"Let Food be Your Medicine"
A recent study found that the Alzheimer’s disease rate in Asian Indians is only 25% of the rate in the developed world. While more than 10% of Americans over the age of sixty five suffer from Alzheimer’s Disease, only 1% of their North Indian peers suffer from the same disease (1). This finding prompted researchers to dig deeper into understanding why such a disparity exists between the two nations. Understanding the disproportion of incidents is not a simple task, for the underlying causes and mechanisms of Alzheimer’s disease are not fully understood.
At this time, scientists do know that Alzheimer’s is a neurodegenerative disease that primarily effects the parts of the brain that control thought, memory, and language. However, the course of the disease is unique to each individual patient, making it difficult to reach any overarching and definitive conclusions about its nature (2). The symptoms that seem to be characteristic of all Alzheimer’s cases are the formation of plaques and tangles in the brain, inflammation of the brain and the death of neurons, especially in the hippocampus area which is responsible for memory. As plaques and tangles accumulate in the brain neuron connections are lost, resulting in the gradual depletion of a person's memory and ability to learn, reason, make judgments, communicate and carry out daily activities (3). Understanding the process of plaque and tangle formation and inflammation is a crucial step in explaining the unequal proportion of North Indian and American cases. Furthermore, understanding this disparity will likely lead to a better understanding of how to prevent and treat Alzheimer’s disease.
Plaques and tangles were first discovered in the autopsied brain of a 51 year old woman who suffered from dementia. They were discovered by the German neuropathologist, Alois Alzheimer, who coined the name Alzheimer’s disease (4). The plaques are composed of beta-amyloid proteins. Beta-amyloid protein is a derivative of the amyloid precursor protein that is naturally synthesized in all healthy brains. However, while healthy brains are able to break down the beta-amyloid particles, brains affected by Alzheimer’s disease allow these proteins to accumulate and form hard, insoluble plaques (5). Many of the dangerous effects of beta amyloid appear to arise from oxidative damage. The human body uses oxygen to produce energy, and in the process generates a side product of free radical molecules. When allowed to remain in the brain, free radicals have a toxic effect on neurons. Anti-oxidants are responsible for removing the free radicals, reducing their toxicity in the brain (6). Luckily, our bodies naturally produce some antioxidants and many more can be consumed by eating the right foods. Since Indians have a significantly lower rate of developing Alzheimer’s it might be beneficial to examine how their diet differs from the diet of the average American.
According to a federal health survey, less than a third of American adults eat the government recommended amount of antioxidant rich fruits and vegetables (7). Instead of eating fruits and vegetables, Americans choose to consume nearly a third of their calories from junk foods such as chips, soft drinks, desserts, alcoholic beverages and candy, none of which provide any significant amount of antioxidants. The Indian diet, on the other hand, in largely vegetarian due to religious guidelines as well the need to be cost efficient. Their diet consists of large amounts of vegetables, roots, wheat and a spicy bright yellow sauce called curry.
Americans do not think much more of curry except for that it is a spicy yellow sauce used in Indian cuisine. In the East however, curry has been used for thousands of years for medicinal purposes. Indians believe in the healing power of the turmeric, cumin, coriander, onion, garlic, cardamom, fennel and other herbs and spices used in the sauce (8). Some ingredients of curry have antioxidative properties while others, such as turmeric, have been shown to function as activators of other antioxidant producing genes. A study published in a 2003 edition of the Italian Journal of Biochemistry explored turmeric’s role in triggering the heme oxygenase pathway. When triggered in brain tissue, this pathway leads to the production of a potent antioxidant called bilirubin (9). Bilirubin, and other antioxidants, protects against the oxidative destruction of neurons which ultimately results in Alzheimer symptoms.
These findings suggest that there might be some hope for the future of Alzheimer’s disease in America. It is possible that the disparity between American and Indian Alzheimer’s disease rates can begin to be balanced by a simple change in the American diet. However, this discovery does not offer much hope to those who have already been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Previously, doctors and scientists were under the impression that, plaque formation was an irreversible process. However, a recent study conducted by researchers at UCLA provides hope –and possibly a yummy solution –to sufferers of Alzheimer’s disease (10).
The researchers discovered that the same compound effective in the prevention of oxidative damage, curcumin, also plays a role in inhibiting plaque formation and destructing existing plaques. The UCLA study showed that curcumin is more effective in inhibiting plaque formation than many drugs currently being used to treat Alzheimer’s disease. The scientists raised two groups of mice, one group was fed a normal diet while the other ate a diet rich in curcumin. The mice that consumed large amounts of curcumin had lower levels of plaque deposits in their brains. This evidence supports curcumin’s ability to prevent this debilitating disease. This finding alone would have been a great discovery, but the researchers did not stop there. Another group of aged mice that already had multiple beta-amyloid plaques were studied to determine the effect of injecting curcumin into Alzheimer diseased brains. The findings showed that the injection not only slowed the growth of plaques as it did in the young mice, but it actually reduced the amount of plaque levels that were already present in the brain, a feat that was previously thought to be impossible (10).
While these discoveries could prove to have a monumental role in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease, it is possible that this news will fall by the wayside. The developed Western world tends to be skeptical of Eastern remedies. Americans do not generally view their food as a possible cure. Although they are just recently beginning to accept the prospect that eating the right foods can prevent the development of certain diseases, they are not as open to the idea of treating symptoms or diseases with food. Perhaps some of this skepticism is warranted. Modern laboratory research and clinical trials conducted by the National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine have verified that some ancient Eastern remedies do indeed have chemical and biological properties which are capable of preventing, alleviating and curing illness (11). These studies are conducted using technological machinery that was obviously not available to the ancient Eastern healers. Therefore, a question likely to be on the minds of skeptics is how did these healers even think to use specific ingredients to treat certain illnesses without knowing how they would chemically interact? It is hard people to simply accept that these healers intuitively knew which herbs were poisonous and which could perform miracles. Yet, this should not seem like such an outrageous claim because we are unconsciously warned of dangers by our own taste and olfactory system, daily. The aromas and tastes stimulate the odor and taste receptors located in the nose and on the tongue which in turn send electric signals to the limbic system of the brain. This area of the brain is responsible for emotions including the feeling of pleasure. However, not all scents and taste elicit a pleasurable response. There is evidence that suggests the ability to smell and taste is actually a survival mechanism. We are repulsed by the sour scent of spoiled milk which keeps us from ingesting something that will make us ill. On the hand, many people enjoy the fragrance of peppermint –an oil that has been found to be successful in treating irritable bowl syndrome and indigestion. Similarly, the festive air freshener, mistletoe, has been found to boost human immune systems and some studies have even proclaimed its ability to kill cancer cells (11). Conversely, hemlock, which is deadly if ingested, has an offensive odor. Furthermore, a common symptom of pregnancy is a heightened sense of smell and taste. One hypothesis for explaining this occurrence is that it is nature’s way of protecting the fetus from anything in the environment which might cause harm (12).
Perhaps Westerners aught to be less skeptical of traditional Eastern medicine and consider integrating high-tech research instruments with their own sensory systems. If this can be accomplished, then the prospect of using curcumin to treat Alzheimer’s disease is promising. WEB RESOURCES: