- Alternative & Natural Medicine
Alzheimer's Disease - A Natural Approach
Normal and Alzheimer's Brains
Alzheimer's Disease and Other Dementias
Dementia of various types, of which Alzheimer’s is the most common, is an increasing problem in the world of today. One of the reasons why it is becoming less common is that people are living to increasingly advanced ages now compared to the early and middle years of the last century. Bluntly and rather crudely put, at that time (and even more so earlier than that) you were very likely to die of something else before dementia of any type started its attack. The same applies to many other degenerative diseases, including osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, cancer and various forms of heart disease.
There isn’t much doubt about that. Somewhat more controversial is the idea that degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s are more common now partly because of higher levels of some toxins in the environment, combined with less nutritious food. Processed food in general is higher in assorted unnatural chemicals and lower in many nutrients, compared with freshly made food.
In general, Alzheimer’s or other dementia is characterised by confusion, irritability, depression, reduction of mental abilities and short-term memory, apathy and childish behaviour; the old folk phrase “second childhood” conveys some of this. Alzheimer’s is responsible for approximately 50% of cases of dementia; most of the rest are caused by various vascular disorders.
Diagnosis of dementia is very difficult, and pinning it down to Alzheimer’s is even more so, because many of the symptoms can be caused by other problems including simple fatigue (often caused by nutrient deficiencies) and drug side effects; also by clinical depression which, although also a brain disorder, has different roots including disturbed brain chemistry. No lay person should attempt to diagnose dementia.
Alzheimer’s in particular is characterised by tangles of non-functional nerve fibres in the brain and also by lack of various neurotransmitters. The most likely cause of both of these is that a protein (prion) normally found in the brain converts into a non-functional, and in fact toxic, shape. In some ways, this is similar to such problems as CJD and “mad cow” disease, in that unfortunately the malformed prions cause the normal ones to change shape in turn.
Causes of Alzheimer’s and other dementias are varied, but most of the factors increase risk of both Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia. The single exception is aluminium, which is specific to Alzheimer’s disease.
General Nutritional Deficiency
Lack of almost any vitamin or mineral can cause cognitive impairment, potentially leading to dementia. The most likely causes of malnutrition in the elderly are poor digestion (including problems with the teeth, leading to problems with chewing food), low food intake because many elderly people are not very mobile, and overuse of processed foods. The B group of vitamins is particularly important here.
There is a related point regarding five specific nutrients; folic acid, vitamin B12, vitamin B2, vitamin B6 and zinc. These nutrients are needed to clear out of the system a compound called homocysteine, which is a natural intermediate in the metabolism but in excess is highly toxic. The effects of high homocysteine levels are essentially oxidative damage, which in turn causes direct damage to the brain cells and also to the circulatory system. The latter can cause various vascular problems such as haemorrhoids, varicose veins and heart disease. It can also cause problems in the brain related to impaired blood supply.
Many prescription drugs have a potential to cause cognitive impairment, particularly sedatives and tranquillisers. A recent study revealed that about 30% of elderly people (retiring age and above) are taking 8 or more different drugs. Unfortunately, the only realistic solution to this is to try to get your doctor to review your medication regularly. It is far from uncommon for patients, particularly elderly ones, to be on drugs that they have been taking for a decade or more and no longer actually need.
Free Radical Damage
Many people now know what free radicals are in essence; but to condense the millions of words that have been written on this subject, free radicals are highly unstable and very reactive chemicals which come from various sources and damage just about all body tissues. Brain tissue is particularly susceptible to this because it doesn’t regenerate to any extent. Free radical damage can also cause indirect damage to the brain, by causing blood supply problems; the brain needs vast amounts of blood – about 25% of the body’s oxygen and glucose supplies go to the brain.
Unstable Blood Sugar Levels
Fairly common in elderly (and also middle-aged) people, unstable blood sugar can cause direct impairment in brain function when it’s high and damage to various body structures when it’s high. Controlling blood sugar levels is therefore also a good idea.
Several approaches can be used to help slow down Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias or prevent them if not already present.
Avoid exposure to aluminium: the two things to do here are to limit the use of cooking foil and also not to use cooking pans made of aluminium. Cooking highly acidic foods such as rhubarb in aluminium pans is a particularly bad idea. A less important source of aluminium is antiperspirants; try not to use antiperspirants containing aluminium, which most do. Antiperspirants containing alternative active compounds, such as zirconium salts, are available.
Keep up intake of antioxidants; carotenoids (from some types of melon, carrots, sweet potatoes and tomatoes), flavonoids from various fruits, proanthocyanidins from bilberry, red grapes, blackcurrants and so on. In general, if a fruit is dark red, purple or black then it contains proanthocyanidins, which are of this sort of colour. Also, ensuring adequate supply of vitamins C and E is necessary.
Control blood sugar levels; avoiding the excessive consumption of sugar and easily digested starches helps a lot here, so eat wholemeal bread instead of white. Wholemeal bread is also far more nutritious and is high in fibre. If dietary changes are not enough, then consider supplementing with chromium; chromium salts help with blood sugar control.
Keep homocysteine low; this means keeping up levels of the nutrients mentioned above. A good multivitamin/mineral should take care of this, with the possible need for additional vitamin B12 because elderly people often absorb this vitamin very poorly.
The next group of nutrients are aimed at keeping the circulation moving; garlic and fish oil both make the blood less viscous, thus improving circulation to the brain. Fish oil also contains essential fats necessary to the health of the nerve cells themselves. The best way of getting these is probably to eat garlic and oily fish, but many people don’t much like one or both of these.
Ginkgo biloba is a herb that is also useful in improving brain circulation, and has direct beneficial effects on brain chemistry as well.
Finally; anyone already on medication should take professional advice before taking a new supplement, as the drugs may well react in unpredictable ways with the supplements. As an example, warfarin (which many elderly people take regularly, because it is needed after heart valve replacements for example) reacts very unpredictably indeed with ginkgo and fish oil. In fact, radical changes of diet probably need professional advice beforehand too. After all, if the amount of fish oils in the body changes drastically it doesn’t really matter whether the reason is that you have suddenly started taking pills or suddenly started eating mackerel. Large, sudden changes of diet can cause unpleasant digestive upsets, too.