By Dr. Mercola
At present, some 5.4 million Americans have Alzheimer's disease, according to the Alzheimer's Association's 2011 Alzheimer's Disease Facts and Figures.1
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, rivaling the current prevalence of obesity and diabetes.
Since treatments are few and rarely effective, early diagnosis and prevention become all the more important.
Interestingly, simple tools like a tablespoon of peanut butter and a ruler could potentially be used to confirm a diagnosis of the disease in its early stages. As reported by Medical News Today:2
"Jennifer Stamps, a graduate student in the University of Florida (UF) McKnight Brain Institute Center for Smell and Taste, and her colleagues reported the findings of a small pilot study in the Journal of the Neurological Sciences.3
Stamps came up with the idea of using peanut butter to test for smell sensitivity while she was working with Dr. Kenneth Heilman, one of the world's best known behavioral neurologists, from the UF College of Medicine's department of neurology.
...The ability to smell is associated with the first cranial nerve and is often one of the first things to be affected in cognitive decline... She thought of peanut butter because, she said, it is a 'pure odorant' that is only detected by the olfactory nerve and is easy to access."
The pilot study tested the ability to smell of 24 patients diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment. To perform the test, the patient was asked to close their eyes and mouth, and hold one nostril closed while breathing normally through the other.
Using a ruler, the clinician measured the distance between the open nostril and the peanut butter, marking the distance at which the patient was able to detect the distinct odor. After a 90 second delay, the procedure was repeated with the other nostril.
They discovered that those diagnosed with early stage Alzheimer's (which was done through other clinical testing) experienced a significant difference in their ability to detect the odor between the two nostrils. According to the featured report:
"[T]he left nostril was impaired and did not detect the smell until it was an average of 10 cm closer to the nose than the right nostril had made the detection in patients with Alzheimer's disease.
This was not the case in patients with other kinds of dementia; instead, these patients had either no differences in odor detection between nostrils or the right nostril was worse at detecting odor than the left one."
Of course, it's too early to tell whether this test might be reliable enough to become widely used. More research needs to be done. But according to Stamps, the test can be used to confirm a diagnosis. The team is planning to study patients with mild cognitive impairment next, to assess whether it might help predict a future diagnosis of Alzheimer's.
Benefits of Coconut Oil Make Headlines Again
In related news, Florida researchers are also looking into whether coconut oil might be of benefit against Alzheimer's. Three years ago, I published Dr. Mary Newport's theory that ketone bodies, an alternative fuel for your brain that your body makes when digesting coconut oil, might offer profound benefits in the fight against Alzheimer's disease.
At the time I said that, should her theory turn out to be accurate, it could be one of the greatest natural health discoveries in a long time. Now, Dr. Newport's research is being used to launch one of the first clinical trials of its kind to test her theory. The research is being done at the USF Health Byrd Alzheimer's Institute.
Sixty-five patients diagnosed with mild to moderate Alzheimer's have been enrolled to evaluate the effects of coconut oil on the disease, compared to a placebo. Dr. Newport hopes to have the results within a year.
This issue strikes close to home for Dr. Newport, whose husband has been battling the disease for years. As reported by CTV News:4
"While there is currently no clinical data showing the benefits of coconut oil on the prevention and treatment of dementia, Newport -- whose husband Steve was diagnosed with Alzheimer's at age 51 -- said she began to see improvements after starting him on four teaspoons of coconut oil per day.
'Before the coconut oil, he could not tie his shoes. His weird slow gait… That improved. He walked normally and he was able to start running again.
He was able to start reading again, his conversation improved dramatically and then over several months we saw improvements in his memory,' Newport said. Prior to starting him on coconut oil, Newport said none of the existing medications were working."
Coconut Oil Appears to Be an Ideal Brain Food
There are only two types of fuel your body can convert into energy: carbs/sugar, or fat. Again, ketones are what your body produces when it converts fat (as opposed to glucose) into energy. And a primary source of ketone bodies are the medium-chain triglycerides (MCT) found in coconut oil. In fact, coconut oil contains about 66 percent MCTs.
