DIY Memory Health: Part 1 of 3

By: Dr. Deborah Gordon, February 2, 2018

There’s a lot you can do to enhance your own brain and memory health. Memory can be improved by paying attention to details of diet and lifestyle, as well as taking some crucial supplements. To make things simpler for you I’ll divide up these issues into three separate articles, let’s get started!

Dr. Dale Bredesen, of the University of California, Los Angeles, has done impressive work  in the area of treating patients with memory and cognitive impairment due to Alzheimer’s Disease. Prior to his work, no drug or program had shown more than a slight benefit in dementia. The best drugs can claim no more than a slow progress in the ravages of this devastating disease. Dr. Bredesen’s approach, contrary to that of pharmaceutical companies, is to treat Alzheimer’s as a problem with multiple interacting causes:  “a roof with thirty holes”, as he likes to say. In his continuing work, the number of holes is approaching forty, but plugging any 25 of the holes is likely to produce amazing benefits, if dementia has not progressed beyond a point of no return. Even severe dementia is likely to see some benefit.

Folks have asked me for the details, because you CAN do this program without the guidance of Dr. Bredesen. But, it’s highly unlikely that you can do this program on your own IF you really need it. If you are hoping to prevent Alzheimer’s (perhaps you’re at high risk), but don’t yet have symptoms, YES, you can do this program entirely on your own. If you are already forgetful, enlist the help of a friend or family member. Create a checklist or a calendar: keep track and ask for a second set of eyes. The program will not work if you forget it half the time.

Before you start, find some objective way to assess your cognitive skills. The online Alzheimer’s Reading Room offers five tests, each of which is a good way to assess your memory and cognitive skills. If you are not fully computer savvy:  ask for help getting to the form, download and print it, and ask someone else to score it for you if you have any doubts. This form will help you create a baseline that you can re-evaluate after 3 months, 6 months, and 9 months on the program. You might see some improvement after just a couple weeks, but the differences will continue to accumulate over time. I like the SAGE test the best.

Now, getting down to work.

To start with, you need to obtain some lab tests from either your own physician or from a direct access lab such as Direct Labs.  All these lab tests should be drawn after an overnight fast. Drink plenty of water prior to the test, and have the labs drawn by 9 a.m. at the latest. Earlier is better.

Fasting blood sugar
Hemoglobin A1C
B12 level
Albumin and globulin levels (or albumin and total protein, assume globulin is the difference)
Fasting insulin
24(OH) D3
Serum or plasma zinc and copper levels
TSH, Free T3 and Free T4
Pregnenolone and Cortisol
Testosterone and Estradiol

Overachievers can also figure out a way to monitor blood ketone levels. I use the Keto-Mojo finger-stick system which enables me to check glucose or ketones. Abbott also makes a good meter but each strip is too spendy:  they each cost $5. Keto-mojo strips go for about $1. There are also breath meters available that are slightly more expensive: there will be more to come. Urine testing strips are a good way to start but will become less accurate over time.

Lifestyle Changes

While you’re waiting for your lab results, you can start modifying your lifestyle, making the brain healthy choices that follow:

