Tag Archives: Alzheimer’s disease

Ashwagandha for Stress and Brain Health

If stress is at all a significant issue in your life, ashwagandha is an herb you should consider trying. We all know the negative effects stress can have on our lives. Not only do we feel stressed and tense, but long-term stress also contributes to the development of many common chronic diseases, such as depression, high blood pressure, cardiac diseases and metabolic disorders.

There are many herbs that help combat the negative consequences of stress, but ashwagandha stands out from the crowd because of its mood and memory benefits.

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By helping us combat stress, ashwagandha may:
• Reduce fatigue
• Improves learning, memory, and reaction time
• Reduces anxiety and depression
• Rejuvenate the brain
• Improve immune function
• Help prevent cancer
• Stabilizes blood sugar
• Protect the heart
• Improve thyroid function
• Reduce inflammation in the body

I have been taking ashwagandha for less than a month now and am already noticing its benefits. I still have a ton of work on my plate, especially since in the garden at this time of year, but I feel a little calmer and less overwhelmed by it all. Many people note a greater sense of well-being from taking ashwagandha.

Ashwagandha also stands out as a memory herb. Some people even categorize it as a nootropic herb, meaning it improves cognitive performance and memory. Part of this benefit is from stress reduction. Long-term stress actually causes shrinking of some of the memory centers of the brain, like the hippocampus. But clearly, ashwagandha is doing more that just preventing this damage because cognitive improvements were seen in as little as 2 weeks in one study. In a comparison study between ginseng and ashwagandha, the participants taking ashwagandha showed improvements in mental abilities while the ginseng group didn’t. So though ginseng might be another great herb for stress, it lacks ashwagandha’s full brain benefits.

Ashwagandha might also be one of our key herbs for preventing dementia, particularly Alzheimer’s disease. In studies done with mice, ashwagandha contributed to improvements in cognitive abilities and cellular markers in the brain. Ashwagandha is loaded with brain protecting antioxidants and may even help with the regeneration of nerve networks in the brain.

So try ashwagandha, and see if you feel it deserves its ancient reputation as a rejuvenating herb.

Build a Better Brain with the Mineral Lithium

No, I am not crazy (or no more so than the average person), but you might describe me as very excited by the potential brain benefits of lithium. While lithium is most famous for its use in large doses for bipolar disorders, lower doses can have an impressive array of benefits for mood and long-term brain health. Lithium is a mineral just like potassium or magnesium and can be taken in doses of 5-20 mg per day. With these lower doses, there is not the concern about toxic side effects as with the prescription doses.

I first became interested in lithium because of its ability to help prevent Alzheimer’s disease and possibly other types of dementia. Lithium appears to protect against Alzheimer’s in at least three ways. It may help protect the brain against aluminum, which could be implicated in the development of Alzheimer’s. Lithium also may protect the brain against damage from excitotoxins, compounds that in excess can induce nerve damage. Monosodium glutamate is one of the best-known excitotoxins. Studies have indicated that lithium may inhibit the build up of beta-amyloid and tau proteins, the main components of the plaques and tangles that form in the brain with Alzheimer’s disease.

Even if you are not particularly at risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease, lithium may improve brain function. Lithium plays important roles in communication between cells in the brain, which is the basis of how we think and feel. It is well known that the brain tends to shrink as we age, but one small study actually showed that this mineral increased brain grey matter. Lithium might also protect the brain from numerous damaging compounds by increasing bcl-2, a protein that may improve the survival of brain cells even possibly from damage cause by a stroke. Because of these benefits, one group of researchers recommended that anyone taking medication for mood or seizure also take lithium to help protect against toxic medication side effects.

Finally, lithium can improve moodiness and irritability. Lithium influences serotonin pathways, and numerous people have noted that it has helped them feel calmer and less angry without feeling sedated. For alcoholics, lithium has been shown to reduce alcohol cravings and improve mood. These benefits combined with the potential brain protecting attributes makes lithium a mineral that could benefit many people.

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Sleep Tight, Think Right: The link between insomnia and Alzheimer’s disease

I love to sleep and will sleep nine hours a night if I can. Maybe to justify this indulgence, I pay attention to research on the benefits of sleep and recent studies are showing that sleep deprivation likely contributes to Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. So maybe my eight to nine hours of sleep is more like a necessity than an indulgence.

It turns out that sleep is the brain’s cleaning cycle, according to these recent studies. We have long known that sleep helps us form new memories and that lack of sleep can decrease our ability to concentrate and learn new things. But these new studies have demonstrated that if we are chronically sleep deprived, our brains build up junk that it is correlated with dementia and some other age related memory issues. Evidently, part of the reason we sleep is so the brain can divert its energy to cleaning up the debris that results for our day of mental aerobics. In a study using mice, the sleep-deprived mice has impaired memory compared to the normal mice and their brains showed accumulation of proteins associated with Alzheimer’s disease. So if we don’t get enough sleep we are aging our brains faster and putting ourselves at risk for neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. If you want to read more details on this new insight, check out this recent New York Times article.

With 80% Americans getting an insufficient amount of sleep, this increased risk for dementia has to potential to be to a serious health crisis. Some people are choosing to sleep less because they are trying to fit more into their busy lives. I have told hundreds of my patients that they need to set themselves an earlier bedtime so they can make sleep a bigger priority. I will even have them set an alarm to help them remember to start their before bed rituals so they will get to bed early enough.

Passionflower

Passionflower

Others want to get their health restoring sleep but are suffering from insomnia. For this group, there are many natural strategies that may help. Often I have patients start by taking some magnesium at bedtime. Magnesium deficiency can contribute to sleeplessness, anxiety, depression, irritability, and muscle cramps. If this isn’t enough, I might add a calming herb like passionflower or California poppy. Others might benefit from taking the amino acid tryptophan shortly before bed to help them make more melatonin, the sleep hormone. Finally, consider a bedtime snack to keep your blood sugar steady through the night and make sure you have a very dark bedroom.

There are many other health benefits to getting a good night’s sleep. If you need more reasons, read my blogs on the connection between insomnia and blood sugar and the link between stress and sleep deprivation.