By Dr. Mercola
Alzheimer's disease is currently at epidemic proportions, with 5.4 million Americans -- including one in eight people aged 65 and over -- living with Alzheimer's disease, according to the Alzheimer's Association's 2011 Alzheimer's Disease Facts and Figuresi.
By 2050, this is expected to jump to 16 million, and in the next 20 years it is projected that Alzheimer's will affect one in four Americans.
You do not, however, have to feel powerless against this disease, as although there is no known cure as of yet, there are simple strategies available to significantly lower your risk.
The Alzheimer's Risk Factor You Probably Haven't Heard Of …
Do you heed the advice of public health officials who advise putting on sunscreen every time you go out in the sun?
This could very well be raising your risk of Alzheimer's disease because it blocks not only your body's ability to produce vitamin D, but also your production of cholesterol sulfate.
Unfortunately most of you reading this have probably only heard of cholesterol referred to in a negative way, but actually adequate cholesterol is essential for good health.
For example, 25 percent of the cholesterol in your body is in your brain, even though your brain is only 2 percent of your body's weight. The cholesterol is absolutely essential for neuron transport, which is why lack of cholesterol can negatively affect your brain function. But impaired memory and dementia are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to low cholesterol's impact on your brain. Having too little of this beneficial compound also:
That's a bit of background to get you warmed up to the idea that cholesterol is your friend, not your enemy. Now, getting back to sunscreen and Alzheimer's, using these products will make it virtually impossible for your body to do what it was designed to do, which is produce important, disease-fighting substances like vitamin D and cholesterol sulfate when exposed to the sun. Dr. Stephanie Seneffii, a senior scientist at MIT who has a wealth of information about the importance of sulfur, explains:
" … depletion of sulfate supply to the brain is another important contributor to Alzheimer's, and I further think that sulfate is supplied to the brain principally by sterol sulfates like cholesterol sulfate as well as their derivatives like vitamin D3 sulfate. Both cholesterol sulfate and vitamin D3 sulfate are synthesized in the skin upon exposure to sunlight, and it is theorized that the skin is the major supplier of these nutrients to the body. This is why I believe that excess sunscreen use and excess sun avoidance are another principal causative factor in Alzheimer's disease."
Why is Cholesterol Sulfate so Important?
Your skin produces large amounts of cholesterol sulfate, which is water-soluble and provides a healthy barrier against bacteria and other potentially disease-causing pathogens that might otherwise enter your body through your skin. And, due to its polarity, it can enter both fat cells and muscle cells with equal ease. Dr. Seneff proposes that, because of this, cholesterol sulfate may be able to protect fat and muscle cells from glucose and oxygen damage.
She also argues that when you're deficient in cholesterol sulfate, your muscle and fat cells become more prone to damage, which subsequently can lead to glucose intolerance, a condition where your muscles cannot process glucose as a fuel. As a result, your fat cells have to store more fat in order to supply fuel to your muscles, and excess fat accumulates as damage increases.
Sulfur also plays an important role in glucose metabolism. She hypothesizesiii that if a sufficient amount of sulfur is available, it will act as a decoy to glucose, effectively diverting it to reduce the sulfur rather than glycating and causing damage. This would have the beneficial effect of reducing inflammation, as sugar (glucose) is highly inflammatory and wreaks havoc in your body.
What does this have to do with your brain? The process applies not only to fat and muscle cells, but also to cells in your brain (and, in fact, to all cells in your body). Dr. Seneff explains:
"Essentially all cells in the body are surrounded by an exterior coat made up of complex molecules called "GAGs" -- glycosaminoglycans. These contain sugars, proteins, and a large population of attached ions, particularly sulfate anions. These serve, I believe, an important role in helping to safely break down sugar. Simply stated, the sulfur atom deflects the reducing actions of sugars away from the vulnerable proteins.
The sulfate anions also provide a negative field around the cell, which is very useful for keeping bacteria out, because bacteria are also negatively charged, and hence repelled by the cell's negative electric field. So cells with lots of surrounding sulfate are afforded protection from invasive bacteria. If a bacterium does get in, the cell will have to release oxidizing agents to kill it, and the cell itself will suffer damage from exposure to its own defense system. The fats in the cell membrane are more vulnerable to oxidative damage when there is insufficient cholesterol to protect them."
This means that depletion of the sulfate supply to your brain could leave your brain cells more susceptible to damage and may increase your risk of Alzheimer's disease. Dr. Seneff also points out to recent papers that have also linked insufficient cholesterol with Alzheimer's and mental decline:
- Serum levels of cholesterol as well as the ability to synthesize cholesterol are inversely associated with mental declineiv in the elderly
- A study directly comparing Alzheimer's patients with age-matched controls showed a reduced serum level of LDL in the Alzheimer's patientsv, with the more severe cases showing further reduction in LDL
Vitamin D Deficiency Also Increase Alzheimer's Risk
Sunscreen is a double-edged sword when it comes to your brain health, as aside from blocking your ability to produce cholesterol sulfate, it also blocks your production of vitamin D -- and there is no shortage of research linking vitamin D to brain health. One such study was actually launched after family members of Alzheimer's patients who were treated with large doses of prescription vitamin D reported they were acting and performing better than before.
