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The Brain on Fire

When we look at an autopsy of an Alzheimer's brain, it is a brain on fire. Considering that the fastest-growing segment of the population is people eighty and older (and that more than half of them will get Alzheimer's), we must focus on finding the cause. The good news is that we are closer than ever to understanding what goes wrong.

The inflammation story is repeated over and over in all disease, and dramatically so in aging and the brain. This is why sugar, trans fats, saturated fat, stress, infections, lack of exercise, autoimmune disease, obesity, diabetes, vitamin deficiencies, celiac disease (from eating wheat and gluten), and colitis (which are inflammatory digestive diseases) all increase the risk of dementia and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's1. They all promote inflammation. It is also why anti-inflammatory drugs like Advil may reduce the risk of dementia. But don't take them to reduce your risk. More than one hundred thousand people a year end up in the hospital and sixteen thousand die every year from intestinal bleeding caused by these medications.

Everyone is searching for the one thing that causes diseases like Alzheimer's. But there is no one thing. A complex interaction of multiple factors from your lifestyle and environment interacting with your genes creates problems. We have to address all the factors to succeed in helping the brain become healthy and recover.

As with autism and depression, many cases of dementia and Alzheimer's can be slowed and even reversed if all the causes are dealt with. The brain has extraordinary powers of healing and recovery if we provide the right conditions. But the answer is not taking aspirin or Advil! We must deal with the underlying causes of disease, causes like inflammation.

That is what we did for Christine, and her recovery from early-stage dementia was remarkable.

Until her seventies, Christine was mentally sharp and, while still highly intelligent, she noticed increasing trouble with her memory. By the time I saw her at eighty-one, her memory was failing. Her ability to live on her own was being questioned by her children, so they took her to see a neurologist and psychologist. After extensive neuropsychiatric and memory testing, she was told she had early dementia. No treatment was recommended.

Her daughter brought her to see me, and we found a high level of inflammation (C-reactive protein), along with a number of other factors that all contributed to this inflammation–low vitamin D; undiagnosed autoimmune thyroid disease; low levels of B6, folate, and B12; and a high level of mercury and lead.

Any one of these factors may not have been enough to cause problems, but added together in the body of an eighty-one-year-old woman, they caused her brain and body start to shutting down.

Over a period of six months we aggressively treated her with a fresh, whole foods, anti-inflammatory diet and omega-3 fat supplements and replaced all the vitamins she was missing–vitamin D, B6, folate, and B12.

We treated her thyroid and helped her gently reduce the level of mercury and lead in her body.

After this treatment Christine had her three-hour battery of neuropsychiatric and memory tests repeated, and they all improved.

Normally dementia is progressive and according to conventional wisdom cannot be reversed. But after cooling inflammation, improving nutrition, and help to detoxify, Christine regained a lost part of herself.

For a current list of the nine most frequent causes of inflammation and how to eliminate them, please see Dr. Hyman's new book, The UltraMind Solution.

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Griffin WS. Inflammation and neurodegenerative diseases. Am J Clin Nutr. 2006 Feb;83(2):470S-474S. Review.

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