Alzheimer’s disease – an incurable, degenerative and terminal form of dementia – is one of the most feared diseases of older age, although it can strike even the young. Incidence of the illness is predicted to triple in the next forty years, and it is estimated that by 2050, one in every eighty-five human beings on the planet will be affected by the condition.
There is growing hope, however, that the paleo diet may be a powerful contributor to prevention – and even treatment – of Alzheimer’s disease.
Earlier this year, the European Journal of Internal Medicine published a fascinating study on the role of diet in the development and progression of Alzheimer’s disease. The paper – Nutrition and Alzheimer’s disease: The detrimental role of a high carbohydrate diet – can be downloaded in .pdf format here. I encourage anyone with even a passing interest in the subject to take time to read it, but I’ll try to summarise some of its most salient points in this article.
The key overarching point to note is that the paper posits that a diet that contains an excess of dietary carbohydrates – particularly fructose – alongside a relative deficiency in dietary fats and cholesterol, may lead to the development of Alzheimer’s, in addition to a range of other degenerative diseases of the modern age, all of which have been increasing in occurrence in recent decades.
Alzheimer’s and Cholesterol
In particular, the authors highlight the importance of cholesterol levels in maintaining healthy brain function. They point out that whilst the brain is only around 2% of body weight, it contains – and uses – about a quarter of the total cholesterol in the body. This isn’t surprising, given the myriad of functions this substance fulfills in brain chemistry: it lubricates the synapses (the gaps between nerve cells); it acts as an antioxidant, protecting the brain from inflammation caused by free radicals; it works as an insulator for electrical impulses; it provides the cellular structure necessary for neurons to fit together; and its lubricating effect is essential to the safe passage of neurotransmitters.
Here’s a point of particular note: the paper informs us that the cerebrospinal fluid in individuals with Alzheimer’s disease is markedly low in cholesterol and other fats compared to individuals without the condition. In addition, those who have low cholesterol levels are found to be at increased risk of dementia.
The link to carbohydrate consumption is most probably the obvious one: consumption of carbohydrates – particularly the refined variety – raises blood sugar levels, and sugar (either in the form of glucose or fructose) can damage tissues through the formation of advanced glycation end-products (AGEs).
AGEs are the end-products of glycation reactions, in which a sugar molecule bonds to either a protein or lipid (fat) molecule without an enzyme to control the reaction. A similar reaction, known as glycosylation, uses an enzyme to control the reaction, targeting specific receptor sites on cells. Glycation, on the other hand, “is a haphazard process that impairs the functioning of biomolecules”. AGE damage can affect LDL cholesterol, and retard its uptake in the brain.
Not surprisingly, the authors go on to note that individuals with type 2 diabetes (who tend to be most at risk of raised blood sugar levels) are between twice and five times as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. The suggestion, then, is that one of the fundamental problems of a high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet is impaired cholesterol availability for the brain.
Alzheimer’s, Insulin and Amyloid-Beta
Interestingly, researchers have previously proposed that Alzheimer’s may be a third form of diabetes. In this study, conducted by scientists at Northwestern University, it was discovered that a toxic protein found in the brains of individuals with Alzheimer’s removes insulin receptors from nerve cells, rendering those neurons insulin resistant, and thus unable to form memories in the normal way (effective insulin signalling is crucial to memory formation, and impaired memory formation is one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease). The protein, known to attack memory-forming synapses, is called an ADDL for ‘amyloid ß-derived diffusible ligand’ – or, more simply, ’amyloid-beta’.
Indeed, more recent research – published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism – has indicated that a low dose of insulin, delivered directly to the brain (and thus bypassing the normal mechanisms of insulin resistance) could suppress the expression in the blood of amyloid-beta and other precursor proteins involved in the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
Dr. Paresh Mandona, the senior author of this study, notes
It is likely that insulin has a direct cellular effect on these precursor proteins while also exerting its other anti-inflammatory actions.
In other words, the safe passage of insulin into the brain – supported by the brain’s ability to pick it up – could be an important factor in preventing the onset of Alzheimer’s, and perhaps even treating it.
Consequently, anything that stimulates insulin resistance – like repeated episodes of high blood sugar, such as those characterised by the excessive consumption of carbohydrates – could possibly contribute to the creation of the kind of bodily environment that supports the inception and progression of the disease.
Alzheimer’s and the Paleo Diet
Is it the case, then, that the adoption of a paleo diet relatively low in carbohydrate, and high in fat – the opposite of what our governments, media outlets, and many medical authorities are advising us – could offer some support against the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease?
According to this 2005 study, it’s a distinct possibility. The researchers found that mice bred with the mouse version of Alzheimer’s disease showed improvements in their condition when treated with a high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet which stimulated ketosis (in which the body and brain burn fat as the preferential dietary fuel). By keeping blood sugar levels steady, and therefore insulin production within a normal range, the production of amyloid-beta is discouraged, the researchers found. Although not yet fully tested on human subjects, the potential implications seem clear.
Dr. Arland Hill, blogger at Complete Care Chiropractic and Wellness, speculates on the potential of the paleo diet in addressing the problem of Alzheimer’s disease. He notes:
One of the hallmarks of the Paleo Diet is that it reduces the secretion of insulin. This is mostly due to the lack of consumption of any refined or simple carbohydrate source which would enter the bloodstream quickly and promote a spike of insulin. It is this combination of high glucose and insulin that creates inflammation and lasting damage, including in the brain.
Of course, the other characteristic of a paleo diet – particularly one that doesn’t eschew fatty meats – is that it is also going to be rich in that all-important cholesterol.
It’s interesting to note the effect that switching between a modern, relatively high carbohydrate diet and a traditional/ancestral paleo diet has on the progression of the degenerative conditions of modern life. Gary Taubes, author of Why We Get Fat, discourses on that topic in the following video. Note his specific reference to Alzheimer’s disease from 4:30 onwards:
The Curious Case of Coconut Oil
Paleo dieters will be particularly interested to learn that one of the staple fats of the paleo diet – coconut oil – has been implicated, anecdotally at least, in the improved cognitive function of an Alzheimer’s sufferer. In his book Stop Alzheimer’s Now, Dr. Bruce Fife of the Coconut Research Center highlights the remarkable recovery of Steve Newport, 58, from five years of progressive dementia after just over a month of taking virgin coconut oil.
Mr. Newport’s “treatment” was instigated by his wife, Dr. Mary Newport, a neonatologist and medical director at Spring Hill Regional Hospital in Florida. in 2001, her husband – an accountant who worked at home – began struggling with daily tasks. He was eventually diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s, and Dr. Newport searched the internet for clinical drug trials that would accept her husband. She discovered that a drug containing medium-chain triglycerides, the kind of fat most prevalent in coconut oil, had achieved remarkable results, not just slowing the progression of the disease but providing real improvement in trial participants.
Since he was unable to join the trial at that late stage, she decided to give her husband two tablespoons of coconut oil a day. As a result, she says, her husband immediately improved, scoring 18 on a cognitive assessment – four points higher than he had scored the previous day.
She goes on to report that within a week he showed tremendous improvement and five months later was leading a relatively normal life, although still unable to resume his work as an accountant, apparently due to permanent brain damage. You can read more about the Newports’ experience at Dr. Newport’s website.
A test commonly used to assess Alzheimer’s progression is to draw the face of a clock from memory. According to Dr. Newport, the illustration inset into the photo below shows Mr. Newport’s improvement as he took coconut oil.
Although the story is anecdotal – there has been little in the way of study of the effect of coconut oil on brain function – it has been of some interest to scientists, not least Dr. Mary Enig, a world-renowned authority on the subject of fats in the diet. She writes:
Why does coconut oil work so well? Several researchers have been looking into the therapeutic use of high-fat ketonic diets in the treatment of disease.
In 2001, Dr. Richard L. Veech of the National Institutes of Health published an article entitled, “Ketone bodies, potential therapeutic uses”. In 2003, George F. Cahill, Jr. and Richard Veech authored, “Ketoacids? Good Medicine?” and in 2004, Richard Veech also published a review of the therapeutic implications of ketone bodies.
The body produces ketone bodies from coconut oil and these can serve as food for the brain and nervous system when our cells develop insulin resistance, which happens in everyone to a greater or lesser extent as we age. With insulin resistance, ketone bodies derived from coconut oil appear to protect neurons when glucose is not available.
Researchers are now looking into the exciting possibility of using coconut oil as a treatment not only for Alzheimer’s disease but also for Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, multiple sclerosis and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease), drug resistant epilepsy, brittle type I diabetes, and diabetes type II, where there is insulin resistance.
Exciting possibilities indeed. It seems clear that a definitive treatment for Alzheimer’s disease is some way off. Nonetheless, current indications are that the paleo diet – with its avoidance of refined carbohydrates, its insulin-regulating effect, its anti-inflammatory nature, and its emphasis on nourishing fats and abundant dietary cholesterol – may well become one of the lifestyle changes that will, in the future, be advised for Alzheimer’s patients or those wishing to proactively avoid the disease.
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Brian Cormack Carr is a professional life and career coach, writer, and advocate of a real foods diet.
His home on the web is www.cormackcarr.com where you will find more articles, a free newsletter, and information about his online career-creation programme www.vitalvocation.com. You can follow Brian on Twitter: @cormackcarr