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Alzheimer’s Prevention and Treatment
Our brains are made up of an intricately interconnected web of neurons, run by electrical impulses that jump from cell to cell across gaps called synapses. Chemical messengers help transmit those impulses, and this symphony of cells, chemicals and electricity results in all the thoughts, feelings and bodily functions that make us who we are. Age related memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease are examples of neurodegenerative conditions, and affect as many as 30% of the population over 70. Drugs for Alzheimer’s disease have limited benefit, at best slowing progression. The cause of Alzheimer’s is too complex for us to ever find a solution in a pill bottle. The brain is intimately connected to the rest of the body. Dysfunction in the body can damage the delicate components of the brain. Cognitive decline is the result of a long trajectory of multiple stresses on the brain, many of which can be reduced by lifestyle change and natural medicine.
When scientists study the brains of people with Alzheimer’s they find amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles from excess Tau protein. It is normal for these proteins to form, and the body has process to flush them out. When excess amyloid and tau are formed, or not cleaned out, nerve signalling is impaired and shrinkage of key centres of the brain speeds up. Dementia was once thought to be progressive and irreversible. We know now that buildup of amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles are the result of years of stress on the brain such as neuroinflammation, oxidative stress, mitochondrial dysfunction (energy production in cells), high blood sugar / insulin, microbiome (intestinal bacteria) imbalances and more. New research shows that these processes can be prevented and reversed which can preserve or improve cognitive function. There are strategies that can also increase a healthy chemical in the brain called brain derived growth factor, promote neurogenesis (expansion of nerve cells), enhance the clearing of amyloid and Tau proteins (autophagy), and build new pathways in the brain (promote neuroplasticity).
I help my patients accomplish these goals by coaching them on how to create a lifestyle conducive to a healthy brain. Food is your best brain medicine, so that’s where I start with my patients. Lack of sleep or use of pharmaceutical sleep aids are both associated with memory loss as it is during sleep that the brain clear amyloid. Exercise increases brain-derived-growth-factor. Sustained aerobic exercise is particularly beneficial for preventing shrinkage of the brain’s memory centres. The gut-brain connection is important for brain health too, so improving digestion is key, as is stress reduction, and brain exercises.
I also educate my patients on the use of a few key natural medicines that have been researched to improve brain health. For instance, a study of people taking the DHA component of fish oil showed an improvement in memory after six months. Resveratrol is a grape skin extract that helps to inhibit the creation of and promote the clearance of amyloid and tau, delaying the onset and progression of cognitive impairment. Curcumin, a turmeric extract, supports neuron regeneration, reduces neuroinflammation and helps clear amyloid plaques. Coenzyme Q10,Vitamin D and many other natural medicines also have shown benefits for dementia. A ground-breaking study was conducted on 11 people diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s disease or cognitive impairment, most of whom had the Alzheimer’s gene. They were given a multifactorial naturopathic protocol of lifestyle changes and natural medicines. All but the one most advanced case had reduction in symptoms sufficient to reverse the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s and some showed increased brain volume on scans. It is this multi-faceted approach to brain health that is necessary to keep our brains healthy and functioning well so we can live long and full lives.
Mitochondrial Function Key to Health
Have you ever wondered why the body ages or why you seem to have less energy as you age? It turns out the answer lies deep within the cells in a tiny organelle called the mitochondria. They are the energy producers of the body. They turn our food into the fundamental fuel that drives cellular activity. It is in the mitochondria that carbohydrates, protein, and fat are metabolized, producing cellular energy called ATP. The ATP provide the energy to allow cells to do what they do; it keeps the brain working, fires muscles, repairs tissues, and more.
The more energy a certain tissue requires, the more mitochondria those cells contain. The brain and heart have the highest concentration of mitochondria because they require large amounts of oxygen and energy. The heart muscle is packed with mitochondria. Any dysfunction on the level of the mitochondria has a significant impact on the functioning of these organs especially.
As we age, our mitochondria produce about 40% less ATP and therefore our organs feel the effects of decreased energy production. Mitochondria get damaged over time. The rate of their decline can be influenced by a number of lifestyle factors.
Malfunctioning at the level of the mitochondria has now been shown to be at the heart of a host of degenerative diseases, including diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease; neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, ALS, as well as cancer. Mitochondria dysfunction has also been shown to be related to chronic fatigue syndrome and has implications for affecting athletic performance. Interventions to stabilize mitochondrial function and enhance ATP production will be the new medicine of the future.
The formation of ATP is dependent upon proper intake of vitamins, minerals, omega-3 fatty acids and plant based nutrients. Deficiencies of these nutrients can alter mitochondrial function. Antioxidants like Vitamins C, E and A protect the mitochondria. Other nutrients like resveratrol from grape skins, green tea EGCG and curcumin from tumeric also have strong protective effects.
Exercise protects the mitochondria as well. A well-trained athlete has more than twice the muscle mitochondria than a sedentary person. Exercise stimulates the production of more mitochondria in the cells thus providing an anti-aging effect, especially where we need it most: the brain and heart.
However, those protective mechanisms can be overwhelmed by additional sources of bodily stress, leaving the mitochondria susceptible to damage. A diet high in processed food and high in fat as well as excess alcohol can all damage the mitochondria. Exposure to chemicals, heavy metals, and some pharmaceuticals, like statin drugs for cholesterol, can damage mitochondria.
