12-Step Alzheimer’s Prevention Plan
By Sarah Axtell, ND • October 3, 2015
Alzheimer’s is on the rise, with 5.4 million people in the US affected. Like heart disease and diabetes, Alzheimer’s is lifestyle preventable. Here is my approach to preventing and reversing cognitive decline. It is never too early to start preventing this chronic, degenerative disease.
1. Diet – The Anti-Inflammatory diet is my go-to dietary intervention for Alzheimer’s with an emphasis on minimizing carbohydrates. Alzheimer’s is now being termed “Diabetes of the brain.” A gluten-free diet is a must to reduce the inflammation associated with Alzheimer’s, but you must take one step further – reduce your overall grain intake. Grains are high in carbs, which will stimulate your pancreas to produce insulin. When your body overproduces insulin in response to too much sugar and grains in your diet, the cells in your brain can become resistant. And when the cells in your brain become insulin-resistant, you start to lose memory and become disoriented. You even might lose aspects of your personality.
2. Reduce stress – Easier said than done, right?! This must be a focus if you want to maintain good cognition. When we are stressed, our adrenal glands pump out the stress-hormone, cortisol. Over time, too much cortisol can contribute to memory disturbances. Does that brain fog sound familiar when you are under a lot of stress? Time to reduce cortisol with gentle forms of exercise, yoga, deep breathing and meditation. Herbs and nutrients that improve stress adaptation include rhodiola, ashwagandha, vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid), vitamin C, and holy basil.
3. Optimize sleep – Several new studies suggest poor sleep may be detrimental to the brain and may increase the risk of Alzheimer’s. In one study, researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore found that getting less sleep or sleeping poorly was tied to an increase in brain levels of beta-amyloid, a toxic protein that builds up and forms plaques in the brains of those with Alzheimer’s. Aim for 8 hours per night.
4. Be social– I am not referring to social media. I am referring to old-school social interaction where you engage with others, play cards, discuss politics or current events. One study reported that recreational activities that combine physical, mental and social activity are the most likely to prevent dementia. In the study of 800 men and women aged 75 and older, those who were more engaged in regular exercise and who were more mentally active or more socially engaged had a lower risk for developing dementia. And those who combined these activities did even better.
5. Exercise- Physical activity such as walking may alleviate some of the negative characteristics associated with Alzheimer’s disease as it stimulates the cortex of the brain and promotes the immune system. Several recent studies have examined the effects of behavioral factors, specifically psychological stress and exercise, on Alzheimer’s disease (AD) vulnerability. Numerous studies have found that, while stress exacerbates neuropathological changes associated with AD, exercise reduces these changes.
6. Improve your Gut-Brain connection- The gut and the brain are intimately connected. We are now finding that intestinal microbes alter brain function. Eat fermented foods daily, such as sauerkraut, and take a good quality probiotic to optimize your gut and brain function.
7. Optimize antioxidants– Eat a diet rich in color, which translates to a diet rich in antioxdiants. Think the “rainbow diet.” Blueberries and spinach are super foods rich in antioxidants. Supplements to consider are alpha lipoic acid, vitamin E (in the form of mixed tocopherols), vitamin C, glutathione and NAC (N-Acetyl Cysteine).
8. Improve detoxification- Heavy metals, such as copper, lead, mercury and aluminum can be neurotoxic. In fact, researchers found that copper may trigger the onset of Alzheimer’s. Reduce your aluminum toxic load by switching to natural deodorant. Consider getting your mercury fillings removed by a skilled dentist. To assess your heavy metal burden in your body, ask your naturopathic doctor to test your urine or do a hair analysis. Liver-supportive herbs and nutrients, such as milk thistle, burdock, alpha lipoic acid, and NAC (N-acetyl cysteine) can help your body detoxify more effectively.
9. Eat coconut oil daily- There is strong evidence that one of the main contributing factors for Alzheimer’s Disease is a diet too low in fats and excessive pharmaceutical drugs, most notably cholesterol-lowering drugs such as statins. Coconut oil is known as a rich source of ketone energy, supplying an alternate form of energy to the brain and improving cognitive function. Medium-chain triglycerides, or MCTs, found in coconut oil are unique in that they are a form of saturated fat, yet have many health benefits. Their digestion is near effortless and, unlike other fat, MCTs are utilized in the liver and are easier on the pancreas, liver, and digestive system. Aim for 2 tbsp coconut oil daily.
10. Take curcumin- Curcumin, the medicinal extract in the spice turmeric, is an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and it’s lipophilic action improves the cognitive functions in patients with Alzheimer’s disease (AD). A growing body of evidence indicates that oxidative stress and free radicals caused by abnormal inflammatory reactions contribute to the key event in Alzheimer’s disease pathology. Due to various effects of curcumin, such as decreased Beta-amyloid plaques, delayed degradation of neurons, metal-chelation, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and decreased microglia formation, the overall memory in patients with AD has improved with its use.
11. Intermittent fasting- Intermittent fasting is a term for an eating pattern that cycles between periods of fasting and normal eating. Intermittent fasting can prolong the health-span of the nervous system by affecting energy and oxygen radical metabolism in ways that protect neurons against genetic and environmental factors to which they would otherwise succumb during aging.
Johns Hopkins’ Mark Mattson found that intermittent fasting may protect the function of brain cells, even if it does not reduce levels of plaque buildup in the brain—a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease. An earlier study led by Mattson found that fasting may increase the production of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which enhances learning and memory.
To put intermittent fasting to practice in a practical way, aim to fast 12 hours overnight, including 3 hours prior to bedtime.
12. Labs– Ask your naturopathic doctor to test the following and monitor them so that they are in the optimal range:
- Inflammatory markers- Homocysteine, CRP
- Goal of homocysteine- 10 or less; A study revealed levels of homocysteine greater than 15 will increase risk of dementia by 25%.
- Stress hormones- cortisol and DHEA (best tested through the saliva)
- Fasting insulin, fasting blood sugar and HbA1c
- Micronutrient testing to assess vitamins, minerals and antioxidants
Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health practitioners with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.