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Expert Advice-Treatment of Alzheimer’s Disease in Traditional Chinese Medicine(TCM):

Reduce the Risk of Alzheimer’s NATURALLY

Progressive mental deterioration with loss of memory and cognitive functions is a common health concern for the elderly. Loss of mental function is not only a frightening prospect for older people, but also for their concerned family members, who often feel completely helpless as they witness gradual personality changes and a decline in quality of life. In this section, I want to talk about the positive steps and changes we can make in our lives to promote good health and good brain function, focusing especially on diet and nutrition. Family members can also encourage and support older people in the challenging task of changing the way they eat.

Some brain deterioration is due to tumors and other organic brain changes, but the majority of progressive mental deterioration, including Alzheimer’s disease, is categorized as dementia. In the 1980s, it was estimated that approximately 2.8 million Americans had mild to moderate dementia, and 1.3 million had severe dementia. In the population over 65, the incidence of severe dementia is estimated to be 5% and that of mild to moderate dementia about 10%. Studies show that 50-60% of all cases of dementia are the result of Alzheimer’s disease, which means that about one in twelve people over age 65 have Alzheimer’s. The incidence of Alzheimer’s disease has increased so much that it is being referred to as a "20th Century disease."

What causes the brain to degenerate as we age? Scientists cite three primary factors: genetic inheritance; nutrition; environmental toxins such as aluminum, lead, and pesticides that target the nervous system. These factors manifest themselves in the digestive system as well as the brain. Increased susceptibility to genetic factors and decreased ability to properly absorb nutrients tend to be part of the aging process. If a person shows early signs of Alzheimer’s at a relatively young age, it would be a good idea to do a hair analysis to see if there are high levels of toxins in the body tissues.

Diet and Nutrition
The reason I want to focus on diet and nutrition in this article is because we can all do something about what we eat, even if we can’t change our genetic inheritance. There are nutritional elements and foods that are vital to good health, and foods that should be avoided. It seems unfair, but the older we get the more we have to watch what we eat because of insulin resistance, increased sensitivities to certain foods, and the diminished ability of the intestinal lining to absorb nutrients and process food through the alimentary canal.

More and more, nutritionists are sounding the alarm about the changes in the average American diet over the last 50 or 60 years, and the effect this has had on national disease statistics. The modern diet of highly processed and refined foods is low in fiber, and high in calories, carbohydrates, and fat. It is called "junk" food because it fills you up, but doesn’t nourish you. Many of the dietary essentials that help control mental degeneration are lost in food processing, and many potentially harmful substances like pesticides, antibiotics, and hormones are added to food. Again, it seems unfair, but we have to make special efforts to find healthful, nutritious foods – shop at co-ops, insist on organically-grown foods, etc.

First, I will give you the bad news – the foods that should be avoided. These include refined sugar, dairy products, wheat, deep fried, and high fat foods. Refined sugar (candy, cookies, desserts) are hardest for many people to give up because of the "sweet tooth" that is little short of an addiction. When I advise someone to cut down on refined sugar, they often say, "I can give up anything but sweets." Many people notice that when they eat sweets, their mental processes start to seem a bit fuzzy or cloudy. I think that sugar can turn off your brain power. I am not saying that sugar causes Alzheimer’s, but why put extra demands on your body and brain by eating food that interferes with optimum functioning?

The same holds true for dairy products. I advise people to avoid dairy for six weeks, and see how they feel then. It would be even better to try a three-month break from dairy. Some of my patients notice memory improvement and better concentration just from giving up dairy. Again, it is very difficult to avoid dairy in the typical American diet. A client of mine who is a professional chef said, "It’s easy to be a good cook in the U.S. – you just pile cheese and tomato sauce on top of everything." Fortunately, there are good alternatives available for most dairy products now, even though you may have to go to a co-op or whole foods store to find them. You can get soy or almond cheese, soy yogurt, soy milk, and rice ice cream. You can also substitute soft tofu for cream cheese in many recipes.

What foods should we eat? A lot of foods are great for our memories and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s, such as whole grains, soy products, legumes, fish, brewer’s yeast, millet, rice, wheat germ, nuts (especially walnuts), black sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, and sprouts. These foods are rich in vitamin B, beneficial proteins and many other nutrients. Also, make sure that you eat fruits and lightly-cooked vegetables every day.

Two nutritional building blocks that are key to optimum brain function are amino acids and the B-complex of vitamins, such as choline and B6. Amino acids are essential for building protein. Certain of the B vitamins can increase blood circulation in the brain, improve memory, and lower cholesterol, thus reducing the risk of hardening of the arteries and strokes.

