I caught a spot on Oprah today with the actor Michael J. Fox discussing his battle with the neurological symptoms of Parkinson's Disease. He's always been an engaging persona, and I enjoyed the segment. As a nurse, I've always had a strong interest in neurological disorders, and have done a lot of reading on the links between Celiac disease and neurological disorders, especially gluten ataxia. At this point, Michael's symptoms are very noticeable and greatly affect the day-to-day activities of his life. Toward the end of the segment, he related that many of his symptoms "mysteriously disappeared" on a recent trip to the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. Dr. Mahmet Oz, Oprah's frequent medical spokesman, was also a guest on the show, and was tossing out ideas of why this might be, everything from "they eat a lot of chili's" to the benefits of high altitude, or on medications that Michael took to help with adapting to the altitude. But, I grew very excited by the prospect that Michael J. Fox's improvement was a response to, however accidental, a gluten-free diet! Because, I knew from personal experience that the diet in this part of Asia is largely based on daily consumption of dhalbhat, or rice and dahl (small yellow lentils). Fresh vegetables are rare at high altitudes, but the diet is supplemented by occasional meat, except in some strict Bhuddist or Hindu areas.
In 1980 I lived in a neighboring small kingdom of Nepal, and ate almost exclusively a diet of rice, dhal, some vegetables, and occasional sheep or goat meat. Dates, peanut butter, and raisins rounded out our diet, washed down with copious amounts of chai tea, made with black tea and canned evaporated milk. Granted that I also was exercising vigorously much of the time, but looking back, this was when I was at the healthiest, strongest, and most vital in my entire life. Unbeknownst to me, my travels had excluded gluten from my diet for nearly six months. Upon my return to the U.S., and binging on all my favorite gluten-laden foods, I suffered severe intestinal distress, lasting nearly two years. Of course, at the time, both my doctors and I attributed all of my gastrointestinal symptoms to parasites, bacterial infections, and other health problems common to returning travelers. It was decades later that I was diagnosed with a gluten problem, and finally began to recover my health.
So, back to the possibility of excluding gluten from the diet having a beneficial effect on Parkinson's, or a possible link between Parkinson's and celiac disease or gluten intolerance, I have to say that I haven't found much evidence. But, that doesn't mean I believe the link doesn't exist. There are many established links between other neurological disorders and neurological symptoms and the consumption of gluten in sensitive individuals. What I would love to see now is readers responding to this blog, or sending me an email, sharing personal stories, links to articles, etc. on this topic.