Updated: Mar 3, 2019
No one wants to think about it. The very idea of us getting it is so foreign to us that it’s easy to ignore. And yet an estimated 5.4 million Americans will gradually lose their minds, literally.
Alzheimer’s disease, is a progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys your memory and thinking skills, and eventually the ability to carry out the simplest of tasks. It is considered irreversible, and it is increasing in the United States at an alarming rate.
In most people with Alzheimer’s, symptoms first appear in their mid-60s. Estimates vary, but experts suggest that in addition to the five plus million Americans who have Alzheimer’s hundreds of thousands more may be suffering from an often misdiagnosed subtype of the disease called hippocampal sparing Alzheimer’s.
It has been estimated that as many as 600,000 people may suffer from this poorly diagnosed condition which manifests mostly in males and at younger ages than the traditional Alzheimer’s age. In hippocampal Sparing Alzheimer’s we see mostly behavioral problems such as frequent and sometimes profane angry outbursts, feelings that their limbs do not belong to them and sometimes idiopathic visual disturbances. Although these individuals seem to decline at a more rapid rate, their memories are maintained; making their condition more difficult to diagnose as an Alzheimer’s condition.
Alzheimer's disease is currently ranked as the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, but a few studies have postulated that this disorder may actually rank third, just behind heart disease and cancer, as a cause of death for older people. Most concerning is the rate of increase of the disease. A study reported in the March 2014 issue of Alzheimer’s and Dementia, showed that an estimated 600,000 people age 65 and older with Alzheimer’s died in 2010. The study stated that this number will continue to rise to 900,000 by 2030 and to 1.6 million by 2050. This is an increase from 32 percent of deaths in people age 65 and older attributed to Alzheimer’s in 2010 to an estimated 43 percent in this population in 2050. Obviously the numbers are meant to be alarming, but right or wrong, the numbers do eliminate a genetic component due to the rapidity of its estimated increase. With genetics eliminated, we are left with three possible issues. Diet, toxicity and pharmaceutical intervention.
While many physicians agree that there are no screening tests currently for this disease, and treatments do little to improve the patient once they are diagnosed, there is opportunity to prevent this devastating disease with something called prevention.
In this article I will outline ten strategies to reduce your risk of this condition, but other factors are also at play here. For example, there are correlations between heart disease and diabetes that suggest strongly that Alzheimer’s has its root cause in inflammation. Research has suggested for instance that diabetics have twice the risk of developing Alzheimer’s. In 2005 some researchers actually called this disease Type 3 diabetes after discovering that the brain was able to produce its own insulin as a response to a high processed carbohydrate diet. Researchers have also discovered that a toxic protein called ADDL or amyloid beta-derived diffusible ligands (amyloid plaque) are present leading up to brain cell destruction, and that these ADDL’s turn off the neurons which regulate brain insulin allowing a higher susceptibility to the disease. Since ADDL’s are plaque based, it is also postulated that there is a connection to heart disease and atherosclerosis and Alzheimer’s.
Once you begin to narrow down the symptoms and lifestyles, research begins to draw conclusions that have merit. We have already discussed the connection between blood sugar and Alzheimer’s, but we should take it a step further. Sugar is known to cause inflammation its true, but there’s a far more important factor at play here. Let’s first discuss the factors known to reduce brain plaque however.
There is a growing body of evidence connecting Alzheimer’s and dementia to vitamin D and how the brain functions. Most studies connecting this relationship are called observational studies, meaning they can only find a relationship between vitamin D and Alzheimer’s, but they don’t know if not getting enough vitamin D actually causes Alzheimer’s.
In general, research has found that people with Alzheimer’s also have lower levels of vitamin D in their blood. Although it is unknown whether Alzheimer’s is caused by a low D or whether Alzheimer’s somehow affects the absorption of D, or whether higher vitamin D levels slow oxidation in the brain which then offers preventative protection. Previous research has suggested that oxidative damage caused by highly reactive oxygen molecules in the body plays a role in Alzheimer’s. Any antioxidant laden food found to reduce this reactive oxygen species (ROS) formation would likely be helpful, but I will point out that supplemented antioxidants have not been found to be nearly as effective as real food. Antioxidants also reduce lipid peroxidation, DNA damage, and tau phosphorylation—all factors identified in Alzheimer’s disease. That would lend compelling evidence towards treating Alzheimer’s with real food, high in antioxidants and low in processed or man-made additives.
