Are You Demented or Toxic?
Dementia is a "brain disease" that may affect cognitive function, language, attention, memory, personality, and abstract reasoning. In severe forms, people's memories disappear, they forget their history, they stop talking, and their personality evaporates. A terrifying, progressive, irreversible process, dementia does not have a good medical treatment except for toxic medications with many side effects that, at best, may delay entry into a nursing home by a few months.
Dementia is a big problem and growing every day. Ten percent of sixty-five-year-olds, 25 percent of seventy-five-year-olds, and 50 percent of eighty-five-year-olds will get Alzheimer's (which is a form of dementia) at a cost of $60 billion a year to society. Scientists predict that the number of people with Alzheimer's will triple in the next few decades. It is now the seventh-leading cause of death1.
And basically the medical community has no solution for it.
I was recently speaking on a panel for PBS TV at the AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons) convention in Boston. The topic was dementia. A woman with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) was on the panel–MCI is sort of like pre-Alzheimer's or pre-dementia–and everyone on the panel agreed (including the Harvard neurologist) that memory loss is NOT a normal part of aging. But now 22 percent, or 5.4 million, of people over seventy-one years old have "pre-dementia."2
The sad part was that the doctors on the panel didn't have much to offer in the way of prevention–just a very bad and pretty ineffective selection of drugs with many nasty side effects.
But there is a way to prevent, treat, and even sometimes reverse the memory loss in dementia. That is where my patient George comes in.
George had a diagnosis of dementia and came with his wife to see me. He could no longer manage his business affairs, had become increasingly unable to function at home, and had to withdraw from family and social relationships.
He was desperate as he felt himself slipping away.
As I said above, there is no effective known treatment for dementia. But we do know a lot about what affects brain function and brain aging: our nutrition, vitamin deficiencies, omega-3 fat deficiencies, inflammation from food, infections and the gut, environmental toxins, stress, exercise, hormonal imbalances, and trouble producing energy in our cells.
These factors and how they related to George's genetic background gave me the hints I needed to help him heal.
Your specific genetic variations set the stage for health or disease, including heart problems or depression, diabetes or dementia.
When it comes to dementia specifically (and keep in mind this is just an example of how ALL disease works), many genes have been found to contribute to the condition. Chronic diseases like these are usually multigene disorders. No one gene is responsible, but the interaction between many genes, their variations (or single nucleotide polymorphisms), and the way these genetic variations interact with the environment can put someone at risk for a chronic disease such as dementia.
That is why we will NEVER find THE gene for Alzheimer's, or heart disease, or cancer, or autism, or depression. There isn't one. There are many genes that influence our predisposition to certain systemic imbalances and many others that determine how these systemic imbalances show up in each of us as a "disease."
This is the loaded gun each of us lives with. But we don't have to pull the trigger. It is our environmental influences (our diet, stress levels, toxic exposure, the amount we exercise, etc.) that do that for us. Even if we are predisposed to certain illnesses, that doesn't mean we are destined to have them.
Genes + Environment = Disease.
We know that many things affect how our genes function–our diet, vitamins and minerals, toxins, allergens, infections, stress, lack of sleep, exercise, and more.
Even though no long-term studies have been done that look at treating dementia based on genes and environmental influences, there are many scientific threads creating a picture of how and why our brains age and what genes are involved.
For George, whose mind and life were evaporating, I looked deeply into his genes and the biochemistry his genes controlled and found places where we could improve things.
He had a gene called apo E4, which is a high-risk gene for Alzheimer's disease3, one that also made it hard for him to lower his cholesterol or detoxify mercury from his brain.
The gene apo E4 predisposes people to dementia for many reasons. One of them may be that people with this gene cannot easily remove mercury from their brains4. This certainly seemed to be the case for George, who had some of the highest levels of mercury poisoning I have ever seen.
When your brain can't detoxify mercury, the mercury accumulates there over a lifetime. This mercury may come from many sources, including vaporization of dental fillings or environmental exposures from tuna fish or air pollution5. The effects of this poisoning can be severe.
In one study of four hundred sixty-five patients with chronic mercury toxicity, 32 percent had severe fatigue, 88 percent had memory loss, and almost 30 percent had depression. These symptoms and mercury poisoning were much more common in people with the apo E4 gene, who make up about 20 percent of the population.
The good news that came out of this study is that removal of amalgam fillings combined with a mercury detoxification program resulted in significant symptom reduction6.
Some genes are critical for optimal detoxification of metals and other toxins. One of the most important is the GST gene. George had a version of this gene (glutathione-S-transferase, or GST7) that was very inefficient. This gene helps increase the levels of glutathione, the body's main detoxifier and antioxidant. George's inefficient GST gene made George accumulate even more toxins over his lifetime.
Having the combination of a problem with GST and apo E4 puts people at even more risk for dementia.8-9
In another study, people with an absent GST gene were likely to have much higher levels of mercury in their systems10. So the interaction between genes and the environment is the problem. People like George aren't genetically programmed to have dementia, but they are living with a loaded gun, and their toxic environment pulls the trigger.
The good news is that we know how to work around these genes that are better adapted to a pollution-free world. We do it with diet, supplements, and other detoxification methods.
George also had another gene we found through his blood tests, called MTHFR11, that made him require very high doses of a special kind of folate (MTHF) to lower homocysteine in his blood, which is a substance that is very toxic to the brain.
The last gene George had a problem with is called CETP. This gene is involved in cholesterol transport, and we know that high cholesterol promotes Alzheimer's. People who have a problem with this gene don't make enough of the HDL, or good cholesterol, to shuttle out the bad cholesterol. We know high cholesterol leads to dementia and Alzheimer's disease. Combine this gene with the apo E4 gene and your risk of dementia goes way up12.
