In mid-July, The New York Times ran a series of articles on Alzheimer’s disease, which, among other things, touted the new pharmaceutical approaches to this devastating disorder. Researchers are attempting to develop new drugs that will block plaques, or scar tissue, from forming in the brain and destroying whole swaths of brain tissue. These amyloid plaques are one of two sets of symptoms that characterize the illness. The other is the twisting of tiny tubules in the brain into spaghetti-like tangles. As the plaques and tangles progress, memory and cognition are gradually lost, until the person is awash in a sea of dementia.
There are no medical answers to Alzheimer’s disease, though the illness represents a gigantic jackpot for the drug company that comes up with any kind of effective treatment. Ironically, the illness is largely preventable. But as usual, medicine, which is wholly in the grip of the drug industry, is working at the wrong end of the problem.
Even worse, medical doctors everywhere refuse to tell patients about the largely controllable links among diet, lifestyle, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Here are some of the causes of Alzheimer’s and the steps you can take to protect your brain.
The Rising Epidemic
The consequences of Alzheimer’s disease are devastating. In addition to causing the loss of memory, the illness brings about a slow withdrawal from social contact, gradual loss of speech, emotional agitation, uncontrolled muscle movement, incontinence, and often hallucinations. People can be afflicted by the illness for as long as 25 years, but most are dead within eight-to-ten years of diagnosis.
Worldwide, Alzheimer’s afflicts more than 26 million people, and that number is expected to jump to 100 million over the next 40 years. Currently, there are 5 million Americans with Alzheimer’s disease, and nearly half of all Americans 85 and older have Alzheimer’s. More and more people who reach old age are stepping into an opaque world where connections to self and loved ones are lost.
What is especially frightening is that the illness is spreading like wildfire. During the decade between 1980 and 1990, the illness jumped 1000 percent in the U.S. alone.
“The number of people affected by Alzheimer’s disease is growing at an alarming rate, and the increasing financial and personal costs will have a devastating effect on the world’s economies, health care systems, and families,” said William Thies, Ph.D., vice president of Medical and Scientific Relations at the Alzheimer’s Association.
In fact, Alzheimer’s patients are so expensive to care for that the illness has the potential to bankrupt the health care system around the world.
If ever there was a time for public health officials to come forward and to tell people what they can do to prevent this devastating disease, this is it. But the silence on the part of doctors and public health officials is deafening.
The Real Cause Of Alzheimer’s
Among the most important facts people should know about Alzheimer’s disease is that if you are diabetic, you are twice as likely to get Alzheimer’s as a non-diabetic. Diabetics have the same kind of amyloid plaques on their pancreases as Alzheimer’s patients have in their brains.
It’s even worse if you are overweight or obese – especially if you gain weight at middle age. Becoming overweight at middle age increases your chances of getting Alzheimer’s by 35 percent.
Those who are obese are 74 percent more likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s.
What do diabetics, overweight, and obese people have in common: Insulin dysfunction, or more specifically, insulin resistance, which is the underlying cause of Alzheimer’s.
Insulin: Letting The Fuel In
Insulin is the hormone produced by the pancreas that allows blood sugar to enter cells. Blood sugar, also known as glucose, is the primary fuel for cells. Without fuel, cells die.
Whenever you eat a meal that contains carbohydrates, your body responds by producing insulin, which in turn opens the doors on cells to allow the blood sugar to enter and be utilized as fuel.
There are two forms of carbohydrates –complex carbs, found in unprocessed plant foods, such as whole grains and pulpy vegetables; the second kind are simple sugars, found in refined white sugar, white flour products, pastries, soda pop, and candy. Each of these different types of carbohydrates has vastly different effects on your blood sugar and insulin levels.
Slow Burn Versus Dangerous Flooding
When you eat a meal that contains cooked, whole grains, such as brown rice, millet, or barley, or pulpy vegetables — such as squash or sweet potato – the carbs in that meal must be extracted from the food by your digestive tract and then dripped into your blood stream. This is a relatively slow process. Consequently, the sugars are slowly absorbed. Insulin levels remain relatively low. And you experience long-lasting energy over several hours.
