Why You Should Aim to Avoid Inflammatory Foods
BY DR. DALE BREDESEN
Cognitive decline is largely a matter of three fundamental threats to our brain: inflammation; a shortage of brain-boosting nutrients, hormones, and other cognition-supporting molecules; and toxic exposure. What we call Alzheimer’s disease is a protective response to these three brain threats. Two of the threats, inflammation and a shortage of cognition-supporting molecules, are intimately linked to metabolism. Metabolism, in turn, is a function of our diet, our level of activity, our genes, and our exposure to and handling of stress. Since diet, activity, and stress also affect cardiovascular health and other aspects of our well-being, brain health is closely related to general health. No wonder so many of the conditions that increase our risk for Alzheimer’s disease—from pre-diabetes and obesity to vitamin D deficiency and a sedentary lifestyle—are the result of what and how much we eat and exercise.
The good news is that, although there are dozens and dozens of factors that can cause inflammation, shortage of brain-supporting molecules, and susceptibility to toxic compounds, and thereby contribute to cognitive decline, they are all identifiable and all addressable—the sooner, the better. Here are the basics for addressing each neurothreat:
1) Prevent and reduce inflammation. Inflammation is your body’s response to attack, whether by infectious agents such as Borrelia (Lyme disease) or non-infectious stresses such as sugar-damaged proteins or trans fats.
We are constantly exposed to potential invaders, from viruses and bacteria to fungi and parasites. When we fight these pathogens, one of the ways we do so is by activating the immune system. When the immune system floods the zone, so to speak, with white blood cells that engulf and devour pathogens, that’s part of the inflammatory process. But while we need to mount an inflammatory response to fight acute threats (that redness around a cut is inflammation, and your white blood cells are fending off possible infection), if the threat is chronic and the inflammatory response is continuously activated it’s a problem.
Part of the way the body responds to invading pathogens is by producing amyloid, the very substance that forms the brain plaques that characterize Alzheimer’s disease [i],[ii]. Furthermore, when you look inside the brain of someone who died with Alzheimer’s disease, you find pathogens: bacteria from the mouth, molds from the nose, viruses such as Herpes from the lips, Borrelia (the Lyme disease organism) from a tick bite. More and more scientific evidence is pointing to the conclusion that after a brain is invaded by pathogens, it produces amyloid, a potent pathogen fighter but one that eventually goes overboard, killing the very synapses and brain cells the amyloid was called up to protect.
Therefore, to prevent and reverse cognitive decline, it is crucial to address potential infections, optimize your immune system’s ability to destroy pathogens, and reduce the chronic inflammation that results from fighting these organisms for years.
Inflammation can also arise without infection. It is triggered when we eat trans-fats, for example, the artificial fats that were once ubiquitous in baked goods and fast foods (but are now being phased out), or sugar. The body also mounts an inflammatory response when damage to the intestines, often from consuming gluten or dairy or grains, causes “leaky gut.” (See the box below for a list of foods with high gluten contents—all of which are to be avoided as much as possible.) In this condition, the gastrointestinal tract develops microscopic holes, allowing fragments of food or bacteria into our bloodstream. That, too, triggers inflammation: the immune system recognizes these fragments of food, thinks they’re foreign invaders, and attacks.
FOODS CONTAINING GLUTEN (from the website of Dr. David Perlmutter)
- Wheat germ
- Graham flour
- Kamut Matzo
FOODS THAT OFTEN CONTAIN GLUTEN:
- malt/malt flavoring
- commercial bullion and broths
- cold cuts
- French fries (often dusted with flour before freezing)
- processed cheese (e.g., Velveeta)
- malt vinegar
- soy sauce and teriyaki sauces
- salad dressings
- imitation crab meat, bacon, etc
- egg substitute
- non-dairy creamer
- fried vegetables/tempura
- canned baked beans
- commercially prepared chocolate milk
- breaded foods
- fruit fillings and puddings
- hot dogs
- ice cream
- root beer
- energy bars
- trail mix
- instant hot drinks
- flavored coffees and teas blue cheeses
- wine coolers
- meatballs, meatloaf communion wafers
- veggie burgers
- roasted nuts
- oats (unless certified gluten-free)
- oat bran (unless certified gluten-free)
Chronic inflammation can arise when we are continuously exposed to dangerous microbes (such as when mouth bacteria keep leaking into the bloodstream, typically from damaged gums) or when we regularly ingest inflammation-triggering foods such as sugar. That’s why my ReCODE program aims to roll back chronic inflammation by eliminating both ongoing infections and inflammation-inducing foods.
