IBS and Other Gut Conditions May Be Early Warning Signs of Parkinson’s Disease

A doctor examining a patient.
New research suggests that people living with gut conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) may be at higher risk of Parkinson’s disease. Luis Alvarez/Getty Images
  • A new study has found a link between some gut conditions and Parkinson’s disease.
  • People with these conditions were more likely to develop this neurological disorder.
  • It is thought that the link might be mediated by the gut-brain axis.
  • However, it is not yet clear whether these conditions actually cause Parkinson’s.
  • Experts suggest following a healthy lifestyle and avoiding environmental toxins to reduce risk.

According to a new study published in the journal Gut, certain gut conditions — including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), constipation, problems with swallowing, and delayed stomach emptying — could be a precursor to the later development of Parkinson’s disease.

Parkinson’s disease is a progressive brain disorder that causes uncontrollable movements and problems with balance and coordination, according to the National Institute on Aging.

The study authors write that it has previously been proposed that Parkinson’s disease originates in the gastrointestinal tract.

They further note that similar links have already been found for other disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease and cerebrovascular disease.

Their goal with the current study was to test out the hypothesis as it relates to Parkinson’s disease.

Testing the link between gut conditions and Parkinson’s disease

In order to conduct their study, the team of researchers utilized data from TriNetX, a nationwide network of medical records.

They examined the records of 24,624 people who had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease without a known cause, comparing them with 19,046 people who had an Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis and 23,942 individuals with cerebrovascular disease. There were also 24,624 people included who had none of these conditions.

Those with Parkinson’s were matched with people in the other groups in order to compare how often they experienced gut conditions in the years immediately leading up to their Parkinson’s diagnosis.

Additionally, in order to look at the issue in a different way, the study participants were split up according to whether they had any of 18 different gut conditions.

Those in these groups were then matched with those who did not have the gut condition of interest and observed for five years to see if they subsequently developed Parkinson’s disease or any other neurological disorder.

Both methods of analysis showed the same result: four gut conditions — Idelayed stomach emptying, difficulty swallowing, constipation, and IBS without diarrhea — were associated with a higher risk of developing Parkinson’s disease.

IBS without diarrhea was linked with a 17% greater risk for the disease, while the other three more than doubled the risk.

Certain other conditions — such as functional dyspepsia, IBS with diarrhea, and diarrhea with fecal incontinence — were also more common among those who later received a Parkinson’s diagnosis.

However, inflammatory bowel disease and removal of the vagus nerve in order to treat peptic ulcer did not seem to confer any increased risk.

Additionally, there was one condition, appendix removal, which appeared to actually be protective against Parkinson’s disease.

Why gut conditions might be linked to Parkinson’s disease

It is important to note, say the authors, that this is an observational study, meaning that they simply observed what happened rather than trying to change anything. This means that it’s not possible to infer whether having a gut issue actually caused people to develop Parkinson’s disease.

However, according to Dr. Sumeet Kumar, founder of GenesWellness, who was not a part of the current study, there is growing evidence showing a correlation between gastrointestinal disturbances and Parkinson’s disease.

“Although the underlying mechanism of this connection is not yet fully elucidated,” said Kumar, “hypotheses include damage to the neural pathways that control movement due to gastrointestinal inflammation, or interactions with the gut’s microbial environment affecting Parkinson’s.”

Kumar went on to explain that the relationship may be mediated by the gut-brain axis, which is the neural network that enables communication between the gastrointestinal tract and the central nervous system.

“Dysfunction or inflammation within the gut can consequently interfere with neurological processes, including motor functions,” he noted.

Kumar further explained that research has identified altered bacterial compositions in people with Parkinson’s, creating additional support for the gut microbiome’s role in this disease.

“For those exhibiting correlated gastrointestinal symptoms, immediate medical consultation is vital for early diagnosis and enhancing life quality,” he advised.

What people can do to prevent Parkinson’s disease

Karen Sherwood, an integrative clinical nutritionist, noted that Parkinson’s has been “highly associated” with environmental toxins as well as more recently being linked to gut imbalances.

“When you add these 2 together, we can confidently conclude that having daily bowel movements is a good way to shift the body into preventative mode,” she said.

Sherwood added that diet and lifestyle changes can be extremely effective in this area. She recommends the following:

  • Eating high-fiber, organic, colorful fruits and vegetables every day
  • Avoiding highly processed foods, added sugar, and industrialized fats and seed oils
  • Getting regular movement, such as walking and lifting weights
  • Drinking plenty of water

Sherwood also suggests avoiding environmental toxins that have been linked to Parkinson’s disease.

According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, various pesticides and herbicides; MPTP; Agent Orange; manganese and other metals; solvents; and various other organic pollutants, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are all substances that are believed to play a role in the development of the disease.

Takeaway

There is increasing evidence of a link between certain gut conditions and neurological disorders like Parkinson’s.

While it’s not clear exactly why this link exists, it could be due to the way gut inflammation affects the brain via the gut-brain axis.

Until we understand more, it’s important to make diet and lifestyle choices that enhance gut health and avoid environmental exposure to toxins that have been linked to the disease.

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