Additionally, people with low vitamin D levels do worse on tests that measure how well their brain is working.
Ginkgo Biloba Extract
Ginkgo biloba extract’s antioxidant properties are able to neutralize the free radicals that can damage proteins within the cell, enzymes, or the fragile lipid membranes that surround and protect the cell. Brain cells are composed mainly of fat, which is particularly vulnerable to free radical damage. Individuals who sustain free radical damage over a long period of time may experience deterioration in both their physical and their mental capacity. Ginkgo has been proven to protect the delicate brain cells from this devastating damage, and to improve blood flow to the brain, which is also important for healthy cognitive function.
Since numerous studies have shown that ginkgo biloba extract has a beneficial effect on Alzheimer’s disease, its effect on the exposure of brain cells to beta-amyloid protein has also been investigated, and the results are very promising. A study published in the May 2004 issue of the Journal of Neuroinflammation reported that brain cells pre-treated with ginkgo extract and then exposed to beta-amyloid protein were resistant to the toxic effects of beta-amyloid and survived without damage.
A study at Georgetown University Medical Center found that nerve cells exposed to beta-amyloid displayed free radical production, and cellular death. On the other hand, after they had been pre-treated with ginkgo biloba extract, free radical production, and cellular damage and death were all inhibited. The fact that we find this effect in ginkgo biloba should not be as surprising as the idea that any high anti-oxidant free radical damage preventing food or spice would have similar properties. Properties that a diet high in sugar and highly processed foods, such as in the Western diet, would not have.
Red Ginsing Extract
Also called panax ginseng, red ginseng is considered an adaptogen, that’s an herb used to help individuals cope with physical and emotional stress. It is the most commonly used ginseng. Literally, thousands of studies have demonstrated that ginseng supports a myriad of health concerns ranging from maintaining normal glucose levels to stimulating immune function.
Japanese studies have demonstrated that in addition to improving memory, the ginseng extracts are able to regenerate brain axons and synapses in laboratory animals. This is highly significant because these brain cells are typically destroyed by Alzheimer’s.
Rosemary Extract and Sage
A study at the University of Naples, Italy, demonstrated that rosmarinic acid had neuroprotective effects on the brain cells of laboratory animals that were exposed to the toxic effects of beta-amyloid protein. Rosemary and sage both have high antioxidant values, which also slow oxidation and thus slow plaque accumulates. The researchers concluded that the extract might be effective in patients suffering from mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease.
In addition to preventing the toxicity of beta-amyloid to brain cells, rosmarinic acid has also been found to both inhibit the formation of beta-amyloid AND destabilize and dissolve beta-amyloid fibrils that have already formed. These results were so impressive that the researchers concluded that rosmarinic acid “could be a key molecule for the development of therapeutics for Alzheimer’s disease.”
There exist two types of fatty acids in the omega-3 class called EPA and DHA, both of which have demonstrated their ability to reduce inflammation and reduce also the risk of heart disease, cancer and other chronic conditions. It is now clear that omega-3 fatty acids, along with vitamin D3 have the ability to enhance the immune system, lower inflammation and clear the brain of amyloid plaque. Omega 3 oils are powerful anti-oxidants which help control naturally occurring free radicals that play an essential part in many biological functions, such as immunity and cellular repair. Obviously a balance is critical because excess free radicals lead to cellular damage (DNA damage).
A study reported in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease found that key genes regulated by D3 and omega-3 fatty acids help to both control inflammation and clear plaque. Another study in the FASEB Journal also found that brain inflammation and amyloid plaque were reduced.
In a study published in the journal Alzheimer’s and Dementia it was reported that omega-3 derivatives are able to stimulate the breakdown of amyloid plaque that kills brain cells and causes the plaque accumulate. Clearly Omega-3 oils, known to be able to penetrate the blood-brain barrier have huge potential in the breakdown of disease derivatives that lead to Alzheimer’s and dementia type disease.
A study found in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease supports already existing evidence that coconut oil may help to alleviate the neurodegenerative effects of Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s. The study, like those of other “good fats” studies shines light on how healthy fats actually help reduce amyloid plaques.