Strong links between low levels of vitamin D in Alzheimer's patientsvi and poor outcomes on cognitive tests were revealed. Researchers believe that optimal vitamin D levels may enhance the amount of important chemicals in your brain and protect brain cells. Vitamin D may also exert some of its beneficial effects on Alzheimer's through its anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting properties. Sufficient vitamin D is imperative for proper functioning of your immune system to combat inflammation that is also associated with Alzheimer's.
Safe Sun Exposure Without Sunscreen
If you work outdoors all day as part of your job, or if you need to protect sensitive areas of your face, like around your eyes, that are particularly susceptible to photoaging and not large enough a surface to impact vitamin D levels if blocked with sunscreen, certain sunscreens available in most health food stores, and my Healthy Skin Sunscreen, are safe to use when the need arises. However, I personally use and recommend wearing a hat when you are in the sun as this typically can shade the sensitive skin around your eyes.
I would avoid applying sunscreen regularly as most commercial ones have toxic chemicals that you should not be exposed to. If you do use a sunscreen make sure it is safe and natural. Remember once your skin turns the lightest shade of pink (if you're Caucasian), it's time to get out of the sun. Past this point of exposure your body will not produce any more vitamin D and you'll begin to have sun damage. And sunburn anywhere on your body is not good for your health.
If sunshine outdoors is not an option for you because of the winter or your job, you can get many of the same benefits by using a safe tanning bed (one with electronic ballasts rather than magnetic ballasts, to avoid unnecessary exposure to electromagnetic fields). Safe tanning beds also have less of the dangerous UVA than sunlight, while unsafe ones have more UVA than sunlight.
In terms of vitamin D, it's especially important to get it from sun exposure or a tanning bed, rather than a vitamin D3 supplement if at all possible, because when you expose your skin to sunshine, your body produces vitamin D3 sulfate. This form of vitamin D is water-soluble, unlike oral vitamin D3 supplements, which is unsulfated. The water-soluble form can travel freely in your bloodstream, whereas the unsulfated form needs LDL (the so-called "bad" cholesterol) as a vehicle of transport. Dr. Seneff believes that the oral non-sulfated form of vitamin D may not provide all of the same benefits as the vitamin D created in your skin from sun exposure, because it cannot be converted to vitamin D sulfate.
Coconut Oil Offers Profound Benefits for Your Brain
Coconut oil may help protect you from Alzheimer's by providing your brain with an additional fuel supply. Your brain actually manufactures its own insulin to convert glucose into the fuel it needs, but recent discoveries indicate that your brain can essentially become "diabetic." As you may know, diabetes is the condition where your body's response to insulin is weakened due to "insulin resistance"—your body eventually stops producing the insulin necessary to regulate blood sugar.
Just like with diabetes, your brain can become insulin resistant. If this happens, your brain loses its ability to convert glucose into energy, leading to essentially a starvation state, and this can result in brain atrophy. This is what happens to Alzheimer's patients—portions of their brain start to atrophy, or starve, leading to impaired functioning and eventual loss of memory, speech, movement and personality. Given this, you can now understand why diabetics have a 65 percent increased risk of also being diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease—BOTH conditions are tied to insulin resistance.
This is where coconut oil may help.
Coconut oil provides ketones to your brain, and ketones appear to be the preferred source of brain food in patients with diabetes and/or Alzheimer's. Coconut oil is a primary source of ketones, since it contains 66 percent medium chain triglycerides (MCTs), a type of fat your body can easily and quickly convert into ketones.
In effect, coconut oil is a fat that acts like a carbohydrate in your body, and carbs are your brain's favorite food. For more about this, refer to this article, which discusses this in more detail. Therapeutic levels of MCTs can be achieved by taking just over two tablespoons of coconut oil daily (about 35ml or 7 level teaspoons), but I recommend working your way up to 4 tablespoons per day, gradually, beginning with just one teaspoon in the morning, WITH a meal to minimize the risk of stomach upset.
Other Important Tips for Alzheimer's Prevention
In order to effectively prevent a disease, you must address its underlying causative factors. Although we do not have definitive "proof" of what, specifically, causes Alzheimer's, a number of factors have been linked to an increased risk of dementia, and we know enough about those to in turn make educated recommendations for preventing this type of brain deterioration. Some of the best strategies for Alzheimer's prevention, aside from adequate sunlight exposure, include:
- Fructose. You simply MUST keep your level below 25 grams per day. This toxic influence is serving as the master regulator of brain toxicity. Since the average person is exceeding this recommendation by 300% this is a pervasive and serious issue. I view this as the MOST important step you can take.
Additionally, when your liver is busy processing fructose (which your liver turns into fat), it severely hampers its ability to make cholesterol. This is yet another important facet that explains how and why excessive fructose consumption is so detrimental to your health.
- Keep your fasting insulin levels below 3. This is indirectly related to fructose, as it will clearly lead to insulin resistance. However other sugars, grains and lack of exercise are also factors here.
