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The Best Alzheimer’s Supplements

The last post talked a lot about healthy-living strategies for Alzheimer’s prevention, but it’s also important to know about the best Alzheimer’s supplements – especially when there are so many products to choose from. There is a limited body of research for natural supplements in Alzheimer’s disease, but some of the strategies are promising, and could often be used alongside conventional drugs for memory loss and dementia.

Ketogenic diet, Coconut Oil and MCTs

Perhaps the best known alternative therapy for Alzheimer’s disease, these three therapies are just different ways of skinning the same cat.  The theory behind this therapy is that while your body can use many fuel sources, your brain is limited to glucose, or sugar, as a fuel.  In order for your cells, including your brain cells to use sugar they have to be able to respond effectively to insulin signaling.  If your diet has always been a little higher in sugars or starches, or if you have a genetic tendency towards blood sugar abnormalities including diabetes then you may not have good insulin signaling.  The first sign of this is usually something called metabolic syndrome or insulin resistance.  Insulin resistance is the first step along the path towards both diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.

Coconut oil or MCT oil - one of the best supplements for Alzheimer's disease. Photo by Aravind Sivaraj.

Coconut oil or MCT oil – one of the best supplements for Alzheimer’s disease. Photo by Aravind Sivaraj.

In good news, even if your insulin signaling isn’t so good, there is a back-door to brain fuel, which allows you to bypass both glucose and insulin.  This back-door is called ketones. Ketones are made when your body breaks down fats for fuel instead of sugar and they can feed your brain even when glucose can’t. Ketogenic diets have been used to help children with epilepsy that is uncontrolled by drugs alone to reduce their seizure frequency and evidence with Alzheimer’s suggests that this could potentially be a good diet for neuroprotection in general.  Ketogenic diets generally have a 4:1or 3:1 ratio of good dietary fats: proteins and carbohydrates (including starches and sugar) combined.  There are urine test strips, called keto-strips, that you can use to test your urine to see if your body is in ketosis. Obviously this isn’t the easiest diet to maintain long-term so using fats that are more ketogenic, like coconut oil or MCT, can help.

Coconut oil is unique in that it contains a high proportion of a type of fat called medium chain triglycerides, or MCTs.  Most of the fats that we eat in our diet are made of long-chain triglycerides, but the shorter MCTs are more efficient for your body to convert into ketones, and so are more able to fuel your brain if glucose isn’t working. If a full ketogenic  diet is too difficult then using raw coconut oil, or the extracted MCTs from coconut oil can help boost your brain power.  In fact, five tablespoons of coconut oil or MCT oil spread out through the day is one of the best Alzheimer’s disease supplements that we know of. In fact a pilot study published recently in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease indicated that neurons treated with amyloid-beta (which induces the changes of Alzhimer’s disease) were actually protected by the addition of coconut oil.

Antioxidants – Some of the Best Alzheimer’s Supplements Around

One of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease is extensive oxidative stress throughout the brain and neurological system. This includes the typical free radical formation, as well as protein and lipid oxidation (which means free radicals steal electrons from proteins and fats), DNA oxidation (scary thought – stealing electrons from your genes), and neuron death. Many antioxidants have been studied (here, here, here and many other places too) to help prevent or reverse this type of damage including:

We should all age so well. The best Alzheimer's supplements for this Female Buddhist lay rununciant at en:Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia (January 2005). Photo by Peter Rimar.

We should all age so well. The best Alzheimer’s supplements for this Female Buddhist lay rununciant at en:Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia (January 2005). Photo by Peter Rimar.

  • CoQ10 – This substance acts as an antioxidant and also stimulates energy production at a cellular level. Not only that, it helps protect your heart.
  • Vitamin E – especially the gamma-tocopherol form, which is more fat soluble and crosses into the brain more effectively.
  • Ferulic acid – this is a phenolic compound found in flax seeds, coffee beans, apples, artichokes, peanuts, fennel and other plants. It is a strong anti-oxidant and in animal studies has shown direct effects against breast and liver cancer.
  • Polyphenols – including quercetin (from many foods) and resveratrol (from red grapes or red wine). These are good anti-inflammatories and anti-oxidants.
  • Alpha-lipoic acid – this fat-soluble (so brain-friendly) antioxidant will also help to lower blood sugars so that makes it one of the best Alzheimer’s supplements out there. It’s a double-whammy.
  • N-acetyl-L-cysteine (NAC) – this amino acids helps your body to recycle glutathione, which is your master antioxidant. It also helps to break up mucus and congestion, which can also be helpful in an elderly population.
  • EGCG – this is the most-researched antioxidant from green tea and has shown benefits to brain health, heart health and aging generally.
  • Curcumin – this strong anti-inflammatory from turmeric has shown a tremendous preventative effect in Alzheimer’s disease and helps to protect your brain from oxidative damage as well as inflammatory changes.
  • Melatonin – this is your natural sleep hormone, which has the added bonus of helping Alzheimer’s patients to sleep more soundly – which is usually one of the worst issues for both caregivers and patients in late-stage Alzheimer’s disease.

