Diet, Alzheimer’s Disease and Brain Health

December 7, 2016
By: Janie Jacoby

Reclaim your Brain with Food and Functional Medicine

Reclaim your Brain with Food and Functional Medicine

Alzheimer’s disease afflicts 5.4 million Americans, and 1 in 9 of those aged 65 and older. Non-Alzheimer’s cognitive impairment affects even more, and as our population ages, the number of individuals affected will continue to skyrocket. The impact of this is devastating, not only for those afflicted, but also for our caregivers and for our society.

As is the case with many diseases, people often think of Alzheimer’s to be caused by genetics, and assume that we are helpless in preventing it. However, promising new research shows us that not only can neurodegeneration be prevented, it can also be reversed. This knowledge gives us a great opportunity to empower people to improve their brain health.

The MEND Therapeutic Program

Dale Bredesen at UCLA published a paper in 2014 describing a therapeutic program called MEND, which stands for “metabolic enhancement for neurodegeneration.” Instead of the usual monotherapeutic or one-therapy approach, this program addresses many possible targets at once, is personalized to each patient, and addresses the underlying causes of neurodegeneration. The numerous targets include: inflammation, insulin levels, autoimmunity, heavy metal toxicity, stress, sleep, exercise, hormone balance, zinc/copper ratio, and oxidative stress.

Common features of the individualized programs include:

  • A personalized diet that is low glycemic, low inflammatory, and low in grains
  • Fasting for 12 hours each night, and not eating within three hours before bed
  • Stress relief, such as meditation or yoga
  • Exercise on most days
  • Supplements such as CoQ10, coconut oil, methylcobalamin, vitamin D, citicoline, curcumin, and omega-3s

The results from this study are stunning. Out of 10 patients with Alzheimer’s or cognitive impairment, 9 sustained substantial improvements after 3-6 months of treatment. Some had been forced to quit work due to their illness, but after treatment, they could return to work. The only person who did not show improvement had very late stage Alzheimer’s.

In a 2016 follow-up study, the researchers presented 10 case studies, with quantitative MRI and neuropsychological test results. Patients saw dramatic improvements, such as unprecedented increases in hippocampal volume and cognition scores. Each of the patients “met criteria for Alzheimer’s disease or MCI prior to treatment, but failed to meet the criteria ... following treatment.” Thus, the researchers showed that what is considered an irreversible disease can in fact be reversed.

The Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic

In 2016, the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell Medical College published a groundbreaking paper. The paper describes their personalized and comprehensive treatment program for neurodegeneration. The clinic targets three primary etiologies: insulin resistance, dyslipidemia, and oxidative stress. Exercise, cognitive activity, sleep, antioxidant intake, toxins, and supplements are all emphasized. Preliminary results show that patients are experiencing significant improvements in brain health. I look forward to seeing further research from this clinic.

The MIND Diet

Another tool we have for addressing brain health is the MIND diet (the “Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay”). It was developed by Martha Clare Morris, based on the observation that both the DASH and Mediterranean diets are associated with improved cognition. The MIND diet adopts foods from these two diets that are associated with improved brain health. These foods are great sources of nutrients such as antioxidants, lutein, vitamin E, and omega-3s.

The diet emphasizes foods such as berries, fish, and leafy greens, while limiting foods such as sweets and fast food. Studies show that the MIND diet is strongly associated with improved cognition. One study showed a 53% decreased rate of Alzheimer’s in those who most closely followed the diet pattern.

Try the MIND diet to beat Alzheimer's disease; "Mediterranean-Dash Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay

Key Goals for a Healthy Brain

  • Maximize antioxidant intake via vegetables, herbs, and spices
  • Minimize simple carbs and processed foods
  • Fast for 12 hours each night
  • Prioritize stress relief and stay cognitively active
  • Exercise aerobically most days
  • Consider targeted supplementation
  • Prioritize foods in the MIND diet

Going Forward

This post illustrates only a sample of the exciting research being conducted on the relationship between diet and brain health. And while the Alzheimer’s Association still positions that “there is no treatment to cure, delay or stop the progression of Alzheimer's disease,” I'm excited about the research showing this may not be true!

Together, we can change the current paradigm. Let’s use this information to empower people to reclaim their brain health for years to come!