Memories, short or long term, are too precious to forget. Yet, that is what happens with Alzheimer's disease (AD). Short-term memories may have a lifespan of only a few minutes while long-term memories get lost, or compressed in the mixed up timeline of life. Most of us know of some elderly person sitting at home alone or in a “rest home”, staring at the wall having forgotten what day it
is or what they had for breakfast. For me that elderly person is my mother. She is in a rest home in New Zealand and I live 12,000 miles away. The distance did not seem so great 30 years ago when I moved to the USA, but now it is like a chasm across multiple universes. Thank goodness for Delta miles.
An Alzheimer's diagnosis sparks a quest for answers.
This disease which is affecting more and more elderly worldwide is taking its toll on my mother's brain. At first, short-term memories such as what she had for breakfast disappeared within a few hours, but now I notice her long-term memories are also departing. She can’t recall her dear friend who died a few years ago. I am thankful she still knows me. Recognizing me instantly when I arrive back to New Zealand at regular six-week intervals, I am filled with relief. But, in my heart I am preparing myself for the inevitable. One day she will ask “who are you”? Moving in and out of the Alzheimer's brain is like a flicker of wind in a thin-sheer curtain. I hardly see it or realize our conversation is now with the mother who has advanced AD. With no obvious change in mood or physical evidence, in what seems less than the blink of an eye, our conversation ranges from discussing global warming (my Mum has always been up with what is going on in the world having grown up with a Dad who was a newspaper editor and author), to her stern warnings not to go up the stairs at the end of the rest home corridor; stairs which do not exist. She tells me with great detail that she went there once and there were people stuffed in barrels, suffering, and she could do nothing. I assure her, despite the fact that I can’t see the stairs, I will not go there and recommend she does not either. I don't tell her it is not real. I tell her if she asks it is just her brain on Alzheimer’s. Mostly she does not ask. Some days however, she is aware she has forgotten something important. She asks “do you think I am losing my memory, Dorene”. One thing my Mum asked me when she knew she was heading to this fate, as her mother, my grandmother had done, she made me promise to tell her the truth about what was happening to her. In these moments when she asks me what appears to be a lucid question, I reply with as much honesty as I can despite my heavy heart and tear-filled eyes. I share with her what I know - “Yes, Mum you have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s”. My Mum was a nurse and matron of a hospital all her working life and she immediately questions the training and authority of who made that diagnosis. When we talk more about it she is resolved to the inevitable but says “is there nothing you can do Dorene, a herb, essential oil or food or anything to stop it”?
Essential oils have been shown to treat anxiety and assist with relaxation.
My New Zealand trained naturopathic brain leaps into gear and I assure her - “Yes there is” - this despite what feels like an exercise in futility, given the overcooked, nutritionally-bereft institutional rest-home fare. I get out the diffuser and fill her tiny, rest home bedroom with Mediterranean aromas of Spanish sage Salvia lavandulaefolia (L). and lavender Lavandula angustifolia (L) both known for their neuroprotective actions. She inhales deeply and smiles. I reinforce even if she forgets me when she inhales these aromas she will know I am there. I bring her snacks of organic apples, and take her out for daily lunches recommending the salmon and a heaping side of vegetables. I make her smoothies with organic bananas, activated (soaked until almost sprouted) almond milk and organic hemp, maca and cacao powder. If I can find them I throw in organic ginger and turmeric for their anti-inflammatory action. Since I don’t live in New Zealand full-time I am trying to introduce short-term Mediterranean diet choices.
A Mediterranean diet may slow the progress of Alzheimer's.