Coconut oil may actually be better than most drugs being developed currently for Alzheimer’s. Other studies find similar results. Research conducted in 2011 for instance looked at the role of diet in developing Alzheimer’s, and the role of cholesterol uptake to the brain. While the brain represents 2% of the body’s total mass, it contains 25% of the total cholesterol so preventing lipid oxidation would be of vital importance and coconut oil, omega-3’s and Vitamin D3 are very good at that. One issue however is statin drugs. Today, one out of every four Americans over the age of 45 is now prescribed statin drugs, and while many tout its benefits, it may in fact be that statins drugs make the matters worse.
Now I realize that many argue that cholesterol reduction is a good thing for Alzheimer’s, but how could it be? If the brain is 25% cholesterol it is likely required. The real evidence is in the statin research however. Statin drugs interfere with pathways necessary to make cholesterol. The liver makes the natural cholesterol therefore the statin drug would suppress the liver's ability to do so, and as a consequence the level of LDL in the blood would drop. But since cholesterol plays a crucial role in the brain, both in terms of enabling signal transport across the synapse and in encouraging the growth of neurons through healthy development of the myelin sheath then lowering cholesterol too much must have adverse consequence. The statin advocates proudly proclaim that statins are effective at interfering with cholesterol production in the brain as well as in the liver, but brain dysfunction from those drugs are now well established. The increased use of statins in the general population and the rapid increase in Alzheimer’s, although not clearly established, creates an interesting correlation with the disease and pharmaceutical intervention gone astray.
Click here for a comprehensive read on the subject of statins and Alzheimer’s I recommend reading.
It is interesting to note that exercise has far deeper reaching benefits than simply getting stronger muscles or heart. Researchers from the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, claim dementia sufferer’s benefit greatly from regular exercise. The researchers claim that participants with mild dementia who exercise demonstrate improvements in cognitive function and their ability to perform daily activities.
Another study looked at exercise and gut health. They found that exercise and protein may actually help the good bacteria in the gut which is associated with a strong immune system. Whatever the effects, it is well established that exercise reduces cognitive decline in adults and boosts learning in children. It is also well established that strength training has an anti-inflammation effect on the body with its production of myokines.
Diabetics have a difficult time controlling blood sugar levels, which leads to the condition known as diabetes. It is perhaps not as well understood that having diabetes increases the risk of Alzheimer’s. Dietary changes which encompass the avoidance of processed carbohydrates and sugars, but increases healthy fats have been found highly effective in both weight loss, cancer treatment and in slowing Alzheimer’s. These ketogenic diets derive their names from using dietary fats (not sugar) for energy. Such diets produces ketone bodies as a by-product, which are useful in the brain.
The so called high processed carb, high sugar diets are also a major cause of inflammation too. Fact is Scientists have long linked diabetes, cancer, arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease, pain and heart disease with inflammation. Amyloid plaque has been well established in diabetics, as has inflammation. It would appear that foods promoting inflammation; such as processed carbohydrates, gluten laden foods, sugary snacks and sodas may have a larger impact on dementia and its family of diseases than we once believed.
We often do not think of sleep as important, but lack of sleep or waking up several times during the night (poor sleep) may be bad for the brain and may increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
People with Alzheimer’s disease tend to sleep poorly and spend more time awake at night. But scientists have been uncertain whether poor sleep contributes to Alzheimer’s onset, or if troubled sleep is actually an early symptom of Alzheimer’s.
One study at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore discovered that getting less sleep or sleeping poorly was tied to an increase in brain levels of beta-amyloid. The researchers found that those who got under 5 hours of sleep per night had higher levels of plaque than those who slept longer.
The Gut Microbiome
Perhaps the most exciting finding in this decade is the connection with our gut health and our brain health. There exists within the gut certain bacteria that are able to determine not only our health, but also our mood, our cravings for food and what to eat and when. So powerful is this system it has been dubbed the second brain.
The gut bacteria represents one of the largest collections of cells in the human body. We hold about four and one half pounds of microbes in our gut. There are tens of trillions of micro-organisms that live there which consist of over 3 million genes. Even more astounding is that two thirds of the gut microbiome is unique to each individual, and it keeps you healthy when it is healthy!
We know that this microbiome aids in the production of certain vitamins, such as vitamins B and K - and we already know it plays a major role in immune function. But, apart from influencing whether we gain weight or not, which influences disease, it may also play another interesting role. The cells of the microbiome produce information that flows between your brain and gut. Most of these chemical messengers are biochemically-identical to those found in the brain.
