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The Truth: Did Autoimmunity Cause Your Neurodegenerative Disease?

Your health has changed in recent months, you don’t feel like yourself, and everyday tasks are getting harder to perform. Even walking can be a struggle at times. And then there are other signs like tremors, weakness, numbness, and tingling.

Could it be a neurodegenerative disease?

If it is, all is not lost. More and more diseases are being revealed as having a foundation in autoimmunity and inflammation – with the potential for treatment.

What Is Multiple Sclerosis?

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune disease that affects your brain and spinal cord and can cause central and peripheral nervous system symptoms. When you have MS, your immune system mistakenly attacks the protective sheath on your nerve cells – called the myelin. This causes nerve damage, and the resulting inflammation can interfere with the ability to communicate between your brain and body. 

Multiple sclerosis symptoms can be hard to pin down, as they vary from person to person. But you may experience:

  • An electric-shock sensation when you move your neck in certain ways – particularly bending it forward (Lhermitte’s sign)
  • Weakness or numbness typically on one side of your body – or in your legs and torso
  • A lack of coordination, unsteady walk, or a tremor
  • Blurry or double vision
  • Loss of vision in one eye – either partial or fully
  • Fatigue
  • Pain or tingling
  • Slurred speech
  • Bowel or bladder problems

There is usually not just one singular trigger for MS, but contributing factors can include smoking, low vitamin D, and chronic infections like Epstein-Barr virus and Lyme disease for example. Genetics also play a role, although there is not one MS gene that is responsible.  If you have a history of teen obesity or are female you have an increased risk of MS.

How Is MS Diagnosed?

There’s no single test for multiple sclerosis – it’s a process of eliminating other conditions and checking for changes in your brain and spinal cord. Your doctor may need the following to make a multiple sclerosis diagnosis:

  1. Physical exam – including a neurological exam where your reflexes, strength and sensation are tested.
  2. Blood tests – a test for specific MS biomarkers is under development but not available yet, in the meantime, your doctor may look at:
    1. Tests to rule out infections that can cause neurological symptoms like Lyme disease
    2. ANA (antinuclear antibodies) and other immune markers – to rule out systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) and other autoimmune diseases.
    3. NMO-IgG – to rule out Devic’s disease in those that have optic neuritis symptoms.
    4. Nutrient levels like Vitamin D and B12 for example – if you have a deficiency in B12 it can cause symptoms similar to those in MS. And we know low Vitamin D is a risk factor for MS. 
  3. Spinal tap – Your spinal fluid, when extracted, can be tested for elevated IgG antibodies or oligoclonal bands.
  4. MRI – allows your doctor to check for lesions on your brain and spinal cord that can be evidence of MS damage.
  5. Evoked potential tests – These tests record the electrical impulses your nervous system makes in response to stimulus, testing how quickly the information travels through your nervous system.

What Is Parkinson’s Disease?

Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative disorder where parts of the brain become damaged over a number of years. When the substantia nigra is impaired, it affects the nerve cells that produce dopamine – an important chemical messenger that passes messages between the nervous system and the brain to control and coordinate body movements. A drop in dopamine levels causes difficulty in movement and coordination – but symptoms of Parkinson’s typically only begin when 80% of the substantia nigra is already lost.

The underlying cause of Parkinson’s disease is still being researched, but new research indicates that autoimmunity may be the source – specifically inflammation, made worse by the effects of aging. As you become older, your immune system can become more sensitive – even picking up on normally benign things, such as your own tissues. Patients with Parkinson’s have higher numbers of T-cells in their midbrain and share genetic risk factors associated with autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis.

Parkinson’s disease symptoms include:

  • Shaking or tremors – this begins in your hand or arm, usually when you’re resting your limb.
  • Rigid muscles – this stiffness can make it difficult to move or make certain facial expressions, sometimes resulting in cramps.
  • Slow movement – you find yourself moving slower than before making routine tasks difficult, and you take small shuffling steps when walking.

There are many other symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, including balance problems, nerve pain, depression, and brain fog. If you suspect you have Parkinson’s, it is important to seek a doctor’s opinion as soon as possible.

How Do I Get a Diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease?

There’s no specific test for Parkinson’s disease – so often it’s a process of elimination, but mostly it’s your symptoms and your neurological exam that determines your diagnosis.

Your doctor may need you to undergo the following tests:

  1. Physical exam – your doctor can make a record of your symptoms and will watch you walk, or undertake simple tasks, so they can view your symptoms in action.  Along with checking reflexes, strength, and sensation. 
  2. Blood tests – Although there is a blood test for Parkinson’s being developed, it’s not available yet. In the meantime, your doctor can use the results to rule out other diseases:
    1. Thyroid function test – checking your thyroid hormone levels to rule out an issue with your thyroid.
    2. Liver function test – although there are links between liver disease and Parkinson’s, it’s important to rule out any issues with your liver.
    3. Chronic infections affecting the nervous system.
    4. Toxins affecting the nervous system.
    5. Nutrient deficiencies. 
  3. Imaging scan – Although Parkinson’s disease is a clinical diagnosis, a dopamine transporter (DAT) scan may be useful in some cases. For this test, a radioactive tracer is injected into your bloodstream and it makes its way up to your brain. It attaches to dopamine neurons, and a scan of your brain can reveal if the part responsible for dopamine has shrunk – which can indicate Parkinson’s, or another dopamine-related disorder.  An MRI of the brain and spinal cord is also usually done to rule out any other conditions that may be contributing to symptoms. 
  4. Trial of a Parkinson’s medication – a significant reduction of your symptoms while taking the medicine is also a form of diagnosis.

A diagnosis is crucial before you can consider any form of treatment for Parkinson’s. Once you’ve had confirmation you can find the best treatment for you.

What Can Functional Medicine Do for Neurodegenerative Disease?

Both multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease are caused by autoimmunity and chronic inflammation. It’s not enough to take medications to mask the symptoms – wouldn’t it be better if you could target the underlying symptoms?

Functional medicine focuses on the root causes of disease, and a functional medicine doctor such as myself always focuses on comprehensive testing and individualized treatment to really dig down into treating you. In the case of multiple sclerosis or Parkinson’s disease, you may feel like you have very few options left. But with the right supervision and the tools to improve your sleep, stress levels, gut health, diet, and exercise, you can actually reduce your inflammation and improve your immune system response– and therefore reduce some of your symptoms.

We can help you in tackling autoimmune disease. If you’re interested in checking out functional medicine in the Phoenix, Scottsdale, Paradise Valley, Arizona area, call to book an appointment at 602 892-4727 or fill out our contact form. If you’re not local to us, why not try 7 Weeks to Your Healthiest Self – our masterclass that provides you with the lifestyle change benefits of functional medicine – from the comfort and privacy of your own home.

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