Research tells us the Mediterranean diet rich in certified organic fruits, vegetables, olive oil, legumes, whole grains and wild caught fish are not only heart healthy but are neuroprotective and slow down the onset and subsequent pace of AD. The DASH or Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension diet has also shown benefits not just for hypertension but brain health. Low sodium is a focus as is low-fat diary along with similar foods to the Mediterranean Diet. I delve deeper. I am curious as to what it is about the Mediterranean diet other than sitting in a Greek Taverna on a sun-drenched beach soaking up Vitamin D while you eat that is so beneficial. Turns out the eye healthy nutrients - specifically antioxidants, called xanthophyll carotenoids such as lutein and lycopene and fish oil is a bit of a magic combo. Research tells us β-Carotene, lycopene, lutein, zeaxanthin, and β-cryptoxanthin found in oranges, kiwi, red grapefruit, and honeydew melon are more accessible than those found in vegetables such spinach, broccoli, red pepper, and sweet potato. Bottom line keep it varied. This can be as simple as spinach and sardines on toast with a side of fruit salad or as targeted as the recommended daily formula of: lutein 10 mg, zeaxanthin 10 mg, meso-zeaxanthin 2 mg, DHA 500 mg, EPA 150 mg, and natural vitamin E (D-alpha tocopherol) 15 mg.
Medicinal CBD shows promise as a neuroprotective antioxidant.
While not available in New Zealand yet, trials of medicinal cannabis also show promise that cannabidiol is a neuroprotective antioxidant and THC inhibits the enzyme acetylcholinesterase. A healthy brain has just the right amount of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter, that helps the brain maintain plasticity and focus. Acetylcholine needs the enzyme acetylcholinesterase, but too much and acetylcholine is damaged. Researchers believe that damage to this neurotransmitter may contribute to the memory loss associated with AD. Specific essential oils also inhibit acetylcholinesterase but I digress. You can read more about that in my blog about memory and essential oils.
Holistic healing techniques and integrative health modalities enhance daily wellness.
Diet only goes so far. Integrative health is all about balance and living a daily wellness lifestyle, which includes exercising, socializing and laughing. Mum and I are getting plenty of this, walking the halls of the rest home, even though our exercising is slow and aided by a walker, Mum affectionately calls Ginny. Group exercise is offered once week in the large lounge. The physiotherapist stops me in the hall to introduce herself and let me know Mum is doing great in exercise class. She enthusiastically shares with me that Mum always attends and her years of practicing Tai Chi shows she says, as Mum is still very innovative with lots of good suggestions. Socializing usually happens around the lunch and tea table. At Mum’s table there is a milliner, a piano teacher, Mum the matron and a WWII fighter pilot. Mum and the fighter pilot keep up a lively flirtatious, banter. Both are pretty deaf so it’s a conversation that is mixed with giggles and a lot of hilarity. I join in and hope that no matter the nutrient deficit of rest home food or the continued chipping away at her memories as long as Mum can belly laugh all's right with the world and for me I will continue to supplement my Mum’s rest home lifestyle with aromas, antioxidants and lots of hugs.
To learn more about benefits of the Mediterranean diet, click here.
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- Graph-Radford, J. (2018, February 2018). Alzheimer’s: Can mediterranean diet lower my risk?. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/alzheimers-disease/expert-answers/alzheimers-disease/faq-20058062
- Nolan, M. J., Mulcahy, R., Power, R., Moran, R., & Howard, N. A. (2018). Nutritional intervention to prevent alzheimer’s disease: Potential benefits of xanthophyll carotenoids and omega-3 fatty acids combined. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, 64(2), 367-378. doi: 10.3233/JAD-180160
- O’Connell, F. O., Ryan, L., & O’Brien, M. N. (2007). Xanthophyll carotenoids are more bioaccessible from fruits than dark green vegetables. Nutrition Research, 27(5), 258-264. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nutres.2007.04.002
- Awakening from Alzheimer’s (2018, July 23). The “eye supplement” puts a stop to alzheimer’s. Retrieved from https://www.awakeningfromalzheimers.com/this-eye-supplement-puts-a-stop-to-alzheimers/.
- Russo, E. B. (2018). Cannabis therapeutics and the future of neurology. Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience, 12(51). doi: 10.3389/fnint.2018.00051
- Petersen, D. (2016, June 23). Aromatherapy and memory [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://info.achs.edu/blog/aromatherapy-essential-oils-and-memory