The Old Fashioned View of Parkinson's Disease
Parkinson's Disease was once thought of as "simply" due to a lack of dopamine production in the brain. Dopamine is the chemical responsible, amongst other things, for the transmission of movement signals between brain and body, and for rewarding specific behaviours with feelings of well-being.
In recent years, we have come to understand the profound importance of the highly complex interplays between various hormones and neurotransmitters in the body and brain. We now know that treating medical issues in terms of a shortage or overproduction of any one of these, in isolation, is highly oversimplistic. We must also consider various imbalances and interactions with other biological chemicals too.
Example: Histamine and Dopamine
As a specific case in point, there is a distinct interaction between histamine, which is produced through allergic reactions (and we've found that many people with PD are very sensitive to this kind of inflammation, especially when it comes to food), and dopamine. In fact, histamine production often results in the suppresion of dopamine, and this is why exposure to allergens can markedly impact on PD symptoms in a negative way. Applications of infrared light therapy is now being proven to have a role in combatting allergic responses, and this may be why studies of narrowband infrared treatments for Parkinson's are showing such promise.
The Importance of the Interplay Between Melatonin and Dopamine
In healthy people with good sleep patterns, dopamine and melatonin (the hormone responsible for sleepiness) work together in rhythm. During hours of sunlight, dopamine increases and melatonin decreases, while at night melatonin is higher and dopamine levels are at their lowest. In people with PD, not only is dopamine production affected, but its linkage with melatonin is completely broken too. These two chemicals no longer work in rhythm. So, while there may be a shortage of dopamine in people PD, just as critically there may be a corresponding severe over-production of melatonin. It is therefore simply not clear which symptoms and problems encountered in people with Parkinson's are due to dopamine shortage alone and which are due to the broken interaction between dopamine and melatonin (and other chemicals).
The Disaster of the Dopamine-Melatonin Imbalance
One of the consequences is major disruption to sleep patterns in people with PD. Insomnia, day-time fatigue, several periods of wakefulness during the night, are all commonly experienced. Broken sleep patterns, or the disruption of the so-called "Circadian Rhythm", has severe consequences for the health of otherwise well people. For people with chronic neurological diseases such as Parkinson's, it is potentially disasterous. This is because neuroplasticity (brain self-healing through the creation of new neuronal pathways and the removal of redundant or damaged ones), and processes which remove toxins, dead cells and cell excreta from the brain, typically occur under conditions of prolonged sleep.
What's Wrong with Current Drug Based Therapies?
The current standard treatment of Parkinson's are based on the, now out-moded, ideas that the disease is due to dopamine shortage alone. The available pharmacological solutions are all aimed at replacing dopamine in the brain or stimulating dopamine producing cells to work harder (and, presumably, as a consequence, to burn out quicker?), without paying attention to nor addressing the imbalances and interactions with the other hormones or neuro-transmitters. I particularly gasp in horror when I hear that healthcare professionals, who clearly lack this understanding, are prescribing melatonin in a very ad hoc way as a solution to insomnia in PD, thus potentially increasing the imbalances and worsening the symptoms over the long term.
Resetting the Balance
A number of important studies have now clearly demonstrated that strategic use of light therapy can be highly beneficial for people with Parkinson's. Recent studies aimed mainly at addressing the poor quality of sleep associated Parkinson's, as well as those aimed mainly at addressing depression in people PD, are also inadervently showing improvements in the motor symptoms of the participants too. It is believed this is because strategic light therapies are actually helping to restore the natural balances between dopamine and melatonin and restoring the Circadian Rhythm. Previous strategic light therapy research aimed directly at the PD symptoms themselves have shown very significant benefit, with participants in these studies reporting up to 50% improvement and, simultaneously, up to 50% reduction in Parkinson's medication. Moreover, unlike standard drug therapies for PD, these participants show a stable (non-declining) condition for up to ten years. See my previous articles for further background.
My Experiments with Light Therapy
As part of Out-Thinking Parkinson's, I have been self-experimenting with light therapy for some time. I started with a bright light-box and found that it helped reduce my bradykinesia (stiffness and rigidity of muscles), and, more importantly, the associated aches and pains, quite quickly after starting. However, I also discovered that if I forget or neglect to be pro-active with the bright light strategies, even for a few days, then my symptoms return in force, but once I restart the therapy, the symptoms quickly reduce again. I have been through this cycle several times now. So, for myself, I'm certain of the efficacy of light therapy on my own quality of life.
More recently, I have been exploring new generation wearable light therapy technology. In particular, in collaboration with Toine Schoutens from Propeaq, I have been testing the efficacy of their blue light glasses for Parkinson's Disease. After extended trials on myself, the outcomes of which I will be describing in detail in my very next post, I am now personally convinced that, of all the quality of life interventions I have tried and tested, the strategic use of these glasses has been, by far, the singlemost impactful one on my symptoms. I am now therefore extremely hopeful that such technologies can and do have the potential to benefit people with PD greatly. I am also now convinced that the most important application could be in addressing some of the chronic pain issues which afflict and plague sufferers of PD so terribly.