Dr. Doni Wilson challenges the belief that Alzheimer’s disease is irreversible and offers six drug-free ways to restore brain plasticity and reverse cognitive impairment.
Alzheimer’s is a subject on many people’s minds.
For some, their aging parents have the disease, and they find themselves struggling to know how to care for them. They feel helpless as they watch the parent they once knew become progressively worse, losing both mental and physical faculties, as well as their personality.
And because they’ve been told the risk of getting Alzheimer’s is, at least partially, down to genetics, they fear that they too will develop the disease at some point in their lives.
But probably the scariest thing about Alzheimer’s is that most medical professionals will tell you:
- There is no cure for it
- There is no medication for it
- There is no way to prevent it from happening
- Once you have it, it is irreversible
However, recent medical research1,2 is challenging our former preconceptions about this disease, showing that:
ALZHEIMER’S IS BOTH PREVENTABLE AND REVERSIBLE.
Since so few people are aware this is the case, I thought it was important to write an article about it.
In this article I will discuss:
- The connection between genetics and Alzheimer’s risk
- What happens in your body/brain when you have Alzheimer’s
- How stress exposure contributes to Alzheimer’s risk
- Neuroplasticity and how the brain can heal itself
- How to reverse Alzheimer’s through lifestyle changes
The Connection Between Genetics and Alzheimer’s Risk
Interest in genetics is certainly on the rise. Genetic health profiles are a big part of my own professional practice – I frequently ask my patients to do a genetic health panel to help us get a clearer picture of their genetic tendencies.
The most common question patients ask me when we review their genetic information is, “Am I at risk for Alzheimer’s?”
It is true that some genetic variations – the MTHFR genetic mutation (something I’ve written about extensively on this site) or a genetic variation like APOEe4 – can put you at higher risk for developing Alzheimer’s. But having these genetic variants does NOT mean you will definitely develop the condition.
Genetics play a role in almost all health issues, but in many cases, that role is much smaller (sometimes only about 10%) than many people imagine.
That said, when you know you have certain gene SNPs (“single nucleotide polymorphisms,” the term used for these kinds of genetic variations), you have the excellent opportunity to develop a health regimen that can help you minimize the risk of developing Alzheimer’s or any other health issue to which you may be genetically predisposed.
That’s why I recommend that people who have an MTHFR SNP pay particular attention to improving methylation.
So, instead of seeing your genetic profile as an uncontrollable and unchangeable part of your future, see it as a tool that can help you support your body.
What Happens in Your Body and Brain When You Have Alzheimer’s
When doctors talk about Alzheimer’s, they usually talk about things like “beta amyloid plaque” and “neurofibrillary tangles” (NFTs), tangles of tau protein. These complex medical terms can often mystify (or intimidate) a patient. But the brain is not a far-off, mysterious place; really, it’s not so difficult to understand.
So, in simple words, what do these terms actually mean?
Inside the walls of our brain cells is a substance called amyloid precursor protein. This protein must be broken down and replaced on a regular basis to keep our nerve cells healthy. How thoroughly our bodies break down this protein is, to some degree, genetically determined. Ideally, it should break down into a soluble substance, so it can flow out of the body. But sometimes this protein breaks down in such a way that it is insoluble. Instead of flowing out easily, it gets stuck and “gums up” the area around the brain cell. That is what we call “plaque.”
Next, let’s talk about the nerves cells themselves. Nerve signals travel a sort of “railroad track” of microtubules, which are joined together by tau proteins. When everything along the “track” is nice and tidy, nerve messages can flow easily to/from the brain and throughout the body. But, if the tau proteins become tangled (more about this in a minute), the nerves are unable to transmit messages properly. This has a negative effect on memory, one of the most frequently mentioned symptoms of Alzheimer’s.
The good news is that our bodies and brains actually have a process for cleaning up plaques and tangles, as well as unhealthy nerve cells, using something called “autophagy.”
Among other things, autophagy helps the body determine whether a cell can be repaired or if it should be destroyed altogether. While autophagy is partially influenced by genetics, studies show it is also affected by our stress exposure.
