By Dr. Mercola
The connections between stress and physical and mental health are undeniable. Studies have found links between acute and/or chronic stress and a wide variety of health issues.
This includes reduced immune function, increased inflammation, high blood pressure, and alterations in your brain chemistry, blood sugar levels and hormonal balance, just to name a few.
According to recent research, stress also appears to be related to onset of Alzheimer's disease, which currently afflicts about 5.4 million Americans, including one in eight people aged 65 and over.1
It is projected that Alzheimer's will affect one in four Americans in the next 20 years, rivaling the current prevalence of obesity and diabetes. There is still no known cure for this devastating disease, and very few treatments. Alzheimer's drugs are often of little to no benefit, which underscores the importance of prevention throughout your lifetime.
Fortunately, there's compelling research showing that your brain has great plasticity and capacity for regeneration, which you control through your diet and lifestyle choices.
Avoiding gluten and casein, or wheat and dairy primarily, appears to be of critical importance, as is making sure you're getting plenty of healthful fats (including demonized saturated fats). Casein is the primary protein found in dairy, and can be problematic for dairy intolerant individuals. However, it's also found in human breast milk. Additionally, raw dairy is generally well tolerated by casein sensitive individuals, but contraindicated for those with a severe allergy.
Fasting also has a remarkably beneficial influence on your brain health. At the end of this article, I share my best tips for maintaining healthy brain function well into old age.
Stress May Be Related to Clinical Onset of Alzheimer's Disease
Researchers in Argentina recently presented evidence suggesting that stress may be a trigger for the onset of Alzheimer's disease. The research was presented at the annual World Congress of Neurology in Vienna. According to lead author, Dr. Edgardo Reich:2
"Stress, according to our findings, is probably a trigger for initial symptoms of dementia.
Though I rule out stress as monocausal in dementia, research is solidifying the evidence that stress can trigger a degenerative process in the brain and precipitate dysfunction in the neuroendocrine and immune system. It is an observational finding and does not imply direct causality. Further studies are needed to examine these mechanisms in detail."
The study found that 72 percent—nearly three out of four—Alzheimer's patients had experienced severe emotional stress during the two years preceding their diagnosis. In the control group, only 26 percent, or one in four, had undergone major stress or grief. Most of the stresses encountered by the Alzheimer's group involved:
- Bereavement; death of a spouse, partner, or child
- Violent experiences, such as assault or robbery
- Car accidents
- Financial problems, including "pension shock"
- Diagnosis of a family member's severe illness
When you consider all the adverse biological effects that stress and anxiety causes, it might not be such a stretch that severe stress could trigger Alzheimer's. For example, researchers have found links between emotional distress and physical pain,3 chronic inflammation4 and even stillbirths.5
It can also wreak havoc on your gut health, which is critical to maintaining mental and physical health. Most recently, Forbes6 reported the findings of a study7 exploring the role of stress in rewiring your brain—in this case, altering your sense of smell:
"Two brain circuits that don't typically "talk" to each other—one linked to our sense of smell and another linked to emotional processing—can become cross-wired when we experience stress-induced anxiety. The result is that stressful experiences transform normally neutral odors into bad ones...
'After anxiety induction, neutral smells become clearly negative,' explains Wen Li, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Waisman Center, who led the study. 'People experiencing an increase in anxiety show a decrease in the perceived pleasantness of odors. It becomes more negative as anxiety increases.'"
How Stress Causes Disease
When you're experiencing acute stress, your body releases stress hormones like cortisol, which prepare your body to fight or flee the stressful event. Your heart rate increases, your lungs take in more oxygen, your blood flow increases and parts of your immune system become temporarily suppressed, which reduces your inflammatory response to pathogens and other foreign invaders.
When stress becomes chronic, however, your immune system becomes less sensitive to cortisol, and since inflammation is partly regulated by this hormone, this decreased sensitivity heightens the inflammatory response and allows inflammation to get out of control.
This is in large part how stress "predisposes" you to getting sick in the first place. And, in the event you do get sick, emotional stressors can make your symptoms worse, especially if the stress is severe or longstanding.
For example, research presented at this year's annual meeting of the American Psychosomatic Society in Miami, Florida, found that ruminating on a stressful incident can increase your levels of C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation in your body.8 It was the first study to directly measure this effect. Inflammation, in turn, is a hallmark of most diseases, from diabetes to heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer's.
Tips for Reducing Work Stress
Polls have shown that work is the number one source of stress in people's lives. In a recent survey9 of more than 2,000 people, 34 percent of respondents reported that their work life was either "very" or "quite" stressful. One in five people also reported developing anxiety due to work-related stresses. In a related article, Forbes magazine10 lists nine tips to reduce work-related stress, such as:
- Adding personal touches to your work space, such as photographs or art work, and live plants
- Keeping your work space clean and organized
- Learning to handle or ignore interruptions
- Incorporating relaxation exercises into your work day
- Improving your communication skills
Conquer Your Stress and Anxiety with Energy Psychology
While it's not possible or even recommended to eliminate all stress from your life, you can provide your body with tools to compensate for the bioelectrical short-circuiting that takes place when you're stressed. Using energy psychology techniques such as the Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) can help reprogram your body's reactions to the unavoidable stressors of everyday life, thereby reducing your chances of experiencing adverse health effects. Exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, and meditation are also important "release valves" that can help you manage your stress.
