogenic’ to humans4. Over a dozen countries have banned or limited the use of glyphosate, yet in many nations, it continues to be consumed by the wider population in different forms, despite evidence of its potential to harm.

So what’s all this got to do with Gut Well Soon? Unsurprisingly some organisations that make profits from the production, sale and use of glyphosate continue to maintain, that at the levels humans ingest the substance, there is no increased risk of developing cancer. However, courts are awarding billions of dollars in damages against Monsanto following claims that exposure to Roundup caused cancers5. There is also credible evidence that glyphosate has an impact on the microbiome, even at very low levels of ingestion. Meaning that our gut health may be declining because the food we eat has been tainted with chemicals.

So what can you do about this? There are suggestions that the explosion in wheat and gluten intolerance seen over the last 20 years, might be correlated with the increasing use of chemicals in grain production. No causal link has been proven but we do know that switching to sourdough bread has benefitted the health of a large number of people with digestive problems. It seems intuitive, that by eating bread with no traces of weedkillers our health (collectively) is likely to improve. This all inevitably leads us to a conversation about switching to organic, naturally produced bread including sourdough.

Notes

1 Chorleywood Bread Process
2 Soil Association
3 Concerns over use of glyphosate-based herbicides
4 IARC
5 The Guardian

Autism correlated with gut health

Autism correlated with guthealth. More evidence links gut bacteria to developmental disorders.

Our gut bacteria may play a role in Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)
Our gut bacteria may play a role in Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)

There is mounting evidence of a relationship between the microbiome and autism. Taken in isolation one study that challenges conventional thinking about any condition such as autism should be treated with suspicion. However, increasing scientific research into gut health and wellbeing is starting to shift the thinking about human health in a completely new direction.

A number of studies have observed abnormal gut microbiota correlated with a range of conditions including autism. However, the issue of causality is still uncertain. So what does this mean?  In short that the bacteria in the human gut demonstrates a different profile in people with autism than people without autism. The scientific term for a balance and blend of gut bacteria that fall outside of the ‘normal’ range is known as dysbiosis. Exactly how gut dysbiosis is linked to autism is still far from clear. There is the possibility that dysbiosis is the effect of a condition rather than the cause of it, although we know there is a two-way relationship between the gut and the brain through the gut-brain access.

A recent overview of research into gut microbiota and dysbiosis in autism found that gut microbiota probably has a mediating role in ASD. By logical deduction, we can be confident that diet at some level is likely to be connected to the development of ASD or the maintenance of its symptoms.

So while we are waiting for science to deliver ‘conclusive’ findings that will help us understand more about autism, what shall we do?

Clearly, we should attempt to establish a healthy gut. The list of health problems linked to dysbiosis grows almost every day, they currently include a range of cancers, heart disease and even dementia! Amongst the simple measures every person can engage with immediately to keep a healthy gut, are to avoid processed meats and eat more fermented foods.

It’s far too early to draw firm conclusions about diet and complex developmental conditions such as ASD. But a picture is starting to emerge were just as diet influences gut health, gut health influences physical and mental wellbeing, there was never a greater case for embracing the maxim ‘we are what we eat’.

Fibre and your health; time for a rethink

Fibre is an essential part of the human diet, strategic reviews indicate that consuming just 30g of fibre a day is correlated to reduced risk of colon cancer, type-2 diabetes, heart attacks and strokes.

Fibre and your health
Fibre and your health

For most of us, there is a simple thing we can do to improve our short and long-term health, eat more fibre! The role of fibre in regulating digestion has been understood by humans for hundreds of years. But the full benefits linked to fibre (also known as roughage) are only just starting to be understood. A recent study published in The Lancet1 analysed a wide range of research and found that a shortage of fibre in our diets is linked to greater risks of type-2 diabetes, bowel cancer, heart attacks and strokes. In addition, people that eat more fibre tend to have lower weight, lower blood pressure and reduced cholesterol levels. Amazingly the research suggested that consuming a mere 30g (1oz) of fibre a day was sufficient to deliver the full range of health benefits. To put this into some kind of perspective the 30g target can be reached by consuming four slices of brown bread, eating a handful of nuts and seeds in addition to the regulation five portions of fruit and veg a day. In essence, it is available to most of us with only a few small changes to our eating habits.

pile of sliced wheat breads

Fibre consumed through our diet can be divided into two types, soluble and insoluble. Soluble fibre is generally thought of as a prebiotic, which means it supports communities of helpful bacteria in the gut microbiome. Insoluble fibre does not dissolve in water and typically passes through the digestive system aiding bowel movements. Most fibre rich foods contain soluble and insoluble elements, today food science is more concerned with the total amount of fibre rather than the different forms (cellulose, pectins and beta glucans) we eat.