Medium-chain triglycerides (MCT) are fats that are not processed by your body in the same manner as long-chain triglycerides. Normally, a fat taken into your body must be mixed with bile released from your gallbladder before it can be broken down in your digestive system.
But medium-chain triglycerides go directly to your liver, which naturally converts the oil into ketones, bypassing the bile entirely. Your liver then immediately releases the ketones into your bloodstream where they are transported to your brain to be readily used as fuel.
While your brain is quite happy running on glucose, there's evidence suggesting that ketone bodies may actually help restore and renew neurons and nerve function in your brain, even after damage has set in. Interestingly, the mechanism of this MCT-ketone metabolism appears to be that your body treats MCTs as a carbohydrate and not a fat. This allows the ketone energy to hit your bloodstream without the normal insulin spike associated with carbohydrates entering your bloodstream. So in effect, coconut oil is a fat that acts like a carbohydrate when it comes to brain fuel.
How Much Coconut Oil Might You Need?
Therapeutic levels of MCTs have been studied at 20 grams per day. According to Dr. Newport's calculations,5 just over two tablespoons of coconut oil (about 35 ml or seven level teaspoons) would supply you with the equivalent of 20 grams of MCT, which is indicated as either a preventative measure against degenerative neurological diseases, or as a treatment for an already established case.
While more research certainly needs to be done in this area as well, I see no reason not to incorporate coconut oil in your diet, or the diet of a loved one who is exhibiting symptoms of brain degeneration. Coconut oil has so many profound health benefits; it's not going to do any harm.
It's worth noting that people tolerate coconut oil differently, and you may have to start slowly and build up to these therapeutic levels. My recommendation is to start with one teaspoon, taken with food in the mornings. Gradually add more coconut oil every few days until you are able to tolerate about four tablespoons. It's best to take it with food, to avoid upsetting your stomach.
Low-Fat Craze Has Likely Contributed to Dramatic Rise in Alzheimer's
A number of seriously flawed nutritional guidelines have contributed to more than a few health problems in the US, and the low-fat craze (aimed at preventing heart disease) is toward the top of that list. Not only does avoiding healthful fat promote heart disease, it also promotes brain diseases like Alzheimer's.
According to neurologist Dr. David Perlmutter, fat avoidance and carbohydrate overconsumption are at the heart of the Alzheimer's epidemic—which is an entirely preventable disease, driven by lifestyle factors such as diet. Dr. Perlmutter's book, Grain Brain, provides a powerful argument for eliminating grains from your diet to protect your brain health. 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. Unfortunately, despite dire need, there's little money available for research into treatments using regular food items. As Amanda Smith, Medical Director at University of South Florida (USF) Health Byrd Alzheimer's Institute told CTV News:
"The pharmaceutical industry is in this -- of course to make money for their companies, and of course they want to help people theoretically -- but at the end of the day it is about dollars and cents, and so money gets invested in things that are new or patentable rather than things that are sitting on the shelf already."
Intermittent Fasting Can Also Increase Ketone Production
There are two additional ways to increase ketone production: restricting carbohydrates, and intermittent fasting. Personally, I believe all three of these strategies are best applied together, as you need to replace the lost carbs with high quality fat (and coconut oil certainly fits that bill), and intermittent fasting will help your body shift to burning fat as its primary fuel. It takes about six to eight hours for your body to metabolize your glycogen stores, after which you start to shift to burning stored fat, and hence producing ketone bodies.
Contrary to more stringent and challenging fasts, intermittent fasting simply involves timing your meals to allow your body to enter the fat-burning "window." To be effective, the length of your fast must be at least 16 hours. For example, this would mean eating only between the hours of 11am until 7pm, or noon until 8pm. You can restrict it even further — down to six, four, or even two hours if you want, but you can still reap many of the health benefits associated with intermittent fasting by limiting your eating to an eight-hour window each day.
