Tag Archives: dementia

The Real Benefits of Coconut Oil

Enjoy all the benefits for coconut oil, but don’t assume all the claims about it are true. I love coconut oil, and there is a huge list of the possible benefits to be gained from adding coconut oil to the diet. Some of these are supported by studies and others are just theoretical. Many of the studies only look at the short-term benefits, and one on palm oil (similar fat composition to coconut oil) showed excess consumption contributed to fatty liver while sunflower oil didn’t.

Most oils contain long chain fatty acids, while the ones in coconut oil are known as medium chain, hence the term medium chain triglycerides (MCTs). The shorter size of these fats in coconut oil does have several implications for our health. Coconut oil can be absorbed easier by the digestive tract, making it beneficial for many people with poor absorption of fats. These medium chain fats can also rapidly burn for energy in the body.

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Let’s look at the better-supported benefits of coconut oil:

Antimicrobial, antiviral, and antifungal benefits- Yes, the high lauric acid content of coconut oil can be useful internally or topically to help us fight certain infections.

Brain benefits- Loved ones of people suffering from dementia have told me about impressive improvements in symptoms from adding coconut oil. On small study from 2004 also showed cognitive improvement when Alzheimer’s disease patients were given MCT oils, but the amount of improvement was affected by certain genetic markers. For a great way to support brain health with coconut oil, try my bulletproof turmeric tea.

Weight loss- Studies have shown both reduction in calorie consumption and a mild increase in calorie burning. I have gotten reports from friends that eating coconut oil about a half hour before meals does reduce their appetite.

Energy- MCT oil is a preferred calorie source for some athletes, and several studies have shown that MCTs can enhance athletic performance. Some people notice coconut oil can reduce their sugar cravings possibly because their bodies are happy to use another quick energy source.

Unanswered questions about coconut oil:

Oil pulling– This process where coconut or sesame oil is swished in the mouth like a mouthwash has been show to improve oral health in several ways. Most of the studies have used sesame oil, so we are not sure if coconut oil is equally beneficial other than from anecdotal report. I like the taste of coconut oil over sesame.

Heart health- A 2009 study showed a reduction in total cholesterol and an increase in good HDL cholesterol in obese women given coconut oil along with overall calorie restriction and exercise advice. The control group was given soybean oil and didn’t see the cholesterol changes. This was only a 12-week study so we don’t know what the longer-term effects will be or if these cholesterol changes will affect heart health in any real way.

Diabetes- Some coconut oil proponents say it can improve blood sugar related issues. In a study using rats, coconut oil led to decreased insulin resistance compared to the control group that was given lard. But the rats fed coconut oil also developed fatty liver. So…humans aren’t rats, but the tendency toward fatty liver reflects the palm oil study showing the same issue in humans.

In the study I mentioned where the palm oil contributed to fatty liver, the subjects were eating too many calories as well as too much fat. Let’s not make that mistake. Remember there are individual variations in what foods “agree” with us. And as with nearly every dietary consideration, we need moderation and diversity in our choice of fats.

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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.

Is Coffee Good for You?

I remember when I was growing up many people who were trying to live a “healthy” lifestyle avoid all caffeine, even that in chocolate. Of course, our idea of what is healthy changes over the years. It used to be that fat was the culprit to avoid. Now, it is carbohydrates. Next it will be….your guess is as good as mine.

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With coffee, there is actually some strong evidence that it is a healthy choice for most people. Many studies have shown coffee to be a brain protector that could help prevent Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. There are also studies indicating that coffee might decrease the risk of diabetes. And there are compounds in coffee besides caffeine that could be beneficial. For instance, chlorogenic acid is the active ingredient in the popular weight loss supplement Green Coffee Bean Extract.

For a small percentage of the population, these benefits might be outweighed by some potential health concerns. About 12% of us have a genetic variation in a caffeine-detoxifying enzyme, known as cytochrome p450 1A2, which leads to slower breakdown of caffeine. One study indicated an increased risk of heart attack among individuals with these genes who drank coffee. The risk increased with higher coffee intake. Likewise, coffee drinkers with these variations had higher risk of breast cancer in another study. The study seemed to indicate that if they didn’t drink coffee they had a slightly lower risk of breast cancer than the rest of the population.