How Stress Exposure Contributes to Alzheimer’s Risk
Many recent studies show 3,4,5 that stress – in all its various forms – is a major factor in the risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Such stress can be physical, mental or emotional, such as:
- Loss of a loved one
- Moving house
- Changing jobs
- Injury, health crisis
- Toxins (pesticides) 6, metals (mercury), radiation, EMF
- Food stress (gluten and other food sensitivities)
- High blood sugar 7
- Lack of sleep 8
- Overstimulation (technology, lights and to-do lists)
When not balanced by “anti-stress” activities, these kinds of stresses can lead to imbalanced hormone levels, ineffective digestion of food and decreased absorption of nutrients, leaky gut and imbalanced gut bacteria 9, over- or under-active immune function, and disrupted neurotransmitter levels.
All this leads to:
- Oxidative stress 10
- Impaired methylation 11
- Mitochondrial dysfunction 12
When these four things happen, our cells have a harder time recovering, our bodies have a harder time staying healthy, and our DNA is less able to make healthy new cells. In the brain, plaque builds up and is not removed effectively. This is also when protein tangles can occur in the nervous system.
All these factors make it difficult for the body to cope and recover from the effects of stress.
While there is no way to avoid stress completely, getting “stressed about stress” will only make things worse. What we CAN do is be proactive about minimizing and/or reversing its negative effects. I’ll share some tips on how to do that later in this article.
Neuroplasticity: How the Brain Can Heal Itself
Also called “brain plasticity” or “brain malleability,” the term “neuroplasticity” refers to the brain’s ability to CHANGE itself by forming new neural pathways when faced with injury, disease, or other changes. Neuroplasticity is also what enables us to make new memories and learn new skills.
Thanks to neuroplasticity, our brains are dynamic, living organs that can repair, replace, grow, and adapt.
What is most important to know is that MOST of the clean-up and repair in your brain happens while you sleep. You might think you’re doing nothing when you’re sleeping, but EVERY night your brain is busy using a process called the “glymphatic system” to clear neurotoxic waste from the brain.
Some scientists also believe that it helps distribute good stuff like glucose, lipids, amino acids, and neurotransmitters throughout the brain.13 Some hypothesize that the glymphatic system may be a primary reason why all species have a biological NEED for sleep, and that failure of glymphatic system might contribute to the development of neurodegenerative disorders, traumatic brain injury, and stroke.
Thus, without neuroplasticity and glymphatics, we become susceptible to cognitive impairment. We don’t learn as easily or remember as well. We lose track of things, places, and people.
But scary as that is, neuroplasticity CAN be restored. And when the brain is back to its normal, flexible self, it can heal itself – making Alzheimer’s a reversible condition.
6 Steps to Reverse Alzheimer’s Through Lifestyle Changes
Just as we each have unique stress exposures and an individual set of genes, every person with cognitive impairment has a different set of circumstances that led them to develop their condition. For that reason, the precise path to recovery from Alzheimer’s differs somewhat from person to person.
That said, below is a list of six primary areas that I, as a medical professional, always address when working with a patient seeking to prevent or reverse Alzheimer’s.
STEP 1: Reduce sugar intake/blood sugar
Over-consumption of sugar and/or carbs overwhelms our body’s ability to manage glucose. This makes us more susceptible to developing not just diabetes, but cognitive impairment as well. This is because elevated blood sugar (as well as obesity) increases inflammation and damage to cells everywhere in the body – including the brain.
We can start to reverse the inflammatory damage high blood sugar has caused by reducing our overall dietary sugar.
We can stop adding sugar to beverages, such as coffee or tea.
We can read labels carefully when we shop, and choose products that don’t list sugar as an ingredient.
We can make sure we are eating adequate protein and healthy fats, which do not don’t raise blood sugar or insulin.
Lastly, eating smaller food portions at each sitting can also help stabilize blood sugar.
STEP 2: Reduce toxin exposure
Toxins can be anywhere – in your food, water, air, personal care products, make-up, mattresses, dental fillings, or cleaning products.
Just as high blood sugar can overwhelm your endocrine system, making it difficult for your body to manage excess glucose, overexposure to environmental toxins can cause “oxidative stress”, which is when there is an excess of “free radicals” (by-products of oxidation) in your body and not enough anti-oxidants to dispose of them. Excess free radicals floating around your body can lead to widespread cell damage; once again, this damage can occur inside the brain.