When the inflammation is caused by sugar toxicity, it is typically accompanied by insulin resistance, something that most Americans, as well as over a billion people around the world, suffer from. We humans evolved to handle only small amounts of sugars (about 15 grams per day, less than half the amount in a 12-ounce soft drink). Sugar is like fire, a source of energy but very dangerous. If you have a fireplace in your home, the amount of wood and the size of fire needed to heat it depends on the size of the house: less wood/smaller fire if your house is small, more/bigger if your house is large. Now imagine that you shrink your house by 90 percent, which is essentially what happens when we move less, as is true of sedentary-living Americans: we need less energy. That makes your fireplace effectively ten times as large. If you kept pouring on the wood and stoking the fire your house would quickly become unbearably hot, the fire might escape from the fireplace, and you would do everything possible to keep your house from burning down. This is the stress most of us are now experiencing: our bodies recognize sugar as poisonous, and therefore rapidly activate multiple mechanisms to reduce its concentration in our blood and tissues. For one thing, we store the extra energy as fat, which produces brain-damaging factors called adipokines.
But that still leaves our bloodstream awash in sugar—specifically, glucose. The glucose molecules attach to many proteins, inhibiting their functioning just as egregiously as if an octopus attached itself to a pole vaulter. Our cells respond to the flood of glucose by increasing production of insulin, which reduces the glucose by, among other strategies, pushing it into cells. But your body, faced with chronically high insulin levels, simply turns down the response—you become resistant to the effects of insulin.
And insulin is intimately related to Alzheimer’s disease, by several mechanisms. For example, after insulin molecules do their job and lower the glucose, the body must degrade the insulin in order to prevent dropping the blood glucose too low. It does this via an enzyme called insulin-degrading enzyme (IDE). Guess what else IDE degrades? Amyloid, the protein fragment in the sticky, synapse-destroying plaques in Alzheimer’s disease. But the enzyme can’t do both at once. If IDE is breaking down insulin it can’t break down amyloid, any more than a firefighter can battle a blaze at the north end of town if he/she is raining water down on a conflagration at the south end. By diverting IDE from destroying amyloid, chronically high levels of insulin increase the risk for Alzheimer’s disease.
Therefore, a critical part of ReCODE is reducing insulin resistance, restoring insulin sensitivity, and reducing glucose levels, thereby restoring optimal metabolism.
2) Optimize hormones, trophic factors, and nutrients
When we eliminate inflammation by reducing chronic infections and insulin resistance, we remove threats that allow amyloid to accumulate. That thwarts brain damage. It’s also crucial to give the brain a boost. The more you can strengthen your synapses, the harder it will be for any amyloid plaques that develop to destroy them.
That became crystal clear from a study presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in late 2016. Scientists analyzed the brains of people who died in their 90s and who had retained excellent memory until then. Some of the brains were riddled with amyloid plaques. Somehow, apparently, the brains of these nonagenarians were immune to the synapse- and memory-destroying effect of amyloid. How can that be? Follow-up studies continue, but there are two leading hypotheses. One is that if people are well-educated and intellectually engaged throughout life, they may have enough redundant synapses to withstand the loss of some to amyloid plaques. Alternatively, it may be that some biochemical mechanism either fights amyloid, perhaps detoxifying it so it no longer destroys synapses, or strengthens synapses enough to withstand the amyloid assault.