The research evidence shows that each one alone has significant benefits, but that combining a variety of different antioxidants is the best strategy for Alzheimer’s disease.  My favorite combination of supplements to start with would be alpha-lipoic acid 600 mg per day (take this one with food because the blood sugar drop on an empty stomach can be significant), CoQ10 400 IUs, and an antioxidant combo with vitamin A, E, and C in it at the minimum but look for some of the others as well.  Also a cup or two of green tea daily and melatonin, 3-20 mg at night for sleep. Of course you should talk with your doctor before starting this or any other suggestion.

Magnesium for Alzheimer’s Disease

Magnesium levels in the brain help to increase the density and plasticity of brain synapses. This means your brain cells can connect to each other more frequently and with more flexibility – changing more effectively as you learn new skills. Unfortunately keeping magnesium levels high in the brain, or even in the body, can be a challenge with modern diets – here is my recent post on Magnesium in general.  There are a couple of types of magnesium that might help with this:

  • Magnesium threonate – has been shown to be effective in a mouse model of Alzheimer’s.  It improved brain levels of magnesium and prevented and reversed cognitive defects as well as synaptic loss. This form of magnesium is taken orally so the dose is limited by bowel tolerance because any magnesium that you take orally will cause loose stools if the dose is higher than your body can absorb at one time.
  • Magnesium Oil – this form of magnesium, which is usually magnesium chloride, is applied topically so there is no trouble with the bowel tolerance issue.  There aren’t any research studies specifically about topical magnesium in Alzheimer’s disease, but logically this could be a good addition to the magnesium threonate to help restore magnesium in the brain and body. Magnesium oil can be applied several times per day and allows magnesium to absorb directly through the skin. Use caution on cuts or scrapes (or newly shaved skin) because it burns like salt water would.

Huperzine A – Best Alzheimer’s Supplement mimicking drug activity

Huperzine A, which is an Alzheimer’s drug in China, is sold over the counter in the US as a nutritional supplement.  It is a plant sourced compound that has strong acetylcholinesterase inhibiting activity in the brain – just like the most common class of drug used to treat Alzheimers, which are cholinesterase inhibitors. This includes the drugs Aricept, Exelon, Razadyne, Cognex and Namenda. Huperzine A has also shown neuroprotective effects as well as the surprising ability to reduce iron levels in the brain – and this may also be beneficial in Alzheimer’s disease.

Alzheimer’s Disease is debilitating and tragic, but there is so much we can do to both prevent it as well as to slow down the progression. The products that I consider to be the best supplements for Alzheimer’s  is not a complete list of everything out there, but they are the supplements that I feel have the most credible research behind them.  As a starting place the lifestyle steps in the prevention article should be priority one, followed by the addition of useful supplements including  coconut oil, a mix of antioxidants, magnesium and huperzine A.  Above all, it is helpful to work with a practitioner who can help to guide you in these times and make sure any supplements or nutritional changes you make will work well with any pharmaceutical medicines you are taking.

Protect Your Brain – Seven Things You Can Do To Prevent Alzheimer’s

Learning to prevent Alzheimer’s is a topic near and dear to my heart, simply because I have seen exactly how destructive it can be to both those who are struggling with it and to their family. There is a common misconception that Alzheimer’s will neatly eat away at your memory and leave other things intact, but it actually degrades your brain globally destroying memory, personality, skills and social functions. Alzheimer’s destroys everything about the person in a slow, systematic downhill slide.  It’s horrible for the person who is struggling and equally hard for their loved ones. Nobody knows exactly what causes Alzheimer’s disease, but there are clearly both genetic and lifestyle components. The great news is that there are many steps you can take to keep your brain healthy and sharp into old age.  There is no guarantee that you will be protected, but certainly you can reduce your risk.

Alzheimer's disease brain comparison

Normal brain (left) vs. Alzheimer’s brain (right). Notice the similarities between these pictures and the alcoholic brain pictures below.

Proven Measures to Prevent Alzheimer’s: The Seven Foundations of Good Health.

