Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Research – Let’s Look Back To Go Forward
Pfizer announced it is shutting down research into drugs to treat Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and Parkinson’s disease (PD.) With 44 million diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, and 10 million with Parkinson’s disease (not including many more in the midst of diagnosis,) this is not a time to back away from research.
"I advocate that we look back to go forward – with collaboration and research into Ethnobotany, traditional medicine and healing practices, and traditional foodways such as eating cultured food/plant based diets."
Part 1: How can ancient herbal therapies and foodways help us now?
AD and PD begin as disruptions in cellular processes leading to disrupted brain structure/function decades before the first symptoms appear.
The brain is constantly creating new neurons and has a remarkable plasticity allowing us to
compensate and “cover” for the loss. Only when the brain can no longer compensate, do symptoms appear.
Here is a general overview of a few of the complex, interrelated processes that researchers are looking to address, and how they may be impacted by traditional herbal therapies and plant-based/cultured foods:
While “probiotics” are often known for their improvement in symptoms of bloating, their impact is far greater.The Human Microbiome Project revealed that we have 4 lbs of diverse, beneficial bacteria. Research suggests that these bacteria impact brain development before and after birth.
In addition, they help to regulate our mood and behavior even as adults.
Researchers identified differences in patterns of gut bacteria in AD and PD patients compared to normal healthy people. In addition, some AD meds may themselves alter the gut microbiome making it more difficult for the gut-brain axis to function properly in this vulnerable group. A small study showed some cognitive improvement with 12 weeks of probiotics, potentially a direction for future research.
Trials of probiotic-rich cultured food diets may encourage health providers to recommend regular consumption of these foods as a preventive measure. Care of our microbiome is becoming a key area of prevention and disease management.
AD and PD patients have chronic damage to brain cells. Herbs and plant foods contain hundreds ofsubstances known as phytochemicals, with neuroprotective effects.
One important function of phytochemicals is the protection of the fatty
tissues of the brain, which are vulnerable to oxidative damage from
molecules known as ROS that are produced when the brain consumes oxygen during normal brain activity. Studies have shown associations between plant based diets and cognitive health.
Antioxidants in the diet neutralize ROS, but without sufficient antioxidants in the diet, ongoing damage to brain cells may eventually becomes irreversible. Herbs also are abundant in phytochemicals with antioxidant and many other protective functions.
Ayurvedic herbs such as brahmi, bacopa and ashwaghanda have been used traditionally to restore cognitive functions with aging or chronic stress. Chinese medicine has traditionally prescribed herbs such as ginseng, gotu kola and schizandra. Research could help us identify herbs or combinations of herbs, foods and lifestyle to help protect the delicate fatty tissues of the nervous system. Trials collaborating with
Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic medicine and other traditional healing approaches who have already developed whole-person systems of healing, may help us to provide important interventions for todays patients with cognitive disorders.
Bacopa monnieri. Photo credit: By Forest & Kim Starr, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6109556
Inflammation is a known factor in the decline of cognitive health. Actually, inflammation is a normal, brief, reversible activation of our immune system defenses targeting a threat (such as a germ) and is generally over in a couple of weeks. Problems arise when inflammation becomes chronic - triggered for months and years by stress, sleep deprivation, and poor diet. A diet rich in plant foods results in lower
levels of inflammatory chemicals, potentially reversing inflammation before cell damage occurs. There are also many herbs with known anti-
inflammatory properties used for hundreds of years for cognitive health -
such as tumeric, ginger, holy basil, thyme and sage. More research is needed to better utilize these foods and herbs therapeutically in targeting chronic
inflammation in healthy adults and in patients with chronic disease.
Insulin is a hormone that helps cells to receive sugar from the blood stream. When cells are no longer responsive to insulin, it is known as insulin resistance (IR). Brain cells rely on insulin to take in sugar – the main source of energy for the brain, and IR is associated with cognitive decline. Like many disease processes, IR appears to be reversible early on.