The nervous system has been referred to as the “body's command system.” Everything you do, from thoughts to movements, to processes that you don’t think about or give attention to, such as the beating of your heart or the movement of food through your intestines, is controlled by your nervous system. This article will discuss what the nervous system is and the top neurological conditions treated by integrative medicine. We’ll then discuss functional medicine labs that can help in the individualized treatment of those neurological conditions and look at complementary and integrative treatment options as well.
What is Neurology?
Neurology is the study of medicine focused on the entire nervous system, which is made up of two distinct sections: the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system.
The Central Nervous System
The spinal cord and brain are what make up the central nervous system (CNS). The brain is made of nervous tissue, making it an important organ for life, and is found inside the skull. Within the safety of the skull, there are other layers of protection, including the meninges, cerebrospinal fluid, and the blood-brain barrier. This organ is of the utmost delicacy; slight force can cause significant damage to the brain. The brain is responsible for many actions, including feelings of sensation, responsiveness, memory, thoughts and emotions, communication, and movements. The spinal cord sits within and is protected by the vertebrae in the back and attaches to the brainstem. Other protections of the spinal cord include the meninges and cerebrospinal fluid. The spinal cord has two main functions. First, the spinal cord transmits nerve impulses that are sent from the brain to the periphery in order to control movement. Second, the spinal cord transmits sensory nerve impulses from organs to the brain.
The Peripheral Nervous System
The peripheral nervous system (PNS) is the remainder of the nerve tissue located outside the brain and spinal cord, including the many nerves branching from the brain and spinal cord to all body areas. The PNS has two divisions: the autonomic and somatic nervous systems. As its name implies, the autonomic system controls automatic or unconscious actions. This includes actions by the heart such as pumping blood, kidneys including urine formation, the lungs with breathing, and the stomach and intestines with digestion and absorption. The somatic nervous system includes voluntary actions; these nerves travel to the muscle and skin to insight movements.
What are the Top Neurological Disorders Treated With Integrative Medicine?
Many neurological disorders can benefit from integrative medicine. The most common neurological disorders that may use integrative treatments include:
In Parkinson's disease, neurons that produce the neurotransmitter dopamine are destroyed in a part of the brain known as the substantia nigra. Symptoms of Parkinson’s disease include shaking in a limb at rest or during movement (tremors), slow movements (bradykinesias), rigid muscles, impaired balance leading to trouble walking, hunched-over posture, changes in voice, problems sleeping, trouble writing, gastrointestinal issues including constipation and trouble swallowing, urinary problems, loss of smell (anosmia), and mood changes including depression and anxiety. Additionally, autonomic dysfunctions, including trouble regulating body temperature and uncontrollable saliva production, are also signs of Parkinson’s disease. Causes of Parkinson’s disease include toxic metals, environmental exposures, viral infections, and genetic predispositions.
Epilepsy is a disorder of the CNS that causes recurring seizures. In people with epilepsy, brain conductivity is dysfunctional; random, temporary bursts of electrical activity trigger involuntary movements, sensations, functions, behaviors, and awareness. Signs and symptoms of seizures include uncontrolled muscle movements, blank stares, temporary loss of awareness, loss of muscle tone, numbness, and tingling, loss of bowel/bladder control, changes in hearing, taste, smell, and vision, rubbing of hands, lip smacking, chewing and finger motions. Immediate medical care may be needed with certain seizures, including those lasting longer than five minutes, two seizures in a row, lack of breathing, seizures followed by heat exhaustion, and seizures that cause injury. Seizures in pregnant and diabetic patients should also be given immediate medical care. Causes of epilepsy include infections, genetics, metabolic disorders, and structural changes to the brain due to injury or congenital malformations.
Dementia is characterized by cognitive decline. People with dementia may have cognitive problems including memory, perception, understanding. There are two main types of dementia, primary and secondary. The most common type of primary dementia is Alzheimer’s disease. Secondary dementia may be due to other conditions, including HIV/AIDS and Parkinson’s disease. Secondary dementias are often reversible, whereas primary dementias are not. Signs and symptoms of dementia include worsening short-term memory, getting lost in a familiar area, problems communicating, including difficulty getting words out or finding the right word, taking longer to complete daily routines, loss of interest in once-enjoyable activities, frequent falls, personality changes, and apathetic feelings towards others. Causes of dementia include traumatic brain injuries, nutritional deficiencies, hormones, environmental exposures, metabolic dysfunctions, age, lifestyle choices, and genetics.
Multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disorder, affects the CNS. Multiple sclerosis develops and progresses through two main mechanisms. First, autoimmune cells attack the protein, myelin sheath, that wraps around nerves and impedes their signaling. Second, dysfunctional within the mitochondria of cells, the part of the cell where energy is made, also occurs. This combination leads to problems with the communication between the brain and spinal cord. Because of this, the following symptoms can occur: vision impairments (partial or complete vision loss, blurred or double vision), numbness and tingling on one side of the body, difficulty walking, loss of bladder and bowel control, sexual dysfunction, vertigo, fatigue, mood disturbances, cognitive impairments, and problems with speech and swallowing. Causes of multiple sclerosis include genetics, environmental factors, infections, and gut dysbiosis.
Functional Medicine Labs That Can Help Individualize Treatment for Patients with Neurological Disorders
Many functional medicine labs can help to evaluate the root cause of neurological conditions further and individualize the treatment plans. The following labs are some of the most commonly used functional medicine labs in integrative neurology:
Neurological Autoimmune Reactivity
Cyrex Laboratories offers the Expanded Neurological Autoimmune Reactivity Screen, or Array 7x test for short, that measures antibodies that may be causing a neuro-autoimmune reaction. This test may aid in the early detection of neurodegenerative and neuroinflammatory disorders, including the autoimmune causing multiple sclerosis, and can help tailor the appropriate treatments to the individual patient.
Blood-Brain Barrier Permeability
The blood-brain barrier, a web of blood vessels surrounding the brain, serves as one of the protective layers for the brain, limiting substances from entering it. Cyrex Laboratories Array 20 test measures three different proteins that can indicate how permeable the blood-brain barrier is. Increased blood-brain barrier permeability can predispose a person to epilepsy through neurological defects that lower the threshold for a seizure to occur and can increase the risk of neurodegenerative disorders.
A micronutrient test, such as Vibrant America’s Micronutrient Panel, assesses numerous vitamins and minerals and gives their levels. Many neurological conditions are associated with nutritional deficiencies, including epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and dementia.
Comprehensive Stool Testing
Within the large intestine is the microbiome, a collective group of bacteria, viruses, and fungi that work synergistically with our bodies, meaning they benefit from us, and we benefit from them. The microbiome can affect digestion, absorption, immune function, inflammation, hormone levels, and more. When the levels of good and bad microbes in the microbiome are unbalanced, we refer to it as a dysbiosis. Dysbiosis can influence immune function, inflammation, and permeability of the gut. The permeability of the gut is important; a highly permeable gut, referred to as a “leaky gut,” allows pathogens and food particles not yet ready for absorption to be transferred into the bloodstream. Immune cells react to these particles and pathogens, causing inflammation. Additionally, having a “leaky gut” is a continual process, which equates to continual immune activation. When this occurs, occasionally, a process called “molecular mimicry” happens, where immune cells mistake healthy tissues for their targets, thus triggering autoimmunity.
Because of these factors, a comprehensive stool test such as GI Effects Comprehensive 3 Day test by Genova Diagnostics would be a great choice for many neurological disorders that have a connection to dysbiosis, including Parkinson’s disease, but also those that have connections to leaky gut including Multiple Sclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease, as this test assesses the composition and functioning of the microbiome including markers for leaky gut.
Complementary and Integrative Medicine Treatment for Neurological Disorders
There are many complementary and integrative medicine treatments available for neurological disorders. Options for complementary or integrative treatments include nutrition, supplements and herbs, and sauna therapy.