  • Anti-inflammatory diet. Reduce the inflammatory effect of your diet: EAT REAL FOOD.
    • No processed foods, no or low sugar, no vegetable oils or trans fats, very low grain, and, in my book, gluten free. (You can have a treat like ice cream or gluten-free lemon pie, but think once a week, not once a day.) No foods that come in packages, cans; take pride in cooking real foods!
  • Eating window of 12 hours or less.
    • Eat within a 12-hour window each day, or less! Every night, stop eating for three hours before going to bed, and maintain a 12 hour fast (at least) every night. (Let’s say you eat a 7 p.m. dinner:  if you wake at 6 a.m., a non-caloric cup of tea is fine, but delay breakfast until after 7 a.m.)
  • Eight hours of sleep every night. How is that sleep of yours? You want to get 8 hours of sleep a night for your brain.
    • If you just naturally sleep 7 hours, you can add an early afternoon nap.
    • If you have trouble sleeping, start with a 0.5 mg dose of melatonin at bedtime, increase up to 5.0 mg
    • If you find yourself waking in the night, add tryptophan at bedtime: 50-100 mg of 5-hydroxy tryptophan.
    • If you still can’t sleep, you should consider a sleep evaluation: even non-snoring folks can have sleep apnea which feels like insomnia, when your body wakes you up to get you breathing again.
  • Regular exercise! Schedule exercise you enjoy, 30-60 minutes daily, 4-6 days a week. Put together a rotating program that includes “just moving” (walking, cycling, or rowing at a moderate pace, preferably outside), and then twice a week add in some intervals (doing something safe for you, work as hard as you can for 30 seconds, rest for a couple minutes; repeat 4-8 times) and some heavy work (lift weights with a trainer, or do body-weight exercises such as push-ups or squats).

Brain challenge. Now exercise your brain: are you learning something? Reading is great, but do something challenging. Online programs such as Lumosity are fine; Posit (Brain HQ) is another program proven to be beneficial.

  • Feed your brain. Finally, add some brain-healthy supplements that are good for every brain, regardless of the results of your blood tests. Let’s go through them one at a time:
    • Curcumin and Ashwaganda. Both herbal-based supplements are thought to reduce the formation of amyloid beta in the brain. Curcumin has long been a staple of Indian cooking as turmeric, and is associated with many health benefits in that form, the biologically active curcumin portion of turmeric has been isolated and studied  for its effect on brain function. Curcumin has helpful anti-inflammatory effects in many chronic diseases, and is a reasonable and safe supplement that shows promise in sustaining cognitive function. The supplement I take is Integrative Therapeutics Thercurmin, taken as directed.  Acting in a similar vein, the herb known popularly as Ashwaganda demonstrated significant beneficial effects studied in the mouse model of Alzheimer’s. I like the liquid form from Gaia Herbs that can be mixed into water, or taken directly: less pills and capsules to swallow is a plus in my book.
    • Magnesium for the brain. Magnesium is a helpful mineral throughout the body, but a specific form, magnesium-l-threonate (available from Designs for Health as NeuroMag)  is particularly brain-active. NeuroMag can help brains to both focus and to relax, depending on the context and how tired you are! Take 2-4 capsules a day, depending on the effect you notice.
    • Resveratrol. Particularly important for ApoE 4 folks, resveratrol is observed to normalize an imbalance in sirtuins (key brain proteins) observed in people with the ApoE4 genotype. Pure Encapsulations Resveratrol Extra  provides a generous amount of resveratrol, taking 2-4 capsules daily with meals.
    • Finally, fish oil!  I imagine you’ve heard of the benefits of fish oil or omega 3 fatty acids for your brain, and you heard right, they are very important! The two essential omega 3 fatty acids are EPA and DHA, and particularly the EPA comes only from animal products, specifically fish oil. (DHA is synthesized by some algae.) The DHA component helps to build brain cells, and the EPA is a strong anti-inflammatory. A good ongoing dose of omega 3’s is 1500 mg a day. My favorite is Barlean’s Omega Three Fish Oil, the key lime flavor, thank you.

Whew, that is a lot to start with! If your head is not spinning, you probably don’t need any extra brain attention. If your head is spinning, that’s fine, you can keep referring to this article as much as you wish. I suggest you create your own log, notebook, or checklist to keep track of what you’re doing.

In the next article (Part 2), we’ll review your lab tests and make some adjustments as needed. Ideally, I hope you have the support of a cooperative physician and prescriptions. In the final article (Part 3), I’ll wrap it all up and cover the last of the self-care steps you can take. Remember, if you JUST do all the steps that you can do yourself, without the doctor prescriptions, you will be plugging up the great majority of any potential “leaky holes in your roof!”