We can estimate that 50% of the dopamine and 95% of the serotonin in the body is found within the GI tract. Serotonin is important to help us sleep, and low dopamine is involved with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. It is interesting to note that Alzheimer’s occurs in 35-40% of Parkinson’s patients. Dopamine in fact is particularly important in regulating the cognitive process in the brain.
It would be important to understand the mechanism by which this occurs, but let’s first understand that things like processed carbohydrates, sugar, fake sweeteners, stress, steroid medications, and a lack of fiber destroy the gut bacteria. This would also lower our ability to produce dopamine and serotonin! Anything influencing loss of gut bacteria is therefore substantial to our health.
When we think about vaccine injures such as autism and epilepsy, we generally consider that a direct brain or neurological injury has occurred. But this may not necessarily be the case. A huge part of brain injury occurs because first the gut bacteria have been compromised. To quote Scientific American: "Autism is primarily a disorder of the brain, but research suggests that as many as nine out of 10 individuals with the condition also suffer from gastrointestinal problems such as inflammatory bowel disease and 'leaky gut'. In essence the slow destruction of the gut leads to the higher susceptibility of brain and autoimmune injury. How this occurs is still a debate, but the research has indicated that it is the destruction of the ability to produce serotonin by the gut which may lead to glutamate toxicity and brain damage.
It is interesting to note that many of the diseases we take as different diseases all have their likely root in the destruction of the gut microbiome. This leads to inflammation and then to injury to which ever organ they attack based on the mechanism of injury. In the case of Alzheimer’s which is clouded in inflammation at its root, it would make sense.
Look at it this way. Your gut lining is the second line of defense of your immune system (tonsils are the first, who knew!). The outer layers of the gut are connected together by structures called tight junctions. At the apex of the cell are hair-like structures called villi, whose job it is to absorb nutrients, transport them through the cell wall and then into the blood. Ok, so during normal digestion these tight junctions remain tightly packed together forcing everything in the gut to be thoroughly screened for bacteria and viruses. Effectively keeping bacteria out of the bloodstream.
But, certain things we take (antibiotics) or eat (refined sugars, processed carbs), including stress (hormonal) can lead to either inflammation in the gut, or a destruction of the gut flora which cause the tight junctions to begin to become more permeable. This allows substances that ordinarily would not enter the bloodstream entry.
At first your body treats these substances like a foreign invader and attack them to control them inside the body. Initially, your Liver, your third line of defense (after the tonsils and the gut), is called into action to work overtime and try to clean out all the particles that your intestinal lining was supposed to be taking care of but didn’t. But the liver has no chance of keeping up. All the toxins, undigested food molecules, yeast, and other pathogens start to accumulate in your body and quickly overwhelm the system.
As the liver falls behind the body begins to become more toxic. The foreign particles of partially digested materials make their way into the tissues of the body and cause systemic inflammation. Inflammation is a normal immune response, but the constant toxicity causes chronic inflammation. The immune system then fails to do its job and now bacteria and toxins are free to roam and cause havoc within your body. Depending on the organs that are most affected by the systemic inflammation, certain conditions begin to manifest. In the body it might be chronic fatigue. It may affect the connective tissue and manifest as fibromyalgia. The nerves as Multiple Sclerosis; the bowel as Chon’s and colitis; the joints as rheumatoid arthritis; the heart as heart disease or, in the case of this article, the brain as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s or dementia.
Your body tries to fight the immune irritation but eventually it will begin to produce antibodies to fight against the foreign particles in the blood, which happened to start as food. So the milk you drink, those nuts or that grain with all that gluten suddenly triggers an immune response every time you eat it.
To treat this you have to eliminate the foods that are causing the problems and begin the process of gut repair. But that’s the subject of another blog.
The take away point I want you to understand is that there is help available. Drugs are not the answer, they simply Band-Aid the problem. True prevention means you need to clean up your diet of refined sugars, processed carbohydrates, high fructose corn syrups, grains and meats that are treated with antibiotics. You need to first get your inflammation under control because that is your key to allowing your body to fight disease. That means you start by cleaning up your diet by eliminating inflammatory foods. If you have diabetes, get your insulin, leptin resistance under control, exercise and seek professional help.
Prevention is the key. As Benjamin Franklin once said “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”.