Nutrition for Patients With Neurological Disorders
Many neurological diseases include inflammation as a component of the disease's etiology and progression. Thus, a low-inflammatory or anti-inflammatory diet may be the best overall choice for neurological conditions. The Mediterranean diet is a well-studied anti-inflammatory diet. This diet consists of healthy fats, including fish, nuts, seeds, and olive oil. It also focuses on the consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables, herbs, spices, legumes, beans, and minimally processed whole grains. The Mediterranean diet avoids excess and processed sugars and processed and artificial foods.
Top Supplements and Herbs for Patients with Neurological Disorders
There are many supplements that integrative practitioners use to help heal the nervous tissue and reduce inflammation in patients with neurological disorders. Here are the most common:
Fish Oil for Neurological Disorders
Fish oil contains omega-3 fatty acids including EPA and DHA. These fats have been shown to affect the structure and function of nervous tissue, including modulating excitability and neuroinflammation. The consumption of fish oil, due to the omega-3 fatty acid content, was shown to reduce seizures in children and adults.
Dose: 1,200 mg/day for seizures
Duration: Minimum 3 months
Fish oil may also be effective for those with multiple sclerosis. A systematic review revealed that fish oil had positive benefits for people with multiple sclerosis, including reduced relapse rates, lower inflammatory markers, and improved quality of life.
Dose: up to 6 grams
Duration: Up to 12 weeks
Fish oil has also been studied for Alzheimer’s disease, a type of dementia. Studies have shown fish oil consumption can reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Additionally, other studies have shown improvements in mental exam scores and depression surveys.
Dose: 4,000 mg (600 mg EPA, 1,600 DHA)/day
Duration: 6 months
Curcumin for Neurological Disorders
Turmeric is a well-known Indian spice sometimes called the "spice of life." One of the active constituents of turmeric is curcumin. It has numerous health benefits, including anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antimicrobial, and anticancer effects. Curcumin was shown to cross the blood-brain barrier and lower inflammation in the brain in those with Parkinson’s disease. Additionally, the antioxidant properties of curcumin neutralize reactive oxygen species that are damaging neurons and cause neuronal death in those with Parkinson’s disease.
Dose: 1.6 g/day
Duration: Dependent upon the patient
Vitamin D for Neurological Disorders
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin primarily made in the body from the sun's UV rays. A large amount of evidence points to vitamin D's role in multiple sclerosis. Supplementing with vitamin D at 400 IU per day significantly reduces the risk of developing multiple sclerosis.
Dose: 400 IU/day
Probiotics for Neurological Disorders
Probiotics are supplements that include beneficial microbes and are aimed at benefiting the gut microbiome. A study published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience evaluated the effects of probiotic supplementation on patients with Parkinson’s disease. In this randomized, double-blind, placebo-control trial, 30 adults with Parkinson’s disease were given probiotics, and 30 others were given a placebo. Results showed significant improvements in cognitive functioning and certain metabolic markers as compared to the placebo group.
Duration: 12 weeks
Magnesium for Neurological Disorders
Magnesium is a mineral required for numerous biochemical pathways in the body. Magnesium may be helpful for those with epilepsy. Deficiencies of magnesium have been associated with the development of seizures. Additionally, magnesium has demonstrated effectiveness for people with seizures when given concurrently with their traditional medications. There are different types of magnesium, but only magnesium threonate is able to cross the blood-brain barrier.
Dose: Magnesium threonate 2,000 mg (containing 144 mg elemental magnesium) once daily
Duration: At least 6-12 weeks
The neurological system affects every part of the body, from cognitive functioning to movements, to internal processes; the nervous system is of utmost importance. Various neurological conditions can be helped with the integration of complementary and integrative medicine, including functional medicine testing to further assess root causes and symptoms. Complementary and integrative treatments are vast and effective and, thus, can and should be included in treatment plans for neurological conditions.