1. Active body

  • Physical exercise reduces your risk of Alzheimer’s dementia by 50% – that is a dramatic difference. Also, if cognitive decline has already started then getting more exercise can slow to progress of the condition.
  • Aim for 30 minutes of activity that increases your heart rate (or aerobic activity) 5 times per week.
  • Building strong muscles helps maintain brain health as well. Adding 2-3 sessions of resistance exercise like lifting weights not only increases muscle mass but also makes your brain healthier.
  • Exercises or activities that increase balance and coordination such as tai-chi, yoga, qi gong, or even stand up paddle boarding can help your brain to develop new connections, strengthen your body and even prevent head injury, which is also a contributor to Alzheimer’s and other forms of memory loss.

2. Active Mind

  • It makes sense that exercising the brain will help to keep it stronger and more active as you age.
  • Learn something new, take up a new hobby, or try strategy games, puzzles, riddles or memory games.
  • Do the same old thing in a different way – take a new driving route to the grocery store, try writing with the other hand or rearrange your kitchen.  Doing something a new way pushes your brain to create new neural pathways.

3. Active Social Life

  • Research shows that the more connected you are to your social group and to other people, the more likely it is that you will do well on test of memory and cognition.
  • It is easier with age to become more socially isolated so take care to cultivate and maintain healthy friendships and relationships.
  • If you are in a position with a recent move or transition out of the work force and don’t have great social connections then it is time to build some. Volunteer, take night classes, join a club or social group, visit a community or senior center, get out and about, or get a small part time fun job.

4. Healthy Diet

  • Alzheimer’s is highly linked to heart disease so adopting a heart-healthy diet will also help you to prevent Alzheimer’s long term. It is also highly linked to diabetes, so managing healthy blood sugars in key in keeping your brain functioning at its best.
  • Eat plenty of good quality fats and oils like olive oil, grass fed butter, fish oil, coconut oil and avocados.  Decrease the amount of fatty or processed meats, shortening, and especially trans fats.
  • Increase the amount of vegetables and fruits that you eat every day especially the darkly or richly pigmented veggies and fruits like blueberries, pomegranate, beets, carrots, raspberries, elderberry, and blackberry.
  • Minimize the candy, cookies, sweets and also breads in the diet.  Alzheimer’s is closely related to diabetes and involves an insulin-resistance within the brain itself so it is important that you maintain healthy blood sugar levels.
  • Eat small amounts regularly – for brain health, 4-5 small meals daily is better than 2-3 larger ones.
  • A daily cup of green tea has also been shown to reduce your risk and promote brain health.

5. Healthy Sleep

  •  Sleep can be a struggle with age so it is important to create a good sleep environment. Make sure to use good sleep hygiene with a totally dark room, no background noise and a regular sleep schedule.
  • Use melatonin if you have difficulty falling asleep or sleep lightly. Melatonin by itself has shown great benefit in protecting the health and function of the brain so this could be a double-whammy.  Also in a senior population melatonin at high dose, like 20 mg nightly,  is safe and possibly advisable because research is showing benefits with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
  • The average person needs 8 hours of sleep to peak creativity and productivity.

6. Healthy Stress Levels

  • Every life has challenges, but worrying has never actually solved any of them.
  • Undue levels of stress create changes in your body that then change your mental functioning.
  • Breathe – stress reduces the amount of oxygen in your brain, so deep belly breathing for a few minutes a couple of times a day can help to re-oxygenate and re-energize your brain.

7. Stop With the Self-Harm.

  • Avoiding some of the major triggers of Alzheimer’s disease will obviously keep you protected longer.
  • Quit smoking – smoking has been shown to lead to earlier onset of dementia.
  • Drink in moderation – excessive alcohol also speeds up the onset of memory loss and dementia, some of which is entirely alcohol related.

    Normal brain vs. an alcoholic's brain.  Notice any similarities to the Alzheimer's brain pictures? Drinking only in moderation helps you prevent Alzheimer's disease.

    Normal brain vs. an alcoholic’s brain. Notice any similarities to the Alzheimer’s brain pictures? Drinking only in moderation helps you prevent Alzheimer’s disease.

  • Protect your noggin – head injury is strongly linked to Alzheimer’s and protecting your head can help your brain to stay sharp.

As the US population ages the rates of Alzheimer’s disease are rising.  Protect your brain and adopt an anti-Alzheimer’s lifestyle.  It is literally never too late to make positive change – even if it’s walking around the block every day. There is always something you can do to change your health and well being and to change your disease risk – you can delay or even prevent Alzheimer’s even if you have a family history of the disease. Look to future posts to talk about some of the supplements and specific activities that can be helpful for Alzheimer’s disease.