By Dr. Mercola
Ashwagandha is a small evergreen perennial herb that grows up to nearly 5 feet tall.
Common names used for ashwagandha include: Winter Cherry, Withania somnifera (Latin botanical name), and Indian Ginseng to name a few.
Regardless of the name you use to describe this adaptogenic herb, ashwaganda has been a part of India's Ayurvedic medical system for thousands of years.
There it's regarded as a wonder herb.
While often regarded as an herb for stress reduction and improved energy and vitality, there is a robust body of scientific research confiming ashwaganda's potential therapeutic value in several dozen health conditions.1
Now, new research has revealed this herb may also fight off the devastating effects of Alzheimer's disease.
Could Ashwaganda Cure Alzheimer's?
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 Figures.2
With no known cure and a terminal prognosis, Alzheimer's disease is associated with degeneration and death in brain cells, leading to a steady loss of both intellectual and social skills, and, ultimately, premature death.
Researchers at the National Brain Research Centre (NBRC), however, have conducted studies on mice that suggest ashwaganda extract may reverse memory loss and improve cognitive abilities in those with the disease. Initially, mice with Alzheimer's were unable to learn or retain what they learned, but after receiving ashwaganda for 20 days, this improved significantly. After 30 days, the behavior of the mice returned to normal. Researchers reported:
- A reduction in amyloid plaques (amyloid plaques, along with tangles of nerve fibers, contribute to the degradation of the wiring in brain cells)
- Improved cognitive abilities
Rather than impacting the brain directly, researchers found that the herb worked by boosting a protein in the liver, which enters the bloodstream and helps clear amyloid from the brain. Researchers concluded:
"The remarkable therapeutic effect of W. somnifera [ashwaganda]... reverses the behavioral deficits and pathology seen in Alzheimer's disease models."
More Promising Research on Ashwaganda and Alzheimer's
The featured study is not the first time this humble herb has been implicated in improved brain health among Alzheimer's disease patients. In 2005, researchers found that withanolide derivatives (withanolide A, withanoside IV, and withanoside VI) isolated from ashwagandha improved neurite extension in both normal and damaged brain cells in Alzheimer's disease-model mice.3 This is a key component of treating the disease, as researchers pointed out:
"The reconstruction of neuronal networks in the damaged brain is necessary for the therapeutic treatment of neurodegenerative diseases."
Separate research in Phytotherapy Research, published in 2010, revealed ashwaganda may help manage cell damage in the brain, offering even more potent antioxidant activity than vitamins A, C, and E.4 They noted:
"Several studies have revealed that natural antioxidants, such as vitamin E, vitamin C and beta-carotene, may help in scavenging free radicals generated during the initiation and progression of this [Alzheimer's] disease. Therefore, there has been considerable interest in plant phytochemicals with antioxidant property as potential agents to prevent the progression of AD. Our earlier investigations of the Withania somnifera fruit afforded lipid peroxidation inhibitory withanamides that are more potent than the commercial antioxidants.
In this study, we have tested two major withanamides A (WA) and C (WC) for their ability to protect... rat neuronal cells, from beta-amyloid induced cell damage. The cell death caused by beta-amyloid was negated by withanamide treatment."
Another Ancient Herb for Alzheimer's...
The compound curcumin, which is found in the spice turmeric, is another notable herb for brain health. Recently revealed as effective in helping to stop the protein clumping that is the first step in diseases such as Parkinson's disease,5 past research has shown that curcumin may help inhibit the accumulation of destructive beta amyloids in the brain of Alzheimer's patients, as well as break up existing plaques.
- Curcumin is more effective in inhibiting the formation of the protein fragments than many other potential Alzheimer's treatments
- The low molecular weight and polar structure of curcumin allows it to penetrate the blood-brain barrier effectively and bind to beta amyloid
- Alzheimer's symptoms caused by inflammation and oxidation are eased by curcumin's powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties
People with Alzheimer's tend to have higher levels of inflammation in their brains, and curcumin is most known for its potent anti-inflammatory properties. The compound has been shown to influence the expression of more than 700 genes, and it can inhibit both the activity and the synthesis of cyclooxygenase-2 (COX2) and 5-lipooxygenase (5-LOX), as well as other enzymes that modulate inflammation.
Additional Strategies to Significantly Lower Your Alzheimer's Risk
What is interesting and important to understand about chronic disease is that it very rarely exists in a bubble. What I mean is, if you are developing changes in your brain that are indicative of Alzheimer's, you're probably also experiencing signs of insulin resistance, such as diabetes or obesity.
And, meanwhile, you may also be showing signs of heart disease, such as high blood pressure, as, very often, chronic diseases are intricately intertwined; they're the product of imbalances in your body that are manifesting, likely after years spent festering just below the surface. This can actually be a good thing, however, as implementing a few simple techniques address the underlying causes of multiple chronic diseases, and Alzheimer's is no exception.
- Optimize vitamin D. In 2007 researchers at the University of Wisconsin uncovered strong links between low levels of vitamin D in Alzheimer's patients and poor outcomes on cognitive tests. Scientists launched the study after family members of Alzheimer's patients who were treated with large doses of prescription vitamin D reported that they were acting and performing better than before.6
Researchers believe that optimal vitamin D levels may enhance the amount of important biomolecules in your brain and protect brain cells. Vitamin D receptors have been identified throughout the human body, and that includes in your brain. Metabolic pathways for vitamin D exist in the hippocampus and cerebellum of the brain, areas that are involved in planning, processing of information, and the formation of new memories.
Sufficient vitamin D is also imperative for the proper functioning of your immune system to combat excessive inflammation, and, as mentioned earlier, other research has discovered that people with Alzheimer's tend to have higher levels of inflammation in their brains.
- Fructose. Ideally it is important to keep your level below 25 grams per day. This toxic influence is serving as an important 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 Neurology,7 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 diets have been shown to increase Alzheimer's risk, whereas diets high in omega-3's lower your risk. 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 metabolized, 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 brains,8 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, as well as egg proteins (e.g. myelin basic protein), which the body may produce antibodies against and that cross-react with the myelin coating your nerves, in effect causing your immune system to attack your nervous system!
- Eat 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 impairment.9 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, which is one of the primary building blocks of your brain. As Dr. Stephanie Seneff reports:
"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 disease,10 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."