Eating Your Way out of Cognitive Decline

A diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) is pretty daunting. Current conventional medicine will tell you that there is no cure. The media is constantly reminding us that the disease is not just devastating to the person with the diagnosis, but to the caretakers as well. Especially in the beginning stages, it can be extremely frustrating for the inflicted person to know that they are losing their cognitive abilities and the capability to care for themselves. It’s no surprise that as people age, minor lapses in memory such as loosing one’s keys can be worrisome, as it may be a sign that more major declines in memory are on the way. This is especially true with people who have a family history of Alzheimer’s Disease or other dementia, as we are also told by modern medicine that there is a genetic component of the disease. We tend to think of it as a disease that we have no control over preventing and no way to stop once it starts. It’s no wonder the thought of it is so terrifying!

But what if there was a way to reverse dementia/AD, or even prevent it from occurring in the first place? Turns out there is. And you won’t even need to talk to your pharmacist about it (although finding a doctor willing to step outside of the world of pharmaceuticals would be helpful).

While it may not be a “cure” in the modern medicine sense in that you can pop a pill or two every day for a few weeks and the disease will go away, there is solid, documented, published evidence that lifestyle changes can not only prevent cognitive decline, but can also completely reverse mild to moderate Alzheimer’s Disease (unfortunately, the one case of severe Alzheimer’s Disease noted in Bredesen (2014) was too far progressed to recover). Patients of this protocol have even been able to return to work after previously being unable to perform daily tasks without assistance.

Specifically, the “Bredesen Protocol” (named for Dr. Dale Bredesen, who developed the method) includes addressing the following main components:

Diet: In general, patients are encouraged to adhere to a plant-based, slightly ketogenic, low glycemic diet, including only small amounts of simple carbohydrates and processed foods. Meat is not completely off the table, but consumption of only grass-fed/free range and organic meats or wild-caught fish is encouraged. Even when meat is consumed, large quantities of non-starchy vegetables should also be eaten, as they contain the important micronutrients necessary to allow the body to shift to a state of health. Moderate ketosis via a 12 hour fast each night (including 3 hours before bed) is encouraged to reduce insulin levels.

Gut Health: Improved gut health should follow improvements in diet, with additional support from things like pre- and pro-biotics suggested when necessary. It is not uncommon for patients with neurodegenerative diseases to also have a leaky gut since leaky gut can cause a leaky blood brain barrier. Thus, addressing gut health can have a much larger impact on brain health than many people realize.

Exercise: 30-60 minutes of exercise 4-6 days/week is the suggested dose, more if the patient is able. As we’ve noted numerous times in previous articles, regular exercise does wonders for your brain! It’s not uncommon for active older adults to outperform sedentary young adults on Brain Gauge tests.

Stress Reduction: Things like meditation, yoga, and deep breathing exercises help patients to relax, leading to reduced cortisol levels.

Sleep: At least 8 hours of sleep each night should be the goal of all patients. If needed, melatonin can be taken to help reach this goal. The role of sleep in brain health has also been previously addressed here.

Blood Testing: One of the main principles of the protocol is that it is individualized and relies heavily on blood testing. An extensive analysis of hormones, vitamins, inflammatory biomarkers, metabolites, genetics, and heavy metals is performed for each patient and monitored throughout the program. Recommendations of specific supplements are made on an individual basis to address imbalances that may be present in each patient, and these imbalances are monitored throughout the course of treatment and adjustments in supplement use are made as needed.

Toxicity: As explained by Bredesen (2016), Alzheimer’s Disease can be split into 3 types, one of which is simply a reaction to toxic substances in the body—be that mycotoxins or other biotoxins (such as Lyme disease) or heavy metals. These patients are typically younger in age at onset of the disease and have no family history of AD. By treating these patients with the Shoemaker Protocol for CIRS (Chronic Inflammatory Response Syndrome) or chelation for heavy metals, there is generally good success in reversing neurocognitive decline.