The heart has to produce 13 to 35 pounds of ATP per day to sustain its approximately 86,000 daily beats. There has been extensive research to find ways to enhance mitochondrial function to maintain the ATP critical to heart function. In addition to exercise and high plant-based diets, natural medicines have been shown to help. CoEnzyme Q10 is a nutrient that fuels the pathway that makes ATP. In 2013, the European Society of Cardiology stated that it is the first “drug” to significantly improve heart failure in over a decade. This statement was based on research showing that there were very significant reductions in mortality in people with advanced heart failure who took CoEnzyme Q10. Magnesium and l-carnitine have also been shown to reduce death after heart attacks and more. In a recent Mayo Clinic review, acute heart patients who took L-Carnitine had a 27% reduction in all-cause mortality, a 65% reduction in arrhythmias, and a 40% reduction in angina symptoms.
Naturopathic physicians seek to understand the underlying cause of disease and use treatments that target those mechanisms. In the case of neurological disease, cancer, heart disease and more, interventions that repair mitochondrial function can help give the body the fuel it needs to promote healthy tissue function. There is so much more to health than managing symptoms with drugs. Take charge of your health with a great lifestyle and natural medicines.
Memory: Solutions for “Senior’s Moments”
It’s important that as people age they find ways to keep both their bodies and minds sharp. In my years of medical practice, I have witnessed patients who experience the anxiety that comes when they recognize that their memory is failing. Whether they are forgetting where they put their keys more often, are having trouble finding words or they are in the early stages of age-related dementia, there are holistic strategies that can help lift brain fog naturally.
When working with a patient, my first task is to determine whether their lifestyle is conducive to good brain function or if it is a likely cause of their “senior’s moments.” The brain is an organ that needs to be taken care of in order to function optimally. Like the rest of the body, it needs quality nutrition, proper rest, exercise and stress management in order to perform well. Nutritional deficiencies, such as lack of vitamin B12, can occur with age, especially if prescription medications like metformin (diabetes) or nexium and other stomach acid blockers are taken. An iron deficiency reduces the oxygen supply to the brain. This form of anemia can be caused by taking aspirin, or by colon issues that cause bleeding.
Exercise has proven to be one of the key factors for preserving mental function. Studies show a significant reduction in rates of dementia in people who exercise three to five times a week. Research also supports the idea that cardiovascular health in general improves oxygen and blood flow to all organs, including the brain. Another study from the Journal of Neurology found that exercise helped minimize arterial plaque buildup, and that this was linked to improved performances on memory and mental acuity tests.
The old adage, “use it or lose it” applies to memory. Mental stimulation is to the brain, what exercise is to the muscles. Engaging in social interactions, intellectual pursuits, and mental games can protect the memory. It’s never too late to learn a new instrument, figure out how to use a computer, or challenge yourself to learn some conversational Spanish.
I also assess my patients for anxiety and chronic pain, both of which have been linked to memory loss. One natural medicine derived from Green Tea called Theanine has been shown to improve mental clarity and reduce anxiety. If chronic pain is present, laser therapy is an effective treatment for arthritis, back and muscle pain.
In my clinic, I also do a thorough medical evaluation to see if there are physical reasons for the memory loss. A full thyroid panel can sometimes illuminate low thyroid function, which can also make patients feel tired, chilly and gain weight easily. Fascinating research links imbalances in the bacterial lining or microbiome of the intestine to brain function. Taking antibiotics or acid blocking medications can disturb the crucial balance in the intestinal microbiome and result in learning and mood issues. Correcting this imbalance with the help of a naturopathic physician can improve health on many levels, including the mood and mind function. For some people, food allergies can cause a brain fog due to an opiate like effect on the brain.
Finally, the factors that put people at risk for cardiovascular disease also put them at risk for dementia. Diabetes is now considered to be a major player in the development of age related dementia. Naturopathic physicians have expertise in helping diabetics achieve stable blood sugars with less mediation. High blood pressure must be addressed with lifestyle changes – not just medications – in order to significantly reduce its side effects. High homocysteine (over 7.0) levels have been found to double the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, according to scientists at Boston University. This inheritable risk factor is easily tested for and treated with natural medicines, yet is rarely done by conventional physicians.
I am often asked if there is a natural medicine to protect the brain from aging and memory loss. Gingko hasn’t been shown to have a preventive effect, however, studies have shown it to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s. Fish oil has anti-inflammatory effects that are positive for brain function. You may have read that chocolate has flavinoids that are good for the brain. Well, only its raw form actually contains the medicinal properties, so sadly you’ll have to try raw cacao nibs to get the protective effect.
Phosphatidyl serine is the newest superstar in the natural memory aid arena. The Journal of the American Academy of Neurology published a study in which it was stated that phosphatidyl serine was a promising candidate for treating memory loss later in life.
A combination of living a healthy lifestyle, having a thorough medical evaluation by your naturopathic or conventional doctor, and utilizing natural medicines will surely help keep those “senior’s moments” at bay.
If this sounds like the care that you’re seeking, we’d love to hear from you.
You can book a complimentary 15-minute “meet-the-doctor” visit anytime by calling the clinic. You’ll be able to ask questions, find out how we can help, and see if there’s a comfortable fit with your naturopath.
Book an appointment with Dr Macdonald by emailing us or calling (250) 897-0235
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The Macdonald Centre for Natural Medicine
448 10th Street Courtenay, B.C.