Of course, when the cells of the brain become damaged or unhealthy, they will not be able to perform all the “housecleaning” tasks they need to do. So, it stands to reason that reducing your exposure to environmental toxins and metals can help give your body a chance to rid itself of free radicals, which can, in turn, allow the brain to heal and recover.
I encourage you to start taking a look inside your cabinets at home and reading the labels of what products you might be using. Eliminate those that contain any kind of toxin and replace them with those that don’t.
Make sure your air, water, and car filters are clean and changed regularly.
Then, start paying attention to possible environmental toxins you may be exposed to daily – at home, at work, in your social environment – and see how you can best eliminate or minimize that exposure.
STEP 3: “De-stress” your diet
What we eat matters. Whatever we put into our bodies is what they use to make cells, produce energy, function in general. If we consume foods that increase inflammation and oxidative stress, we are adding to an already full workload.
In addition to sugars/carbs (which we’ve already discussed), many other foods can also put a strain on your body. The most common offenders are gluten (in foods made from wheat, barley, rye, and spelt) and dairy (anything made from cow milk). An food sensitivity panel can tell you which foods you need to eliminate from your diet.
Fried foods – such as French fries (boo hoo!) or foods that are blackened, barbequed, and/or made with hydrogenated fats – are also extremely “stressful” to your body and brain because they increase oxidative stress, leading to plaques and tangles.
And don’t forget that non-organic foods can also contain toxins in the form of pesticides. Sometimes going organic can be one of the biggest “diet de-stressors” you can make.
When we start to de-stress our diet, we might notice the positive effects almost immediately, such as improved energy levels, better sleep, focus, and memory.
TIP: I’ve noticed that many patients benefit from a little extra nutritional support as they start to change their diet. For that reason, I developed my Stress Remedy Programs, which help as you make the transition from “stressed” to “de-stressed” dietary choices. The program also teaches you how to get better quality sleep (something we’ll look at next), and how to integrate “stress remedies” into your day-to-day life.
STEP 4: Get proper sleep
As I said earlier, our brains do a self-cleaning process while we sleep. So, if we don’t get enough good-quality sleep every night, our bodies won’t have the chance to do their housecleaning properly, and we will eventually feel the effects as decreased memory and mental function.
Of course, the opposite is true: if we improve the amount and quality of our sleep, it will help our brains function more efficiently.
A few basics that can help you improve your sleep right away are:
- Make sure your bedroom is dark
- Avoid sugar, carbs and alcohol before bed
- Introduce stress-reduction activities (any time of day, but especially before bed) such as deep breathing, mindfulness, or listening to music
Now, I know falling asleep (and staying asleep) is a huge problem for many people, especially in this modern world. That’s why I have developed a range of sleep-support services and products in my professional practice:
- Dr. Doni’s Sleep Support – my own specially formulated, gluten-free supplement that supports neurological, cognitive, and neurotransmitter function, so you can fall asleep naturally.
- Dr. Doni’s Natural Sleep Solutions Package – A special 6-month naturopathic treatment package for patients whose lives are negatively affected because they cannot fall asleep and/or stay asleep at night and are seeking a natural sleep remedies and solutions.
- My upcoming book The Natural Insomnia Solution – Click the link to pre-order the book at Amazon and to get sleep tips from me.
There are many different reasons why you may be suffering from poor or disrupted sleep at night. If your problem is ongoing, I encourage you to work with a practitioner to help you get to the bottom of it.
STEP 5: Improve autophagy & neuroplasticity with nutrients and herbs
There are several foods and natural supplements that can help the brain recover from stress and ensure healthy neuroplasticity.14
Here are a few suggestions:
- Omega 3 fats. You can get Omega 3 from foods like fish, algae, chia seeds, flax seeds, and walnuts. If you find it difficult to get enough of these kinds of foods in your diet, there are many good, natural Omega-3 supplements* available on the market. Two of my favorite options are Super EPA and Nordic Naturals Algae Omega.
- Present in egg yolks and meat, choline makes for healthy cells (including nerve cells) and a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. When we become depleted in choline, it results in decreased acetylcholine and memory. It is possible to take choline in a supplement form. Both CDP and Alpha-GPC choline are known to help with dementia. Here is the CDP choline that I recommend.
- Extracted from the herb turmeric, curcumin is known to be both anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant, plus it helps with detoxification. Extensive research shows how curcumin reduces plaque, while improving autophagy and cognition. One excellent curcumin product is Meriva-500 Soy Free. Another is Optimized Curcumin.