So how do you know if you are in this 12%? Genetic testing is now a viable option since it has become inexpensive. Many people with this genetic variation can tell because caffeine will affect them longer or even cause strange symptoms. They might notice that a cup of coffee with supper or even lunch or breakfast keeps them awake at night.

For everyone else, some caffeine seems like a safe and possible protective part of the diet, but to quote one of my herbal medicine instructors, “the proper dose for this herbal medicine is 1-2 cups per day.” Over reliance on coffee to keep us energized might be masking underlying health issues to need to be addressed.

Bulletproof Turmeric: An Herbal Alternative to Bulletproof Coffee

Bulletproof coffee isn’t the only way to have a delicious brain-boosting beverage. You can boost your cognitive function with curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric. Curcumin protects the brain from cognitive deterioration caused by stress. But I don’t know anyone who is dealing with stress! Especially not the law students who are popularizing the bulletproof coffee recipe in this area.

For my bulletproof turmeric, I have used coconut oil, butter, honey, and spices to optimize digest and the absorption of curcumin. Curcumin is notoriously difficult to absorb, but fats and spices, particularly the black pepper in the garam masala, greatly increase our absorption of curcumin into the blood stream.

Turmeric and Garam Masala

Bulletproof Turmeric

1 cup water

1 tsp turmeric powder or 1 Tablespoon fresh turmeric root, grated
(optionally add one capsule of turmeric extract that is 95% curcumin)

¼ tsp garam masala

1 tsp maca (optional, but delicious)

1 Tbs grass fed butter

1 Tbs coconut oil or MCT oil

1 tsp honey

Simmer water with turmeric, garam masala, coconut oil, and butter for 10 minutes.
Strain through a fine mesh strainer.
Add remaining ingredients and whirl in blender or with immersion blender until foamy.

Bulletproof turmeric

Bulletproof turmeric before and after blending

There are many possible variations to this recipe. Add coffee if you like that boost or cinnamon if you are working on blood sugar issues. Since this recipe doesn’t have caffeine, it can be drunk later in the day than bulletproof coffee.

This turmeric drink is also an excellent choice for people dealing with inflammation, pain, or elevated cholesterol. A recent study has confirmed that curcumin reduces knee pain associated with osteoarthritis. Curcumin is helping others achieve healthier cholesterol levels. In addition to having some nootropic benefits, turmeric might also help clear Alzheimer’s plaques from the brain.

The benefits of turmeric are numerous, and while you might not feel the same jolt you would from a cup of coffee, turmeric provides long-term protection to the mind and body on multiple levels.

P.S. For those of you who follow my blog, my bulletproof turmeric tea recipe originated from my healthy food experiment . Turmeric is the second food I chose. I wanted to try it in tea form and came up with this recipe. For a simpler tea recipe, try this one from Dr. Weil.

Is Methylfolate for You?

I’ve been wanting to write a blog about methylfolate for a while since the genetic variation in how we process folic acid can sometimes have a huge impact on heart, mood, and overall health. I’ve been delaying because it is not a simple topic, but here is a basic introduction to it.

Our bodies use several active forms of folic acid, one of these being methylfolate, or more scientifically 5-methyltetrahydrofolate. Methylfolate is necessary to activate B12 and make SAMe, which in turn is necessary for some detoxification processes, neurotransmitter production, and proper genetic expression. Methylfolate is also used to neutralize of homocysteine, an amino acid derivative that is possibly implicated in heart disease. B12 is also needed for this last process.

DNA image courtesy of Svilen Milev

DNA photo courtesy of Svilen Milev

Between 10-20% of the population has a genetic variation in their ability to make methylfolate. Most people with this genetic variation will still have one gene that is functional and probably make adequate methylfolate. Other people have two bad copies of the genes and will be deficient in this active form of folate.