EFT was developed in the 1990s by Gary Craig, a Stanford engineering graduate specializing in healing and self-improvement. It's akin to acupuncture, which is based on the concept that a vital energy flows through your body along invisible pathways known as meridians. EFT stimulates different energy meridian points in your body by tapping them with your fingertips, while simultaneously using custom-made verbal affirmations. This can be done alone or under the supervision of a qualified therapist.11
By doing so, you help your body eliminate emotional "scarring" and reprogram the way your body responds to emotional stressors. Since these stressors are usually connected to physical problems, many people's diseases and other symptoms can improve or disappear as well. For a demonstration, please see the following video featuring EFT practitioner Julie Schiffman, in which she discusses EFT for stress relief. However, for serious problems it is far preferable to see an experienced EFT therapist as there is a significant art to the process that requires a high level of sophistication if serious problems are to be successfully treated.
Tips for Maintaining Healthy Brain Function and Avoiding Alzheimer's Disease
The beauty of following my optimized nutrition plan is that it helps prevent and treat virtually ALL chronic degenerative diseases, including Alzheimer's disease. Remember, while memory loss is indeed common among Westerners, it is NOT a "normal" part of aging, and cognitive changes are by no means inevitable.
As explained by neurologist Dr. David Perlmutter in a recent interview, Alzheimer's is a disease predicated primarily on lifestyle choices; the two main culprits being excessive sugar and gluten consumption. Another major factor is the development and increased consumption of genetically engineered (GE) grains, which are now pervasive in most processed foods sold in the US. His book, Grain Brain, provides a powerful argument for eliminating grains from your diet.
Knowing that it is a preventable disease puts the power into your hands. People who experience very little decline in their cognitive function up until their deaths have been found (post-mortem) to be free of brain lesions, showing that it's entirely possible to prevent the damage from occurring in the first place… and one of the best ways to do this is by leading a healthy lifestyle.
- Avoid sugar and fructose. Ideally, you'll want to keep your sugar levels to a minimum and your total fructose below 25 grams per day, or as low as 15 grams per day if you have insulin resistance or any related disorders.
- Avoid gluten and casein (primarily wheat and pasteurized dairy, but not dairy fat, such as butter). Research shows that your blood-brain barrier, the barrier that keeps things out of your brain where they don't belong, is negatively affected by gluten. Gluten also makes your gut more permeable, which allows proteins to get into your bloodstream, where they don't belong. That then sensitizes your immune system and promotes inflammation and autoimmunity, both of which play a role in the development of Alzheimer's.
- Optimize your gut flora by regularly eating fermented foods or taking a high quality probiotic supplement.
- Increase consumption of healthful fats, including animal-based omega-3. Beneficial health-promoting fats that your brain needs for optimal function include organic butter from raw milk, clarified butter called organic grass fed raw butter, olives, organic virgin olive oil and coconut oil, nuts like pecans and macadamia, free-range eggs, wild Alaskan salmon, and avocado.
Also make sure you're getting enough 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 fats EPA and DHA help by preventing cell damage caused by Alzheimer's disease, thereby slowing down its progression, and lowering your risk of developing the disorder.
- Reduce your overall calorie consumption, and/or intermittently fast. Contrary to popular belief, the ideal fuel for your brain is not glucose but ketones, which is the fat that your body mobilizes when you stop feeding it carbs and introduce coconut oil and other sources of healthy fats into your diet. A one-day fast can help your body to "reset" itself, and start to burn fat instead of sugar.
As part of a healthy lifestyle, I prefer an intermittent fasting schedule that simply calls for limiting your eating to a narrower window of time each day. By restricting your eating to a 6-8 hour window, you effectively fast 16-18 hours each day. To learn more, please see this previous article.
- Improve your magnesium levels. There is some exciting preliminary research strongly suggesting a decrease in Alzheimer symptoms with increased levels of magnesium in the brain. Unfortunately, most magnesium supplements do not pass the blood brain levels, but a new one, magnesium threonate, appears to and holds some promise for the future for treating this condition and may be superior to other forms.
- Optimize your vitamin D levels with safe sun exposure. Strong links between low levels of vitamin D in Alzheimer's patients and poor outcomes on cognitive tests have been revealed. Researchers believe that optimal vitamin D levels may enhance the amount of important chemicals in your brain and protect brain cells by increasing the effectiveness of the glial cells in nursing damaged neurons back to health.
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.
- Keep your fasting insulin levels below 3. This is indirectly related to fructose, as it will clearly lead to insulin resistance. However, other sugars (sucrose is 50 percent fructose by weight), grains and lack of exercise are also important factors. Lowering insulin will also help lower leptin levels which is another factor for Alzheimer's.
- Vitamin B12: In addition to the research presented above, a small Finnish study published in the journal Neurology12 also found that 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, the risk of developing Alzheimer's was reduced by two percent. Remember, sublingual methylcobalamin may be your best bet here.
- Eat a nutritious diet, rich in folate, such as the one described in my nutrition plan. Vegetables, without question, are your best form of folate, and we should all eat plenty of fresh raw veggies every day. Avoid supplements with folic acid, which is the inferior synthetic version of folate.
- Avoid and eliminate mercury from your body. Dental amalgam fillings, which are 50 percent mercury by weight, are one of the major sources of heavy metal toxicity. 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,13 thus, slowing down the onset and progression of Alzheimer's. Exercise also increases levels of the protein PGC-1alpha. Research has also shown that people with Alzheimer's have less PGC-1alpha in their brains 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, well-known neurotoxic and immunotoxic agents.
- Eat blueberries. Wild blueberries, which have high anthocyanin and antioxidant content, are known to guard against Alzheimer's and other neurological diseases. Like any fruit though, avoid excesses here.
- 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 nighttime pain relievers, antihistamines, sleep aids, certain antidepressants, medications to control incontinence, and certain narcotic pain relievers.
Statin drugs are particularly problematic because they suppress the synthesis of cholesterol, deplete your brain of coenzyme Q10 and neurotransmitter precursors, and prevent adequate delivery of essential fatty acids and fat-soluble antioxidants to your brain by inhibiting the production of the indispensable carrier biomolecule known as low-density lipoprotein.