- Vitamin B12: According to a small Finnish study recently published in the journal Neurologyvii, people who consume foods rich in B12 may reduce their risk of Alzheimer's in their later years. For each unit increase in the marker of vitamin B12 (holotranscobalamin) the risk of developing Alzheimer's was reduced by 2 percent. Very high doses of B vitamins have also been found to treat Alzheimer's disease and reduce memory loss.
- Eat a nutritious diet, rich in folate, such as the one described in my nutrition plan. Strict vegetarian dietsviii have been shown to increase your Alzheimer's risk, whereas diets high in omega-3's lower your riskix. However, vegetables, without question, are your best form of folate, and we should all eat plenty of fresh raw veggies every day.
- High-quality animal based omega-3 fats, such as krill oil. (I recommend avoiding most fish because although fish is naturally high in omega-3, most fish are now severely contaminated with mercury.) High intake of the omega-3 fatty acid DHA helps by preventing cell damage caused by Alzheimer's disease, thereby slowing down its progression, and lowering your risk of developing the disorder. Researchers have also said DHA "dramatically reduces the impact of the Alzheimer's gene."
- Avoid and remove mercury from your body. Dental amalgam fillings are one of the major sources of mercury, however you should be healthy prior to having them removed. Once you have adjusted to following the diet described in my optimized nutrition plan, you can follow the mercury detox protocol and then find a biological dentist to have your amalgams removed.
- Avoid aluminum, such as antiperspirants, non-stick cookware, vaccine adjuvants, etc.
- Exercise regularly. It's been suggested that exercise can trigger a change in the way the amyloid precursor protein is metabolizedx, thus, slowing down the onset and progression of Alzheimer's. Exercise also increases levels of the protein PGC-1alpha. New research has shown that people with Alzheimer's have less PGC-1alpha in their brainsxi, and cells that contain more of the protein produce less of the toxic amyloid protein associated with Alzheimer's.
I would strongly recommend reviewing the Peak Fitness Technique for my specific recommendations.
- Avoid flu vaccinations as most contain both mercury and aluminum!
- Eat plenty of blueberries. Wild blueberries, which have high anthocyanin and antioxidant content, are known to guard against Alzheimer's and other neurological diseases.
- Challenge your mind daily. Mental stimulation, especially learning something new, such as learning to play an instrument or a new language, is associated with a decreased risk of Alzheimer's. Researchers suspect that mental challenge helps to build up your brain, making it less susceptible to the lesions associated with Alzheimer's disease.
- Avoid anticholinergic and statin drugs. Drugs that block acetylcholine, a nervous system neurotransmitter, have been shown to increase your risk of dementia. These drugs include certain night-time pain relievers, antihistamines, sleep aids, certain antidepressants, medications to control incontinence, and certain narcotic pain relievers.
A study found that those who took drugs classified as 'definite anticholinergics' had a four times higher incidence of cognitive impairmentxii. Regularly taking two of these drugs further increased the risk of cognitive impairment. Statin drugs are particularly problematic because they suppress the synthesis of cholesterol.
As Dr. Seneff reports:
For more information, read Dr. Seneff's essay on statins and Alzheimer's diseasexiv.
"Statin drugs interfere with cholesterol synthesis in the liver, but the lipophilic statin drugs (like lovastatin and simvastatin) also interfere with the synthesis of cholesterol in the brain. This would then directly impact the neurons' ability to maintain adequate cholesterol in their membranes. Indeed, a population-based study showed that people who had ever taken statins had an increased risk of Alzheimer's diseasexiii, a hazard ratio of 1.21. More alarmingly, people who used to take statins had a hazard ratio of 2.54 (over two and a half times the risk to Alzheimer's) compared to people who never took statins."
How Vitamin D Performance Testing Can Help Optimize Your Health
Additionally, a robust and growing body of research clearly shows that vitamin D is absolutely critical for good health and disease prevention. Vitamin D affects your DNA through vitamin D receptors (VDRs), which bind to specific locations of the human genome. Scientists have identified nearly 3,000 genes that are influenced by vitamin D levels, and vitamin D receptors have been found throughout the human body.
Is it any wonder then that no matter what disease or condition is investigated, vitamin D appears to play a crucial role? This is why I am so excited about the D*Action Project by GrassrootsHealth. It is showing how you can take action today on known science with a consensus of experts without waiting for institutional lethargy. It has shown how by combining the science of measurement (of vitamin D levels) with the personal choice of taking action and, the value of education about individual measures that one can truly be in charge of their own health.
In order to spread this health movement to more communities, the project needs your involvement. This was an ongoing campaign during the month of February, and will become an annual event.
To participate, simply purchase the D*Action Measurement Kit and follow the registration instructions included. (Please note that 100 percent of the proceeds from the kits go to fund the research project. I do not charge a single dime as a distributor of the test kits.)
As a participant, you agree to test your vitamin D levels twice a year during a five-year study, and share your health status to demonstrate the public health impact of this nutrient. There is a $65 fee every six months for your sponsorship of this research project, which includes a test kit to be used at home, and electronic reports on your ongoing progress. You will get a follow up email every six months reminding you "it's time for your next test and health survey."