Simple sugars in, say, white flour products, pastries, doughnuts or candy, on the other hand, are rapidly absorbed into your blood stream. Many enter your blood stream through your tongue. The result is that sugar floods your blood stream and causes an immediate spike in insulin levels.
Whenever blood sugar rises, the brain signals the pancreas to produce insulin so that the blood sugar, or fuel, can be absorbed into your cells. The more glucose that enters your blood stream, the more insulin your pancreas must produce.
Bad Things Happen When You Have Too Much Fuel In Your Blood
Too much sugar in your blood is actually a threat to your life. As blood sugar rises beyond a certain level, it can cause water retention (edema) in your brain and bring about a diabetic coma. High glucose levels can also cause electrolytes in your blood to fall. Electrolytes are substances — primarily minerals – that are derived from your food and allow your body’s electrical system to run properly. When electrolytes fall, as when we eat too much sugar or processed foods, the heart’s electrical system can falter and the heart can be thrown into heart failure.
For these reasons, your brain sees the sudden rise in blood sugar as a dangerous situation.
In order to keep you from experiencing a coma or heart failure, the brain tells the pancreas to produce lots of insulin when you eat a high-sugar food. That insulin will do two things:
(1) It will force the excess blood sugar into your cells, where it will be burned as fuel and,
(2) It will convert the sugar into fat, causing weight gain.
People who eat lots of processed carbs and sugar gain weight rapidly. And in time, they don’t have to eat much food – especially much sugar, chocolate, and processed flour products – in order to keep gaining weight. The reason this happens is that the body is so used to releasing large quantities of insulin that any sugar in the diet will cause trigger an insulin reaction, which in turn will convert sugar into fat and store it in the tissues. Any fat that is in the diet will also be turned into body fat, so a diet that contains sugar and fat will increase weight.
Insulin Resistance And The Domino Effect
As more sugar pours into the body, more insulin is produced, which in turn forces sugar into cells. But eventually, the cells will be filled to capacity with fuel, just as your car would be if you kept pouring gasoline into the tank. When cells simply cannot take any more fuel, they begin to close their insulin receptor sites – meaning they shut the doors and windows to the cell.
When cells attempt to block insulin from forcing fuel into the cell, the cells are said to be insulin resistance.
Insulin resistance arises when cells already have too much fuel and are forced to block insulin and blood sugar from entering the cell membrane. When that happens, your blood and tissues are flooded with insulin, glucose, and blood fats, also known as triglycerides. The body converts both sugar and fat to body fat, which means even more rapid weight gain.
All of this boils down to a simple condition, which is that cells are losing their ability to metabolize blood sugar properly. And that is essentially diabetes.
All of these events are becoming increasingly common in children, which is one reason why so many children are overweight and obese today – and why so many are contracting illnesses that used to be found only in adults.
Once a person is diabetic, a whole array of side effects – some of them deadly – start to take hold within the body. These include circulatory disorders, nerve damage, infections, gangrene in toes and limbs, amputations, blindness, kidney disorders, and much higher rates of heart attack and stroke.
Insulin resistance can spread to the nervous system and brain. And when that happens, you have a lot of free floating insulin in the brain tissue, which sets up the perfect conditions for Alzheimer’s disease.
The Two Big Changes In Brain Anatomy That Characterizes Alzheimer’s
As I mentioned earlier, Alzheimer’s disease is characterized by two big changes in brain anatomy — the formation of amyloid plaques and the destruction of tiny pathways, known as neurofibrillary tubules, which, in Alzheimer’s patients, become tangled and chaotic.
Both of these conditions cause brain cells to be changed into scar tissue. As that happens, the brain is unable to produce many essential chemical neurotransmitters, especially a substance called acetylcholine, which is essential for memory and many mental and physical functions.
The question is, How do these two abnormal conditions arise? Let’s deal with the plaques first.
More Insulin In The Brain, More Plaque Formation, Too
Plaques can routinely form in the brain, but in healthy people they are cleared before they can do any real damage to neurons and brain function. Why do plaques accumulate in Alzheimer’s patients? researchers have been asking.
One of the first clues that answered this question emerged from the work of Susanne De La Monte, Ph.D., a scientist at Brown University and one of the world’s leading Alzheimer’s researchers.