By taking a multifaceted, holistic approach, you’re allowing the body to function as it’s supposed to—as a unit. Pharmaceuticals tend to take a reductionist approach and address one tiny part of a large problem, but when you give the body all the resources it needs to break out of dangerous positive feedback loops, it has the amazing ability to not only stop degrading, but to reverse damage that has been done. Dr. Bredesen uses the metaphor of thinking of AD as a roof with at least 36 holes in it—if you patch one hole, no matter how good that patch is, you’re still going to have a leaky roof. It may take more effort to patch all the holes, but the outcome is going to be much more effective.

You may notice that the protocol is personalized for each individual patient, but it is also very generalized in that it addresses all health problems, not just cognitive ones since everything is connected. Really, all of us should be adhering to most of these principles, not just people with AD! Especially if you know that you have a family history of AD/dementia, implementing at least some of these lifestyle changes before you start losing your keys or forgetting your kids' names would be a great idea. Being “genetically predisposed” to a disease does NOT mean that you are destined to suffer from it—it means that you have a higher likelihood of developing the disease when environmental/lifestyle factors are not ideal.

We noted in a previous post that it’s not uncommon to hear that people don’t want to know if they are on the path to developing AD/dementia because they don’t think that there is anything to do about it. But now that you know that you can reverse it, there’s a lot more incentive to catch it early! As with any chronic disease, the longer you wait to start turning things around, the harder it’s going to be for your body to make that shift (and as noted above, there may be a point where it is too late). We see the Brain Gauge as a tool that can be a real game-changer in keeping people mentally sharp into old age. Being able to see and quantify when your brain health first begins to slip allows you to really buckle down on your efforts to improve lifestyle choices, as well as allowing you to track changes (hopefully improvements!) as you make those changes. The Brain Gauge allows you to take control of your own health, but it also allows you to monitor when you do need to seek professional help to address individual problems when more general lifestyle changes aren’t enough to turn things around.

From the perspective of the doctor or other health care provider, the Brain Gauge is even more important for monitoring changes (and we’ve heard from providers that this tool is much more effective at monitoring changes than other devices that are as much as 10x the cost). While a person who is beginning to experience memory lapses and loss of cognitive function can subjectively tell when something is wrong, it’s hard to quantify the decline with current cognitive tests and to otherwise express the degree of the problem to the health care provider. It’s also difficult to monitor improvements (or lack thereof) once treatment has started in order to make sure that the patient is receiving the correct personalized protocol for their specific problems. The Brain Gauge allows practitioners to detect dementia/Alzheimer’s Disease in very early stages, quantify the severity, and objectively monitor progress in order to optimize the effectiveness of treatment.

Finally, as noted in the above-mentioned previous post, there’s also a group of people who say that they would rather suffer through disease than give up their daily dose (or two or ten) of processed foods. The Bredesen Protocol alone won’t be much help to this group. People in that group probably aren’t reading this anyway, but maybe you have a friend or family member who falls into that category. You could force them to read the evidence or remind them that their choices now will put a burden on their loved ones who will have to become their caretaker down the road. If that doesn’t help, maybe the Brain Gauge could help nudge their opinion. Being able to see the effects of making even subtle changes could help persuade a stubborn sugar-holic. Just as one might be motivated not to eat the donut in the breakroom by thinking of the effects it would have on the bathroom scale the next day, knowing that your daily choices can tip the scale of your brain health may add extra incentive. You could even make it a challenge with your competitive friends to see who can get the highest scores.

With the right knowledge and tools, the thought of dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease doesn’t have to be overwhelming. There is strong evidence that there is something to do about it if you catch it early, and the same lifestyle changes that can reverse the disease can prevent it from starting in the first place. It may take more effort and commitment than popping a few pills, but when it comes to your quality of life (and that of your loved ones around you), it’s worth it to put in the time, energy, and resources necessary to regain your health.

Bredesen DE. Reversal of cognitive decline: A novel therapeutic program. Aging (Albany NY). 2014 Sep;6(9):707.

Bredesen DE. Inhalational Alzheimer's disease: an unrecognized—and treatable—epidemic. Aging (Albany NY). 2016 Feb;8(2):304.

Bredesen DE, Amos EC, Canick J, Ackerley M, Raji C, Fiala M, Ahdidan J. Reversal of cognitive decline in Alzheimer's disease. Aging (Albany NY). 2016 Jun;8(6):1250.

You can also check out this talk given by Dr. Bredesen, and find more information about the Bredesen Protocol here.

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