|Medically reviewed by
Dr. Laura K. Evans, PhD, RN
When you have a family member with Alzheimer’s disease, many things can worry you. Is there anything you can do to help your family member who has Alzheimer’s? You may wonder if you are at risk for this devastating condition. Research has shown that genes are involved in Alzheimer’s risk and has given us important information about how we can alter the body’s response to genes. Researchers discovered this through epigenetics. You don’t have to be a scientist to understand this technical term, and start applying these findings into your daily life and diet.
In honor of World Alzheimer’s Day on September 21st, here are some ways to understand Alzheimer’s and epigenetics as well as strategies to help prevent or slow development of Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia.
What is Epigenetics?
Epigenetics is the study of how external changes, such as diet and lifestyle can affect how our body’s cells react to genes. There is scientific evidence that external influences can turn disease genes on or off. You read that right. The foods we eat, as well as our lifestyle, can turn our genes’ “switches” on or off. Disease genes only affect our health if they are “switched” on. While genes may be the loaded gun for Alzheimer’s, our diet and lifestyle are the trigger. This is where an Alzheimer’s Prevention Diet can be so Empowering.
Using a functional nutrition approach, you may avoid “pulling the trigger” for Alzheimer’s genes. You will feel more vital and healthy during the process! While there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, you can take steps to help prevent or slow down this debilitating disease.
Diet’s Role in Alzheimer’s Prevention
A healthy functional food diet can improve your health and prevent disease. The diet, along with a healthy lifestyle can drastically reduce your risk for Alzheimer’s. But an Alzheimer’s prevention diet is not a single plan and does NOT have a one-size-fits-all approach. According to research completed by Dr. Bredesen and colleagues’, a highly individualized Alzheimer’s treatment protocol and diet can improve brain function, reduce memory loss and even help restore brain tissue.
While there are different diet approaches for dementia, they usually have some overlapping themes. They:
- Help decrease unhealthy inflammation. (An inflammatory response to injury is vital to healing, but continuous inflammation in the absence of injury damages the body).
- Eliminate or limit processed foods.
- Help reduce toxins in the body.
Popular Diets For Alzheimer’s Prevention
The following dietary approaches are the most known researched options for Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and cognitive decline:
1 – The Bredesen Protocol Diet (Recode Diet)
Research shows that a highly individualized lifestyle approach results in dramatic improvements in Alzheimer’s symptoms in the majority of patients. This is striking information because drug therapies so far have largely failed in improving Alzheimer’s symptoms. To date, Alzheimer’s drugs may serve to delay progression, but can’t be compared to all-natural dietary and lifestyle approaches.
Dr. Bredesen’s research and clinical work is now compiled in a book called The End of Alzheimer’s (2017), and has been practiced by functional medicine physicians In this book, Dr. Bredesen describes 36 metabolic factors that are related to lifestyle that can drive the disease. For example, digestive health issues, chronic inflammation, heavy metals toxicity, high insulin levels, and others.
The protocol involves extensive testing to identify these risk factors in addition to gene testing. However, you don’t have to have the tests to benefit from the Bredesen protocol. The Bredesen protocol diet, also known as the Recode Protocol Diet, uses a functional medicine and functional nutrition approach you can easily apply into your diet. Here are some of the major concepts of an Alzheimer’s prevention diet from his work and others.
The Functional Nutrition Approach To Dementia
Functional foods are those that positively affect health beyond basic nutrition, that is, they promote your best health and reduce your risk of disease. Functional foods contain naturally occurring nutrients that may offer potent medicinal properties, that can:
- Support specific functions in our brain
- “Switch off” or alter certain disease-causing genes, thus reducing the risk
- Reduce oxidative stress due to high levels of antioxidants
- Help our body clear toxins
A functional nutrition plan uses 5 steps to improve health, including brain health. It is important to understand that there is a strong connection between brain health and gut health. Also known as the gut-brain axis, the health of both the gut and the brain is bi-directional; if the gut isn’t healthy, the brain will also not be healthy. Similarly, if the brain isn’t healthy, such as in situations of high stress or anxiety, the gut most likely won’t be healthy either. We will discuss the steps, the 5 R’s of functional nutrition, below.
The 5 R’s of Functional Nutrition
Remove: Remove any food to which you have sensitivity or that contains known allergens, as well as those with harmful microbes from your diet. Eliminating these foods can help to heal the digestive tract, which in turn, may support brain function. The remove step also includes eliminating of mercury or other heavy metal sources. Common examples include amalgam fillings, foods high in heavy metals, such as swordfish, shark, orange roughy, and tuna, and other toxic foods.
Some freshwater fish also contain high concentrations of mercury. Check the warnings in your area for specific information on fish and shellfish safe eating guidelines.