De La Monte discovered that as the brain becomes more insulin resistant, the insulin receptor sites – the doors of the cell that let insulin and blood sugar in – are destroyed. Alzheimer’s patients, De La Monte found, have as much as 80 percent fewer insulin receptor sites than people with healthy brains at the same age.
As the number of insulin receptor sites declines, blood and tissue levels of insulin and glucose increases. Lots of free floating insulin and glucose is dangerous to the brain.
The brain attempts to clear the excess insulin by utilizing a particular enzyme called insulin degrading enzyme (IDE). But IDE is also needed to clear the brain of amyloid plaques. And, in essence, it comes down to doing one job or the other. The more IDE used to clear the brain of insulin, the less IDE there is to clear the brain of plaques. Which means more plaque build-up in the brain.
As plaques build up, brain cells die and less and less acetylcholine is produced. Hence, the loss of memory and other brain functions.
But What About Those Tangled Tubules?
Think of each cell as the most amazingly complex computer ever invented. Inside that cellular computer are myriad signals being passed back and forth within the cell. These signals are protein messengers, called kinases, which give commands to the cell’s DNA, which in turn tell the cell how to function. Kinases work on the basis of yin and yang – meaning some kinases inhibit action and regulate it (they function as brake pedals), while other kinases stimulate action (they are the gas pedal chemicals), and act like catalysts. Two kinases are absolutely essential in the maintenance of the microtubules. The first is called Akt, which is an inhibitor, a brake pedal. The second is called GSK-3, which is an excitatory kinase, a gas pedal.
Akt regulates, or slows, the potentially overactive GSK-3. That’s important because GSK-3 regulates another chemical protein in the brain called Tau.
Tau is the brain’s engineer. It sustains the pristine order and beauty of the tiny microtubules that are the pathways for nutrients to flow to cells throughout the brain.
In healthy brains, Akt restrains GSK-3, which in turn gently stimulates Tau. When Tau is gently encouraged, it is able to maintain the health and integrity of the tubules. But when insulin levels become too high, Akt levels drop, GSK-3 levels increase and go out of control, which plays havoc with Tau.
When overstimulated by GSK-3, Tau loses its ability to do its finely tuned work. Suddenly, Tau is like an architectural draftsman with a nervous system disorder. Suddenly all those beautiful lines and pathways resemble the a pasta-like mess.
Both the amyloid plaques and the twisted microtubules cause the loss of brain function and the diminution of key neurotransmitters, especially acetylcholine.
How You Can Protect Yourself
There essentially five key guideless that must be followed if we are to avoid Alzheimer’s disease. The five are as follows.
- Keep Your Insulin Levels Low by eating a diet composed mostly of unprocessed foods. This means eating cooked whole grains, such as brown rice, millet, barley, and quinoa, along with lots of vegetables, especially the green and leafy, the sweet and pulpy vegetables, and roots. Complement the diet with low-fat, white fish, good quality sesame and olive oil, high quality pasta, and fruit. All these foods will keep insulin levels stable and give you long-lasting energy.
- Limit or Avoid Processed Foods, including sugar, candy, soda pop, and white flour products, such as white bread, bagels, rolls, pastries, and doughnuts. All of these foods drive up insulin levels and lead to weight gain and insulin resistance.
- Exercise Daily. Exercise burns blood sugar, reduces insulin, and causes cells to become more insulin sensitive. As insulin sensitivity increases, overall insulin and blood glucose levels fall, taking you out of insulin resistance. Sumo wrestlers are overweight, but they are not insulin resistant. The reason: they exercise daily, which balances their blood sugar and insulin, and keeps their cells healthy.
- Maintain A Healthy Weight throughout life, especially at middle age. The previous three recommendations will result in the fourth step, which is to keep your weight within a healthy range. This will keep you from going toward insulin resistance, diabetes, cancer, and a plethora of other illnesses.
- Deal Effectively With Stress. Stress boosts insulin levels. Exercise reduces stress. Other methods written about in this newsletter, such as meditation, prayer, positive imagery, and the voice of yes all reduce stress, as well.
These five steps will not only protect you from Alzheimer’s disease, but also from many other major illnesses. They are five simple keys to good health – and a sharp, clear, and brilliant mind for the rest of your life.