I am all in favor of doing everything you can to increase your cognitive reserve. But I am also in favor of harnessing those biochemical mechanisms to make synapses as resistant as possible to the ravages of amyloid. To function at its best, your brain needs neuron- and synapse-supporting factors, including certain hormones, trophic factors, and nutrients. ReCODE offers ways to boost them. Among the synapse-strengthening compounds are brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which can be increased through exercise; hormones such as estradiol and testosterone, which can be optimized through prescriptions or via dietary supplements; and nutrients such as vitamin D and folate. Interestingly, when the brain runs low on synapse- and neuron-boosting compounds such as BDNF, it responds by producing—you guessed it—amyloid. You can begin to see the list of contributors to amyloid production and cognitive decline—in other words, to Alzheimer’s disease—growing, from the many processes inducing inflammation to insulin resistance to hormonal loss to reduced vitamin D to reduced BDNF (and related neurotrophic factors) to loss of other critical supporting nutrients and factors. We need to measure and address them all if we are to maximize our chances of reversing cognitive decline.
3) Eliminate toxins
If a snake bites you and injects you with venom, you want an anti-venom that will bind to the venom and inactivate it. Amyloid, it turns out, plays that role when the brain is infiltrated by toxic metals such as copper and mercury, or by biotoxins such as the mycotoxins produced by molds: by binding up these toxins, amyloid keeps them from damaging neurons. Again, since it is crucial to prevent the formation of amyloid plaques, ReCODE offers an effective way to reduce toxic induction of amyloid, starting with the identification of the toxic exposure, removal of the source, and then detoxification that includes, among other things, detoxifying foods such as cruciferous vegetables, pure-water hydration, sauna-based removal of a specific class of toxins, and increasing critical molecules such as glutathione. That way, the brain has no reason to churn out amyloid.
After doing all you can to eliminate the three neurothreats of inflammation, shortage of synaptic support, and toxic exposure, it is crucial to restore lost synapses and protect new and remaining ones. Again, research from multiple groups has identified compounds that enhance synapse formation, as I explain in detail below.
You may have noticed that the program I’ve just summarized is completely different than a prescription for a drug. Complex chronic illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease have many contributors, which is why their optimal treatment involves addressing all of the contributors—a personalized program, not simply a pill. ReCODE is not only more comprehensive than taking a pill. It is also more effective. It is not a silver bullet targeted to a single abnormality; it is silver buckshot targeted to the multiple contributors to cognitive decline.
Excerpted from THE END OF ALZHEIMER’S by arrangement with Avery Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © 2017, Dale E. Bredesen
[i] amyloid is antimicrobial Kumar, D. K. et al. Amyloid-beta peptide protects against microbial infection in mouse and worm models of Alzheimer’s disease. Science translational medicine 8, 340ra372, doi:10.1126/scitranslmed.aaf1059 (2016).
[ii] amyloid is antimicrobial Kumar, D. K., Eimer, W. A., Tanzi, R. E. & Moir, R. D. Alzheimer’s disease: the potential therapeutic role of the natural antibiotic amyloid-beta peptide. Neurodegenerative disease management 6, 345-348, doi:10.2217/nmt-2016-0035 (2016).
More Stories from Our Caregiving Community
Seeing the personality and whole being erased in loved ones with Alzheimer’s disease can be a heart-wrenching experience. Mental health expert Maria Aranda, executive director of the USC Edward R. Roybal Institute on Aging, doesn’t want you to go through it alone. The...read more
Caregivers on double-duty are perpetually exhausted and frequently report feeling like they are not doing anything quite “right.” Managing both career and the needs of someone with Alzheimer’s disease or another dementia can feel impossible, especially on days when there’s an unexpected late meeting at work or dad has eloped from his assisted living community.read more
BY ANNE VON OEHSEN/SUZY LAFORGE “Please let me do it, so I can call it my own,” my mother spoke emphatically after I made the mistake of taking hold of her paintbrush. Sitting at my kitchen table, she was putting the finishing touches on a painting of a cerulean blue...read more