I recommend easing yourself into this type of eating schedule. Start by not eating anything for three hours prior to bed, and then gradually extend the time before you eat breakfast each day to the point that you have skipped breakfast and have your first meal at lunch. This typically takes a few weeks to a few months. Also, this is not something that needs to be done continuously once your body has shifted to fat burning mode. However, your desire to eat will be dramatically reduced so you won't feel the need to eat like you did before shifting your body's primary fuel burning preference.
Tips for Maintaining Healthy Brain Function and Avoiding Alzheimer's Disease
Knowing that Alzheimer's is a preventable disease, predicated on your lifestyle choices, puts the power into your hands. Diet is paramount, and the beauty of following my optimized nutrition plan is that it helps prevent and treat virtually ALL chronic degenerative diseases, including Alzheimer's disease.
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. The following guidelines will help you protect your brain health well into old age:
- Avoid sugar and refined 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 (primarily wheat). 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-potency and high quality probiotic supplement.
- Increase consumption of all 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.
Contrary to popular belief, the ideal fuel for your brain is not glucose but ketones. Ketones are what your body produces when it converts fat (as opposed to glucose) into energy. The medium-chain triglycerides (MCT) found in coconut oil are GREAT source of ketone bodies, because coconut oil is about 66 percent MCTs. In fact, ketones appear to be the preferred source of brain food in patients affected by diabetes or Alzheimer's.
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. As mentioned above, ketones are mobilized when you replace carbs with coconut oil and other sources of healthy fats. 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.
- 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 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,6 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 brains7 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 mercury, a well-known neurotoxic and immunotoxic agent.
- 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 anticholinergics 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.
Other Natural Treatments for Your Anti-Alzheimer's Arsenal
Finally, there are a few other nutritional recommendations worth noting for their specific benefits in preventing and treating dementia. So, although your fundamental strategy for preventing dementia should involve a comprehensive lifestyle approach, you may want to consider adding a few of these natural dietary agents to your anti-Alzheimer's arsenal. These four natural foods/supplements have good science behind them, in terms of preventing age-related cognitive changes:
- Astaxanthin is a natural pigment with unique properties and many clinical benefits, including some of the most potent antioxidant activity currently known. As a fat-soluble nutrient, astaxanthin readily crosses your blood-brain barrier. One study8 found it may help prevent neurodegeneration associated with oxidative stress, as well as make a potent natural "brain food."
The molecules of astaxanthin neutralize free radicals and other oxidants without being destroyed or becoming pro-oxidants themselves in the process. It's is a unique molecule whose shape allows it to precisely fit into a cell membrane and span its entire width. In this position, astaxanthin can intercept potentially damaging molecules before they can damage your cells.
You can get some astaxanthin by taking krill oil, which is a fantastic omega-3 fat supplement. But you can boost your astaxanthin even MORE by adding a pure astaxanthin supplement to your nutritional regimen. For optimal absorption, make sure to take krill oil and/or astaxanthin with a fat-containing meal, since both are fat-soluble.
- Ginkgo biloba: Many scientific studies have found that Ginkgo biloba has positive effects for dementia. Ginkgo, which is derived from a tree native to Asia, has long been used medicinally in China and other countries. A 1997 study from JAMA showed clear evidence that Ginkgo improves cognitive performance and social functioning for those suffering from dementia. Research since then has been equally promising. One study in 2006 found Ginkgo as effective as the dementia drug Aricept (donepezil) for treating mild to moderate Alzheimer's type dementia. A 2010 meta-analysis found Ginkgo biloba to be effective for a variety of types of dementia.
- Alpha lipoic acid (ALA): ALA can stabilize cognitive functions among Alzheimer's patients and may slow the progression of the disease.
- Vitamin B12: A small Finnish study published in the journal Neurology9 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.