TCM Approach
Next, I will consider Alzheimer’s from the perspective of traditional Chinese medicine. While there is no diagnosis in Chinese medicine that specifically corresponds to Alzheimer’s disease, the general physical and mental symptoms of Alzheimer’s are easily recognized by Chinese medicine practitioners, and there are treatments for many of the symptoms.
In Chinese medicine theory, the Kidneys are the internal organ system that is responsible for reproduction, growth, and aging over time. The Kidneys also control the bones, the bone marrow (which includes the brain and spinal cord), the head hair, and the ears. The Western idea of genetic inheritance is very compatible with the Chinese concept of identifying the Kidneys with reproduction and inherited constitution. Furthermore, the traditional kidney-related signs of aging, such as gray hair, loss of memory, and hearing difficulties are also compatible with what Western medicine recognizes as age-related adrenal gland slowdown or dysfunction. Both Eastern and Western medicine recognize that stress can affect the adrenal glands and accelerate the aging process.

Because signs of aging, including symptoms of Alzheimer’s, are related to loss of Kidney energy over time, part of the treatment for Alzheimer’s is taking Kidney tonics. There are quite a lot of foods and herbs that are valued by the Chinese as Kidney energy tonifiers. Some good Kidney foods are black sesame seeds, kelp, shiitake and black ear mushrooms. In general, black and/or salty-tasting foods act on Kidney energy. Some herbs that benefit the kidneys are He Shou Wu (Fo Ti), rehmannia root, and ginseng.

Over the last twenty to thirty years, Asian scientists have been systematically analyzing the herbs used in traditional Chinese medicine. The traditional uses of herbs are often completely validated by scientific research. Unfortunately, much of this research and information is not available in the U.S. because it is only printed in Chinese or Japanese journals. Western pharmaceutical companies tend to focus on developing synthetic drugs that can be patented, rather than researching existing plant material. Tacrine is a synthetic drug that has been used successfully with Alzheimer’s patients. Studies indicate that Alzheimer’s patients have a deficiency of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine (ACh) in particular areas of the brain. Tacrine works by blocking the enzyme that breaks down ACh, which means that more ACh is available in the brain.
There are several Chinese herbs which have a positive effect on Alzheimer’s symptoms, including the well-known ginseng (Panax ginseng) and ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba). Ginsenosides from ginseng can increase production of ACh in the brain. Ginseng has been used for centuries in China as a warming, yang-stimulating herb that improves mental function. Huperzine A, derived from Hyperzia serrata root, works in a similar manner to the synthetic drug Tancrine.

Ginkgo extract has an effect of promoting vasodilation and blood flow. It therefore has a therapeutic effect on cognitive disorders and high blood pressure. In Germany, doctors are enthusiastic about the benefits of ginkgo. A combination of ginkgo and ginseng called Gincosan is claimed to produce very good results in elderly patients. Two other herbs, Yi Ye Chau (Securinega suffruticosa) and Fan Hong Hua (Crocus sativa) have been proven to have positive effects on the central nervous system.

Acupuncture is also considered effective therapy for Alzheimer’s disease. There is solid evidence that acupuncture increases certain neurotransmitters in the brain, and can actually stimulate nerve regeneration. Increased serotonin levels probably explain why acupuncture is so effective in controlling pain and managing stress. Acupuncture also promotes blood circulation to the brain and improves memory and concentration. So there is good reason for people who have Alzheimer’s, or who are at risk for developing it to try acupuncture.

Another common use for acupuncture is to control various addictions. In the case of people who feel their sugar cravings or other food cravings are out of control, and who want to cut down on these foods, acupuncture can be very useful. Professionals who deal with addictive behavior do not expect will power alone to be effective. The first thing you can try with a sugar craving is to substitute naturally sweet foods for sugar-added foods. Try eating dates, apples, sweet potatoes, squash, or dried fruits when your sweet tooth acts up. If this doesn’t work, then consider acupuncture treatments.

A very important factor in the treatment of Alzheimer’s is keeping active – both physically and mentally. Walking, Tai Chi, swimming, reading, playing games, and socializing with others are all excellent ways to keep active. In China, old people who are surrounded by a loving family and have grandchildren around, have better mental function than those live alone. I am not saying that you have to live in a crowded house with an extended family to be healthy, but I do recommend having a hobby and keeping some excitement in your life.