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.
Researchers have explored Ayurvedic treatments commonly used for diabetes that may target IR such as Guggul, gymnema and bitter melon - which can be taken as a food or an extract/juice. Notably, these herbs/foods are not acting as single-target drugs, but provide hundreds of phytochemicals which could act on multiple aspects of pathways involved in IR. Researchers may be able to identify ways to incorporate these foods and herbs into routine medical management of patients with IR to prevent progression to chronic disease.
Guggul. Photo credit: By Vinayaraj - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27600221
Part 2: Traditional medicines lead to discovery of new drugs
Here are some examples:
Many of our current medications including the AD drug galantamine, are derived from plants. Galantamine is derived from a type of daffodil from the plant family
Amaryllidaceae, used by South African indigenous tribes including Sotho, Xhosa, Zulu and San to treat nervous system symptoms. Galantamine has a potent action to inhibit the breakdown of acetylcholine, a key brain neurotransmitter involved in thinking and memory. Its alkaloid components
are also being evaluated as potential cancer drugs.
Amaryllidaceae. Photo credit: By LiquidGhoul at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2918936
Chinese club moss
Chinese club moss is used in Chinese medicine to improve cognition. It is anti-inflammatory and contains Huperzine A, which may have a similar effect as some
AD medications, but with less toxicity.
Chinese Club Moss. Photo credit: By Kirisame (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
Sage, or Salvia, is from the Mint family, traditionally used as culinary herbs but also medicinally to enhance memory. Various species of sage are being studied as possible AD drugs.
Salvia lavendulafloria. Photo credit: By Cillas - Own work, GFDL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6774912
Velvet bean, or mucuna seed powder is commonly used in Ayurveda to treat PD. The hallmark of PD is a lack of dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in mood, learning and movement. PD is currently treated by providing L-dopa, a building block for dopamine
production in the brain. Mucuna contains naturally occurring
L-dopa. Studies have evaluated it and found it to act similarly to pharmaceutical L-dopa with no increase in side effects and rapid onset. This finding is promising and warrants further
Mucuna pruriens. Photo credit: By J.M.Garg - Own work, GFDL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5705955
"With no current cures for AD and PD on the horizon, research into these ancient botanical medicines could prove fruitful."
Lastly: A call for more research
There are many institutions promoting the research of botanicals as sources of drugs.
For instance, Dr. Michael Balick, Director of the New York Botanical Garden Institute for Economic Botany, has led expeditions around the world.
Many university researchers collaborate with indigenous communities to observe and catalog herbs, collect seeds and interview indigenous healers.
Others are making efforts to preserve the rich diversity of plants for their own sake, but also for their potential medical benefits.
Let’s increase our momentum, funding more research – but looking back to ancient herbs and foodways as a guide.