In summary; fibre is an essential part of the human diet, strategic reviews of the available evidence strongly suggest that consuming 30g of fibre a day is correlated to a reduced risk of colon cancer, type-2 diabetes, heart attacks and strokes. There is a growing body of evidence that fibre also plays an important role in maintaining helpful bacteria in the gut microbiome.

Foods rich in fibre2 include;

  • Wholegrains (wholegrain breakfast cereals, wholewheat pasta, oats, barley,  rye and wholegrain bread).
  • Fibre-rich fruits (berries, apple, pear, melon and orange).
  • Fibre-rich vegetables (broccoli, carrot and sweetcorn).
  • A wide range of pulses, peas and beans.
  • Nuts and seeds.
  • Root crops cooked with skins on (potatoes, sweet potatoes).

Notes

1www.thelancet.com
2www.nutrition.org.uk

Blueberries, polyphenols and gut health

Blueberries appear to offer a wide range of benefits including supporting guthealth.

Blueberries polyphenols and gut health
Polyphenol-rich blueberries aid gut health

Being a meditation scientist I often write about lifestyle choices that support augmented brain function and structure. As a general rule food that is associated with a healthy brain also positively correlates with improved general health and well-being. So having just blogged an article explaining how blueberry consumption can reduce effective brain age by up to 2.5 years I looked up potential relationships between blueberries and the gut microbiome.

Berries in general and blueberries, in particular, are good natural sources of polyphenols and therefore limit the effect of oxidisation, a cause of cell damage. But we also know that polyphenols lead to a healthier gut through the creation of metabolites which in turn support communities of beneficial bacteria.

As we age, chronic diseases become more likely1, when low-grade inflammation is an underlying factor, scientists refer to this as the “inflammaging” syndrome. In the gut, health inflammaging is linked to a weakening of a number of internal systems (homeostasis) including a reduction in the efficiency of the immune barrier. In experiments with mice, it was suggested that polyphenols reduced intestinal inflammation and led to the modulation of the gut microbiota. The evidence is that berries are rich sources of polyphenols and so are likely to have a positive impact on chronic diseases linked to gut health, particularly in older populations.

According to the Blueberry Council, the benefits of blueberries extend beyond inflammaging.

  • Experiments have demonstrated an improved insulin response in blueberry-fed mice when compared to controls.
  • Further evidence for augmented cognitive function in animals and humans has been found.
  • There are also preliminary studies supporting a relationship between blueberry consumption and reduced growth in cancerous cells.

assorted sliced fruits in white ceramic bowl

Polyphenol is found in a wide range of fruit and vegetables as well as nuts and pulses. Here are some of the top 100 food sources of polyphenol according to a study published in 20102.

  • Cloves – 15,188mg per 100g serving
  • Cocoa powder – 3,448mg per 100g serving
  • Lowbush blueberry – 836mg per 100g serving
  • Black olive – 569mg per 100g serving
  • Plum – 377mg per 100g serving
  • Soy, tempeh – 148mg per 100g serving
  • Apple – 136mg per 100g serving
  • Spinach – 119mg per 100g serving
  • Pumpkin – 60mg per 100g serving
  • Soy milk – 18mg per 100ml serving

Notes

https://academic.oup.com
2 https://www.researchgate.net

Health risks of bacon hit the headlines

Health risks of bacon and other processed meats hit the headlines.

Bacon and poor health
The relationship between bacon and poor health makes the news

I’ve been reading about the potential health risks linked to meat consumption for decades1. The evidence of a relationship between processed meat products in particular and serious illnesses including cancer has been established for many years. So recent and widespread calls to rid bacon and ham of nitrates comes as no surprise. In fact, in some senses, it feels like a long overdue and underwhelming response.

raw meat on brown wooden surface

Needless to say, The British Meat Processors Association stand by their bacon and maintain that nitrates are ‘authorised additives’. However the dispute over the risks and benefits of nitrates in processed meat begs the question, why don’t we do away with processed meats altogether? Meats are processed to modify the taste or extend the shelf life, products include bacon, sausages, hot dogs, salami, corned beef, beef jerky, ham as well as canned meats. Until we know more about the relative health risks of the different products it might be advisable to avoid them all.

 

Notes

1 Relation of meat, fat, and fiber intake to the risk of colon cancer in a prospective study among women published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1990.