Replace: Replace vital healing nutrients. These can include vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, healthy fats, and digestive enzymes when needed.
Repopulate: Repopulating your gut with probiotics and fermented foods can help fix immune system problems that occur in chronic diseases, such as Alzheimer’s.
Repair: Repair by eating a diet rich in brain supportive nutrients, gut healing foods, and additional targeted nutrients that can help in the repair process..
Examples of gut healing foods include:
- The broccoli family and other non-starchy vegetables
- High-quality meats
- High quality fats
- Allium vegetables, such as garlic and onions.
- Small wild caught fish such as salmon.
Rebalance: Balance other lifestyle factors, such as reduce stress, get enough sleep, find social support, do supportive physical activity, and more.
2 – The MIND Diet Meal Plan
The MIND diet combines key concepts of the well-known Mediterranean diet and the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet. The diet is designed to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and cognitive decline.
The diet is based on unprocessed natural whole functional foods, that may help prevent Alzheimer’s. These antioxidant-rich foods include:
- Fatty fish twice a week: low mercury ones such as wild salmon, anchovies, herring, sardines. Always choose wild fish whenever possible because farmed fish is more likely to be fed corn or other foods not intended for fish, and may contain toxins.
- Grass fed, organic meats and poultry. Limit animal fats if you are ApoE4+ (the gene that has been linked to late onset Alzheimer’s)
- Dark green leafy vegetables daily, including kale, spinach, turnip greens, collards, arugula, Romaine, and others
- Whole grains (preferably gluten free grains such as ancient grains)
- Turmeric and other spices
- Root vegetables such as beets, carrots, turnips, or others
- Dark chocolate
- Nuts and seeds (preferably sprouted and fermented)
- Fermented foods daily, such as sauerkraut, kimchi, apple cider vinegar, kombucha, or others
- Broccoli sprouts and other sprouted vegetables
- Moderate red wine (1 glass a day or less).
3 – Foods to Limit or Avoid for Alzheimer’s Prevention
The following foods can trigger signals in the body, such as release of higher than normal amounts of insulin, which can be detrimental to brain health. They also can be damaging to our tissues and cause inflammation in our neurons.. You should try to keep these foods to a minimum:
- Sugar, pastries, muffins, candy, cookies
- Processed grains and white flour foods
- Fried foods
- Most alcohol, especially women
- Artificial sweeteners.
- Sodas, both diet and regular
- Gluten: Gluten sensitivity is known to contribute to leaky gut, which can impair brain function. Healing a leaky gut may require a diet that is free of gluten.
People with type 1 and some with type 2 diabetes mellitus do not produce insulin, therefore should pay extra attention to these foods.
4 – Intermittent Fasting
There are numerous potential health benefits of fasting. Intermittent fasting may help decrease inflammation, body weight, blood pressure, and cholesterol, risk for diabetes, among others.
Intermittent fasting may be just what the doctor ordered for your brain. How? By supporting metabolic health. Intermittent fasting triggers the body natural process called autophagy that destroys harmful compounds and damaged cells. The body then can repair the damage by a “cellular recycling process”.
Fasting should be done in the context of a balanced and healthy diet. If this isn’t you, work on getting your diet balanced first, before trying fasting.
5 – Ketogenic Diet for Dementia
So far, ketogenic diet research studies are either small human studies or animal studies, but they all look promising for helping to improve brain function.
What is a ketogenic diet? Also known as the Keto diet, it is a high fat (70%), moderate protein (10%), and low carbohydrate diet (20%). Fats are ideally from healthy foods, including:
- Seeds like chia, hemp
- MCT oil, such a virgin coconut oil
- Wild fish.
Healthy ketogenic diets include lots of non-starchy vegetables, such as green, leafy and all non-starchy vegetables.
A note about the Ketogenic diet & genetics: Limit animal fats if you are ApoE4+, as this gene that has been linked to late onset Alzheimer’s, is involved in the body’s metabolism of fats.
The foods we eat can help decrease our genetic risk of diseases, including Alzheimer’s. While an individualized approach for YOU is best, you can start to decrease your risk right now by eating lots of non-starchy vegetables, wild fish, healthy fats, and fermented foods to help your brain. You can minimize sugar, fried foods, and processed foods to be on your way to a sharper mind.
It is also important to manage stress, stay active, be involved in social activities, and exercise in ways that you enjoy. These are the steps you can take, right now, to prevent, delay, or decrease your risk of Alzheimer’s and live your healthiest life. The same changes can benefit your family member already diagnosed or having early signs of Alzheimer’s.
As with any health plan change, always consult with a qualified functional provider before embarking on any new diet (functional nutritionist) or lifestyle changes, such as diet or exercise (functional physician).