Especially with this last case, these genetic variations can lead to very serious health conditions. These can range from common mood issues like depression to serious mental health disorders like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. I also see these genetic differences more commonly in my patients with ADD and autism. Because of the reduced ability to neutralize toxins, people with these genetic issues can have increased rates of autoimmune disease, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s disease. Another variant in this gene can lead to an increase in conditions that are caused by blood clots like heart attacks and strokes. Finally, this genetic variation can cause an increase in birth defects and miscarriages.

So the solution to this genetic issue can be simple sometimes and more complex for others. Since the eventual end product of this gene is methylfolate (or more precisely 5-methyltetrahydrofolate), we can take this as a supplement and bypass the problem. The dosage can depend on the person so I start low unless there has been adequate testing. Where this gets challenge is that this genetic variation isn’t always the only one. Taking methylfolate can help us make epinephrine, an excitatory brain chemical. For some types of depression, this can be very useful, but others have trouble breaking down epinephrine due to other genetic mutations. For these people, they can build up too much of this stimulating epinephrine and experience anxiety.

For people who are really curious about these possible genetic variations, the good news is that genetic testing in now really inexpensive. For $119, you can get a full panel from 23andme.com, which is then translated by the Sterling App. This approach can help you and your doctor better understand how to balance your supplements for your genes.

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.

Parkinson’s Prevention: The roles of antioxidants, iron, and pesticides

I remember telling my first patient with Parkinson’s disease that she needed to move because she lived in a subdivision that was built on an old landfill. Not only was she suffering, but she also reported that an unusual number of her neighbors had cancer or other very serious diseases that may be linked to toxins. It is thought that in Parkinson’s disease the destruction of brain cells occurs partially due to oxidative damage, which is increased by toxic chemicals. The subsequent reduced ability to produce dopamine in the brain leads to the motor deficits of Parkinson’s including resting tremors, rigidity, slow movements, and shuffling gait.

While there are natural treatments that can slow and/or improve the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, we are much better off focusing on prevention. New studies are pointing to some easy steps to help reduce the chance of getting this neurodegenerative illness. The link between exposure to pesticides and the development of Parkinson’s disease was confirmed by a 2013 meta-analysis looking at over 100 studies. It showed that the risk of Parkinson’s was increased by contact with pesticides, herbicides, and solvents. Farming in general and living in rural areas were also considered to be risks. As a small scale organic farmer as well as a naturopathic doctor, these issues particularly strike home. I recommend an emphasis on organic foods in the diet to avoid traces of pesticide residue on the food and to cut down on the number of farm workers who have to handle pesticides and herbicides.

Another common thread in Parkinson’s disease is elevated iron in the brain. Iron can contribute to oxidative damage by catalyzing the conversion of hydrogen peroxide to dangerous hydroxyl free radicals. Pesticides and other neurotoxic substances have been shown to cause increased production of hydrogen peroxide. The resulting reactive oxygen species can damage the genes, cell membranes, and mitochondria thereby reducing the ability of brain cells to function.

These findings tie together much of what we know concerning the development of Parkinson’s disease: oxidative damage, iron overload in the brain, and pesticide exposure. It also points to useful preventative strategies. Cultures that consume vegan or quasi vegan diets have lower rates of Parkinson’s disease. While this could be due to lower intake of saturated fats or higher antioxidant consumption, I suggest that this link is partially because of lower iron intake. Part of the neuroprotective effect of coffee could be related to its ability to bind iron. This would also explain why the consumption of black tea, which reduces iron absorption, is inversely associated with Parkinson’s disease risk.

Finally, just as antioxidants are an indispensable part of the treatment of Parkinson’s disease, they can also be vital for its prevention since many of the implicated pesticides and other toxic compounds are oxidative stressors. Studies have shown that patients with Parkinson’s disease have reduced antioxidant capacity, demonstrated by lower glutathione levels. Glutathione is an important antioxidant that helps neutralize toxins and heavy metals. N-acetyl cysteine and alpha lipoic acid are excellent supplement choices to help build up glutathione levels. Turmeric is known for its neuroprotective effects, and its active constituent curcumin was shown to help restore glutathione levels in a study using mice. At the same time, I encourage appropriate intake of iron to minimize buildup over time with its subsequent contribution to oxidative stress.

Even though these interventions were particularly studied for Parkinson’s disease, these basic concepts hold true for prevention of other neurological issues. Toxin burdens and decreased antioxidant status are important considerations for prevention of other neurological conditions, including some dementias like Alzheimer’s disease.  Though genetics can play a role in susceptibility to particular conditions, we can choose dietary and lifestyle choices that reduce the likelihood of these manifestations. In addition, we can also work to create a healthier planet so that there are fewer toxic chemicals in all of our lives.

Pepper Smile

And check out my blog from last year on how happy bell peppers like this one can help prevent Parkinson’s disease.

Omega-3s for Mood

Fish oil has numerous well-documented benefits for our health. It is probably best known for its cardiovascular advantages of decreasing cholesterol and clotting. Here I am going to focus on its mood supporting qualities, because there have been a number of exciting recent studies. In one study following patients with major depression, the likelihood of also having anxiety was much higher in those with the lowest blood levels of EPA and DHA, the major omega-3 components of fish oil. A second study found that in women a higher intake of omega-3 fatty acids reduced the incidence of elevated depressive symptoms by 49%. This study also pointed out the ratio of omega-3 fatty acids to omega-6 fatty acids was important. This means you can support your mood by both taking fish oil and reducing intake of omega-6 fats like those found in meat and most oils including corn, soy, and vegetable oils.

Fish oil may even be able to reduce suicidal tendencies. It has long been noted in epidemiological studies that low omega-3 levels are correlated with increased rates of suicide. Researchers have also found higher levels of a marker called SAT1 in people with strong suicidal ideation. This marker and related ones were also associated with stress, mood disorders, anxiety, and hallucinations. In mice that were genetically altered to have abnormal expression of these biomarkers, treatment with omega-3 fatty acids brought their levels of the troublesome markers back to normal. All of this very promising research reinforces the use of fish oil as part of the plan to support mental health for even very serious mood disorders.

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Refresh and Fight Stress with Holy Basil Tea

People sometimes ask me if I could grow only one medicinal herb what would it be. My answer is Holy Basil, because it has so many useful medicinal actions and it is very easy to grow. Holy Basil is one of the many herbs that help us cope with stress, but it is easier to work with than many of the others in this category like ginseng because we use its leaves instead of the root. And it makes a pleasant tea. Some of you might have already tried the popular teas made from Holy Basil, where it is often sold under its other name Tulsi.

My Holy Basil, just from one plant

My Holy Basil, just from one plant

Holy Basil has been demonstrated to reduce the impact of stress on the body and brain. Stress can have a serious impact on our health and contribute to diabetes, high blood pressure, immune dysfunction, and memory issues. Holy Basil has been shown to counter act some of the negative changes that happen in the brain when we are exposure to prolonged stress. Holy Basil may reduce insulin resistance and thereby help lower elevated blood sugar. It can also help decrease elevated cholesterol. Holy Basil helps fight inflammation in the body and therefore pain, partially by being a COX-2 inhibitor. Holy Basil modulates immune system activity and can be a good choice for people who get frequent infections. I like to use it during cold and flu season because it has some antiviral properties too. Finally, Holy Basil is rich in antioxidants and can help protect us from cellular damage, even from radiation.

To make Holy Basil tea from the loose leaves, put 1-2 teaspoons in a cup of water that just came off a boil. Steep for 5-10 minutes, preferably with a lid over the tea. Strain (if you didn’t use a tea ball), sweeten if desired, and enjoy this awesome wellness boosting, stress-fighting tea. Or try it iced.

And if you want to grow your own Holy Basil plant next year, I got my seeds from High Mowing Seeds sold at Ozark Natural Foods and online. I may also be selling the plant starts next spring when I do the annual plant sale for our farm.