- CBD oil. CBD stands for cannabidiol, which is a cannabinoid found in hemp oil. Cannabidnoids are both neuroprotective and anti-inflammatory. They have been shown to decrease oxidative stress and help nerve cells repair. It is available in liquid and softgels.15
- CoQ10 is an anti-oxidant that reduces oxidative stress and supports mitochondrial function. Study findings suggest that CoQ10, and MitoQ in particular, can prevent and reverse nerve degeneration. 16
STEP 6: Exercise your body and brain!
Just as exercising your body keeps your muscles supple, recent research shows that EXERCISING YOUR BODY and BRAIN helps keep your brain cells flexible too!
Both aerobic exercise and strength training increase a substance called BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) which helps your brain recover from stress and improve cognition. One study showed that being physically active reduces Alzheimer’s disease by 45%.17
In addition to physical exercise, it is also important to use your brain – and make new neural pathways. Exercising your mind will help increase neuroplasticity and prevent plaque build-up.
How do you “exercise” your brain? Primarily by continually learning. According to the 2016 documentary “Can Alzheimer’s Be Stopped” by PBS Nova, learning a new language has been shown to delay the onset and/or slow down the progression of Alzheimer’s in many elderly patients. In fact, the language of choice was Japanese, as it was radically different from what most of the patients may have studied in the past.
Other studies have shown that activities like meditation and mindfulness 18 can help increase cognition, reduce neurodegeneration, and prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s.
Even reading this article may have already helped increase neuroplasticity in your brain!
I hope this article has helped you understand that preventing and/or reversing Alzheimer’s is possible, and that it has much more to do with lifestyle changes than with your genes.
- If you (or a loved one) already have Alzheimer’s, applying these changes can help reduce and reverse memory loss.
- If you do not have Alzheimer’s, applying these lifestyle changes at a younger age means you are helping to prevent the disease from developing in the future.
And don’t make the mistake of believing that you or your loved ones are too old and stuck in your ways to make these changes. I truly believe that change is possible at any age; I’ve been inspired by patients of all ages, from 8 months to 88 years old. Even small changes can start to shift old patterns. We just need to take the first step.
For those of you who may be caring for someone with Alzheimer’s, don’t neglect to take care of yourself, too. You may not be used to putting yourself first, but when it comes to taking care of your brain, it’s up to you to do it. If you find yourself lacking in motivation, just remember that every healthy choice you make helps protect your precious brain and increases the time on earth you will have to live, remember, enjoy your life, and be with your loved ones.
If you feel it is time to discuss Alzheimer prevention or reversal with a medical professional, and feel strongly that you need a natural approach, I invite you to book an appointment to meet with me, so I can review your case and suggest the best strategy for you. For some of my patients, my Autoimmunity Solutions Package is the best fit (some studies show Alzheimer’s is an autoimmune disease), but as I said earlier, every person is different.
I’m excited to announce that I will be delivering presentations on this same topic at these upcoming conferences:
- April 28, 2018: Connecticut Naturopathic Physicians Association Conference in Cromwell, CT
- October 12-14, 2018: British Columbia Naturopathic Association in Vancouver, Canada
- December 2018: TAP Integrative Online Educational Resource for Clinicians
If you are interested in learning more about these presentations, I invite you subscribe to our special practitioner mailing list at https://doctordoni.com/practitioner/.
Until next time, I wish you well.
20th April 2018
*Please keep in mind that any and all supplements—nutrients, herbs, enzymes, or other—should be used with caution. My recommendation is that you seek the care of a naturopathic doctor (with a doctorate degree from a federally-accredited program) and that you have a primary care physician or practitioner whom you can contact to help you with individual dosing and protocols. If you ever experience negative symptoms after taking a product, stop taking it immediately and contact your doctor right away.
