Protecting your brain – or ‘neuroprotection’ as it’s known in medical circles – is a subject that’s very near and dear to my heart and my head.
As I’ve told you before, I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease years ago. And thanks to changes I’ve made to my diet and supplement regimen – changes specifically designed to protect my brain from further damage – I’ve been able to keep the disease from progressing.
Neuroprotection is just as critical when it comes to protecting our brains against other neurological conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Currently AD accounts for 62 per cent of all cases of dementia in the UK.
It’s estimated that almost 500,000 people in the UK are currently suffering with Alzheimer’s. The disease is most common in people over the age of 65 and affects an estimated one in every six people over the age of 80. And that number will continue to climb as our population ages.
So naturally, protecting your brain against AD needs to be a top priority. And the best place to start is to take a closer look at the vital neurotransmitter acetylcholine and the enzyme that breaks it down, acetylcholinesterase (AChE).
Drooping neurotransmitter linked to Alzheimer’s
Many of the symptoms of AD can be traced to drooping acetylcholine levels in the brain. This means that keeping those levels from shrinking any further could be a powerful tool for stopping the progression of this terrible disease.
A number of factors can drive down your acetylcholine levels including genetics and environmental toxins. But theoretically, if you can inhibit the enzyme that breaks down the acetylcholine, your body will naturally hold on to more of the critical neurotransmitter.
Conventional medicine is trying to do just that. But the way they’re doing it, with AChE inhibiting drugs, comes with a whole new set of potential problems. AChE inhibitors such as donepezil (Aricept), rivastigmine (Exelon) patches and galantamine (Razadyne) can come with some serious side effects including bloody stools, chest pain, trouble breathing, uneven heartbeat, vomiting, tremors, fainting and seizures.
Natural plant-based alternatives, however, may be able to deliver the same benefits without the troubling side effects. And with over 100 clinically relevant studies supporting the use of natural AChE-blocking compounds there’s lots of evidence those natural alternatives work.
Plant alkaloids could protect against Alzhiemer’s
The herbal ingredient that’s been found to be the most active as an AChE inhibitor is a family of plant compounds called alkaloids. In fact these alkaloids have shown such great promise that Big Pharma tapped their powers to create two of the leading AD drugs galantamine and rivastigmine.
Club mosses, or Lycopodium, are creeping perennials found in warmer climates. They’re fairly widespread throughout the world, but are frequently harvested from South America. More than 200 alkaloids have been discovered hidden within club mosses.
Club mosses have been commonly used in Chinese medicine to treat mental and neurological disorders.
And the Quechua tribe of the Andes Mountains in Ecuador make an infusion of locally-grown Lycopodium to treat movement disorders.
Animal studies using homeopathic Lycopodium on rats with memory impairment and lack of cerebral blood flow have shown promising results.
And a number of Lycopodium subspecies have been found to increase acetylcholine levels by blocking its breakdown.
One of the most studied plant alkaloids is extracted from a subspecies of Lycopodium called Chinese club moss, or Huperzia serrata.
Huperzine A, or HupA, is a potent AChE inhibitor that’s widely used in China and Europe to combat both general memory problems and AD symptoms. Studies of HupA have shown that the alkaloid is both safe and effective.
In addition, Lycopodium has strong antioxidant effects. And since AD is, at its cellular level, an oxidative stress disorder, this added effect makes club moss alkaloids some of the most interesting and potent dementia-fighters out there.
Mushrooms may safeguard your memory
Mushrooms have many useful properties hidden away in their fleshy heads and stems, including immunity and circulation-enhancing abilities.
The mushroom family, Corydalis, has been used for centuries in folk medicine as a treatment for failing memory. And, as is so often the case with folk cures, when researchers studied the mushroom its brain-protecting powers were proven.
In one study, published in the journal Photochemistry, different extracts from the Haddowia longpipes mushroom inhibited AChE anywhere from 10.3 per cent to 42.1 per cent.
And studies have shown alkaloid extracts from the Cortinariaceae and Cortinarius infractus mushroom families, inhibit AChE with a higher selectivity than the drug galantamine.
Plant polyphenols block AChE
But the remarkable Alzheimer’s fighting properties of the plant world aren’t limited to alkaloids. The special compounds that give plants their fragrances, tastes and colours… collectively known as polyphenols… can help protect your brain as well.
Among the wide range of phenols are components called flavonoids, terpenoids and sterols. These remarkable antioxidant compounds have been shown to block AChE and, in fact, have been specifically shown to alleviate symptoms and protect against neurodegenerative diseases such as AD in both cell culture and animal models.
The bark of the Acacia tree, used in African folk medicine, is a terpenoid. When researchers compared Acacia extract to the drug galantamine in a study, they found that the extract blocked AChE as well as the drug.
The same turned out to be true of a traditional Pakistani folk medicine used to combat neurological disorders. The terpenoid extract of the Asian bush Haloxylon performed as well as the drug.
Flavonoids are probably the best-known of the polyphenol compounds and most flavonoids appear to be able to help block AChE.
In one exciting study, published in the Journal of Agricultural Science, an extract of the herb Skullcap (Scutellaria) was shown to have the most AChE inhibiting effect of all the herbs studied.
It turns out that one of the flavones in Skullcap, known as baicalein, has a unique chemical structure which lets it form a super tight bond with the AChE. This ability allows baicalein to block an incredible 99 per cent of the enzyme!
The flavonol epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), found in green tea, comes in a close second. EGCG, which is also a potent antioxidant, inhibits 96 per cent of AChE. And chrysin, a flavonol extracted from passion flower, chamomile, honeycomb and certain types of mushrooms, inhibits a respectable 92 per cent of AChE.
Plants succeed where drugs fail
So far, using drugs to treat Alzheimer’s disease has been a colossal failure. Patients are being asked to trade mild positive results for incredibly risky side effects and the results can be devastating. In fact the most potent AChE-inhibiting drug ever produced, tacrine, has already been discontinued in the US due to safety issues.
On the other hand, there’s a rich history of successfully and safely using plant products to ward off memory disorders throughout the world. And as research into these safer approaches continues to grow we’re seeing the studies to back up the results that holistic doctors have already been seeing with their own patients. Natural medicine is being proven to be a safer and cheaper way to treat Alzheimer’s and other dementia-causing illnesses without having to sacrifice effectiveness.
Dr. Glenn S. Rothfeld
Nutrition & Healing
Vol. 9, Issue 12, December 2015