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Alzheimer's Disease and The Paleo Diet

By Loren Cordain, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, Founder of The Paleo Diet
October 14, 2014
Alzheimer's Disease and The Paleo Diet image

One of the latest, fascinating publications from Science Daily, “Memory loss associated with Alzheimer's reversed: Small trial succeeds using systems approach to memory disorders,” was called to my attention. The UCLA study suggests the potential lifestyle changes which may prevent or even reverse the devastation of Alzheimer's disease. This study has relevance to both aging Paleo Dieters and to Paleo Diet enthusiasts who may have parents or grandparents at risk for Alzheimer's disease.

First, let me point out that the study is anecdotal in nature, and until randomized controlled trials are carried out, it is premature to draw definitive conclusions. Yet the following recommendations have virtually no risks involved and a number of these recommendations occur spontaneously when people adopt contemporary Paleo Diets. Let me address each of the 14 recommendations:

  1. Eliminating all simple carbohydrates, leading to a weight loss of 20 pounds;

The Paleo Diet is devoid of refined sugars and cereal grains, hence, it goes without saying that it is a lifetime program of eating that contains few simple carbohydrates.

  1. Eliminating gluten and processed food from her diet, with increased vegetables, fruits, and non-farmed fish;

Eliminating gluten from the diet may be therapeutic for the brain, nervous system, gut, immune and endocrine systems. Gluten containing grains upregulate one of the body's own molecules called transglutaminase 2 which may be involved in the formation of molecules associated with brain lesions occurring in Alzheimer's disease. There are absolutely no known nutritional or health risks with elimination of gluten containing grains (wheat, rye, barley) from your diet, and the health benefits are many.

I don't think you will find nutritionists anywhere who do not recommend eating more fresh fruits and vegetables along with non-farmed fish. These dietary recommendations are all mainstays of The Paleo Diet.

  1. To reduce stress, she began yoga;

Natural stress reducing activities such as yoga, exercise, walking, gardening, reading, interacting with friends, family and even pets should be encouraged for people of all ages.

  1. As a second measure to reduce the stress of her job, she began to meditate for 20 minutes twice per day;

Meditation has been demonstrated to produce multiple therapeutic effects for both mind and body. Look no further than PUBMED for the scientific references.

  1. She took melatonin each night;

Improving melatonin metabolism has proven therapeutic effects upon sleep. Less well appreciated is that the Paleo Diet is a low salt, low alcohol diet – both of which also are known to improve sleep and have beneficial effects upon melatonin metabolism.

  1. She increased her sleep from 4-5 hours per night to 7-8 hours per night;

Besides a low salt and alcohol diet, exercise can also improve sleep.

  1. She took methylcobalamin each day;

Normal melatonin metabolism required for proper sleep has frequently been demonstrated to be improved by vitamin B12 administration (either methylcobobalamin or cyanocobalamin). It should be noted that the Paleo Diet is naturally high in vitamin B12 because meat, eggs, fish and other animal products which are all excellent sources of vitamin B12 and consumed at virtually every meal.

  1. She took vitamin D3 each day;

The majority of elderly people in the US and elsewhere have been frequently shown to be deficient in vitamin D3, which really is not a vitamin at all, but rather a crucial hormone required for our body and mind's optimal functioning. As I have repeatedly stated in all of my popular books, if you cannot or do not get regular sunshine exposure, then this is one of the few supplements you will need to take on the Paleo Diet.

  1. Fish oil each day;

Fish oil is a concentrated source of two long chain omega 3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA), both of which have numerous therapeutic health effects upon the brain and nervous system. If you don't eat fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines etc.) regularly then you will likely need to supplement with fish oil -- one of the few supplements other than vitamin D that Paleo Dieters will need to consider.

  1. CoQ10 each day;

Natural concentrated sources of CoQ10 are meat, poultry and fish, which are staples in the Paleo Diet. There is little or no need to supplement with CoQ10 once you begin to eat meat poultry and fish at every meal.

  1. She optimized her oral hygiene using an electric flosser and electric toothbrush;

One of the little appreciated sources of chronic inflammation stems from our mouths. Numerous scientific studies show that plaque, gum disease and poor oral hygiene are known to increase systemic inflammation and be a risk factor for Alzheimer's disease. Natural diets (like the Paleo Diet) which are high in soluble fiber from fresh fruits and vegetables and low in simple carbohydrates (refined sugars, refined grains) promote good oral health and reduced risk for dental caries.

  1. Following discussion with her primary care provider, she reinstated hormone replacement therapy that had been discontinued;

This is a controversial topic which will require an entire new article to address -- stay tuned!

  1. She fasted for a minimum of 12 hours between dinner and breakfast, and for a minimum of three hours between dinner and bedtime;

From our non-published studies of meal frequencies in hunter-gatherers, at least two common patterns are apparent: 1) extended daily periods with little or no food, or 2) snacking throughout the day.

Pattern 1, frequently occurs when little or no food remains in “camp.” Consequently, men, women, and children set out typically in the morning to hunt, gather and forage for food. Their bounties are typically brought back to the home base and shared with everyone in a single large evening meal.

Frequently, foods are snacked upon as they are gathered. If sufficient food remains from the afternoon or evening meal, it is consumed continually for the next few days. These types of food procurement patterns produce patterns of fasting interspersed with patterns of snacking. Hence, it seems likely that fasting was a normal part of the human dietary pattern as hunter-gatherers.

  1. She exercised for a minimum of 30 minutes, 4-6 days per week.

As I have always said, any exercise is better than no exercise. And that exercise improves virtually all physiological measures including brain function.

In conclusion, I am supportive of the recommendations of this study. There are absolutely no health risks from following most of this advice, which dovetails nicely with Paleo dietary and health recommendations, yet the benefits may be great.


Loren Cordain, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus

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