- Bredesen DE, Amos EC, Canick J, et al. Reversal of cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s disease. Aging (Albany NY). 2016;8(6):1250-8. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4931830/
- Marengoni A, Rizzuto D, Fratiglioni L, et al. The Effect of a 2-Year Intervention Consisting of Diet, Physical Exercise, Cognitive Training, and Monitoring of Vascular Risk on Chronic Morbidity-the FINGER Randomized Controlled Trial. J Am Med Dir Assoc. 2018;19(4):355-360.e1. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29108888
- Khalsa, D.S. 2015. “Stress, Meditation, and Alzheimer’s Disease Prevention: Where The Evidence Stands”. J Alzheimers Dis. 2015;48(1):1-12. Accessed 17 April 2018 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26445019
- Machado A, Herrera AJ, De pablos RM, et al. Chronic stress as a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. Rev Neurosci. 2014;25(6):785-804. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25178904
- Katz MJ, Derby CA, Wang C, et al. Influence of Perceived Stress on Incident Amnestic Mild Cognitive Impairment: Results From the Einstein Aging Study. Alzheimer Dis Assoc Disord. 2016;30(2):93-8. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4877262/. Interesting article about this study: http://www.ibtimes.com/alzheimers-disease-risk-increased-among-highly-stressed-adults-new-study-finds-2223353
- Richardson JR, Roy A, Shalat SL, et al. Elevated serum pesticide levels and risk for Alzheimer disease. JAMA Neurol. 2014;71(3):284-90. http://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamaneurology/fullarticle/1816015. Here is a nice summary article about this study: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/studies-link-ddt-other-environmental-toxins-to-late-onset-alzheimers-disease/
- De la monte SM, Tong M, Wands JR. The 20-Year Voyage Aboard the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease: Docking at ‘Type 3 Diabetes’, Environmental/Exposure Factors, Pathogenic Mechanisms, and Potential Treatments. J Alzheimers Dis. 2018;62(3):1381-1390. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5870020/
- Holingue C, Wennberg A, Berger S, Polotsky VY, Spira AP. Disturbed sleep and diabetes: A potential nexus of dementia risk. Metab Clin Exp. 2018; http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29409842
- Bhattacharjee S, Lukiw WJ. Alzheimer’s disease and the microbiome. Front Cell Neurosci. 2013;7:153. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3775450/
- Perry G, Cash AD, Smith MA. Alzheimer Disease and Oxidative Stress. J Biomed Biotechnol. 2002;2(3):120-123. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC161361/
- Hooper C, De souto barreto P, Coley N, et al. Cross-Sectional Associations of Total Plasma Homocysteine with Cortical β-Amyloid Independently and as a Function of Omega 3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acid Status in Older Adults at Risk of Dementia. J Nutr Health Aging. 2017;21(10):1075-1080. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29188863
- Moreira PI. Sweet Mitochondria: A Shortcut to Alzheimer’s Disease. J Alzheimers Dis. 2018;62(3):1391-1401. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5869999/
- Jessen, N.A., Munk, A. S. F., Lundgaard, I, Nedergaard, M. 2015. “The Glymphatic System – A Beginner’s Guide.” Neurochem Res. 2015 Dec; 40(12): 2583–2599. Accessed 17 April 2018 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4636982/
- Cicero AFG, Fogacci F, Banach M. Botanicals and phytochemicals active on cognitive decline: The clinical evidence. Pharmacol Res. 2017; http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29289576
- Karl T, Garner B, Cheng D. The therapeutic potential of the phytocannabinoid cannabidiol for Alzheimer’s disease. Behav Pharmacol. 2017 Apr;28(2 and 3-Spec Issue):142-160. Accessed 17 April 2018 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27471947
- Ng LF, Gruber J, Cheah IK, Goo CK, Cheong WF, Shui G, Sit KP, Wenk MR, Halliwell B. The mitochondria-targeted antioxidant MitoQ extends lifespan and improves healthspan of a transgenic Caenorhabditis elegans model of Alzheimer disease. Free Radic Biol Med. 2014 Jun;71:390-401. Accessed 17 April 2018 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24637264
- Dinoff A, Herrmann N, Swardfager W, Liu CS, Sherman C, Chan S, Lanctôt KL. The Effect of Exercise Training on Resting Concentrations of Peripheral Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF): A Meta-Analysis. PLoS One. 2016 Sep 22;11(9):e0163037. Accessed 17 April 2018 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27658238
- Russell-Williams, J.; Jaroudi, W.; Perich, T.; Hoscheidt S.; El Haj, M.; Moustafa A. 2018. “Mindfulness and meditation: treating cognitive impairment and reducing stress in dementia”. Rev Neurosci. 2018 Feb 21. Accessed 17 April 2018 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29466242