So George seemed to be a genetic train wreck. Every gene made him in one way or another susceptible to environmental insults from mercury overload, folate or B12 deficiency, and elevated cholesterol.
The good news is that these genes are not fixed but highly influenced by the way we live, the food we eat, our nutritional status, and our level of toxicity. We can address all these environmental factors and reduce the risk significantly. We can even stop or reverse the effects of toxicity.
That is what I did for George. But to understand how, you need to know a little more about what George, specifically, was facing.
George grew up and lived his life in steel country, so he had long-term exposure to coal-burning steel plants. He and I were very much alike in this regard. Coal-burning industrial plants or homes heated with coal are the major source of mercury in the environment–it is the same environmental factor I was exposed to in China that caused me to get chronic fatigue syndrome. George, it turned out, was suffering from severe, chronic mercury poisoning13.
We found that he had high levels of mercury. After we gave him a test for mercury, using DMPS (a heavy metal binding or chelating agent),14 we found he had a level of 350. Normal is less than 3. This was one of the highest levels of mercury I had ever seen.
Taking a blood sample only tells you what is floating around in your blood if you have been breathing polluted air or eating too much sushi, but a challenge test (sort of like a cardiac stress test or glucose tolerance test for diabetes) picks up buried problems–in this case, mercury. Studies have found that using DMPS increases mercury excretion from three to one-hundred-seven-fold15. The chelating agents or drugs DMPS and DMSA are both used to test for and to treat heavy metal toxicity.
Just doing one thing wouldn't help George. So we worked hard to get everything in balance. The most important thing we did was to have his dental fillings16 removed safely17 and slowly chelate out the mercury. Mercury toxicity was the core of his problem, and solving it would be the core of his solution.
We helped him detoxify from this mercury poisoning with foods such as kale, watercress, and cilantro; herbs such as milk thistle; nutrients such as selenium and zinc; and chelating medications that helped him overcome his genetic difficulties getting rid of toxins.
We lowered his cholesterol with diet, herbs, and exercise.
We lowered his homocysteine with high doses of folate, B12, and B6 to overcome his weak MTHFR gene. And we added an extra, special form of folate called MTHF (methyl-tetrahydrofolate), which is the active form that bypasses the ineffective gene.
After a year of aggressive therapy that was matched to his genes and his own quirky biochemical train wrecks–not his diagnosis–he had a remarkable and dramatic recovery.
Before I saw him, he could not manage his business, nor did his grandchildren want to be around him. After matching his treatment to his genes, he was again able to function, and his grandchildren loved being with him again. His memory improved; he could read and remember what he read and run his business affairs. He no longer isolated himself at home but became an engaged member of his family and community.
While this area of genetic testing and nutrigenomics is new, and more research is needed to help us refine our understanding, new doors are opening onto an entirely new era of medicine–one that no longer focuses on the disease, but on the person and his or her uniqueness.
The ways that toxins such as mercury affect your health and the methods we now have to heal from toxicity are one of the most exciting possibilities this new science offers. We are swimming in toxins today. It's astounding that the human body can detoxify from these chemical agents it was never designed to encounter.
But it can, and learning how to do that is one of the keys to UltraWellness.
To learn more about how to overcome the devastating effects of dementia, see Dr. Hymans new book, The UltraMind Solution.
- Plassman BL, Langa KM, Fisher GG, Heeringa SG, Weir DR, Ofstedal MB, Burke JR, Hurd MD, Potter GG, Rodgers WL, Steffens DC, McArdle JJ, Willis RJ, Wallace RB. Prevalence of cognitive impairment without dementia in the United States. Ann Intern Med. 2008 Mar 18;148(6):427-34.
- Tsai MS, Tangalos EG, Petersen RC, Smith GE, Schaid DJ, Kokmen E, Ivnik RJ, Thibodeau SN. Apolipoprotein E: risk factor for Alzheimer disease. Am J Hum Genet. 1994 Apr;54(4):643-9.
- Godfrey ME, Wojcik DP, Krone CA. Apolipoprotein E genotyping as a potential biomarker for mercury neurotoxicity. J Alzheimers Dis. 2003 Jun;5(3):189-95.
- Clarkson TW, Magos L, Myers GJ. The toxicology of mercury–current exposures and clinical manifestations. N Engl J Med. 2003 Oct 30;349(18):1731-7. Review.
- Wojcik DP, Godfrey ME, Christie D, Haley BE. Mercury toxicity presenting as chronic fatigue, memory impairment, and depression: diagnosis, treatment, susceptibility, and outcomes in a New Zealand general practice setting (1994-2006). Neuro Endocrinol Lett. 2006 Aug;27(4):415-23.
- Stroombergen MC, Waring RH. Determination of glutathione S-transferase mu and theta polymorphisms in neurological disease. Hum Exp Toxicol. 1999 Mar;18(3):141-5.
- Bernardini S, Bellincampi L, Ballerini S, Federici G, Iori R, Trequattrini A, Ciappi F, Baldinetti F, Bossù P, Caltagirone C, Spalletta G. Glutathione S transferase P1 *C allelic variant increases susceptibility for late-onset Alzheimer disease: association study and relationship with apolipoprotein E epsilon4 allele. Clin Chem. 2005 Jun;51(6):944-51. Epub 2005 Apr 1.
- Spalletta G, Bernardini S, Bellincampi L, Federici G, Trequattrini A, Ciappi F, Bria P, Caltagirone C, Bossù P. Glutathione S-transferase P1 and T1 gene polymorphisms predict longitudinal course and age at onset of Alzheimer disease. Am J Geriatr Psychiatry. 2007 Oct;15(10):879-87.
- Gundacker C, Komarnicki G, Jagiello P, Gencikova A, Dahmen N, Wittmann KJ, Gencik M. Glutathione-S-transferase polymorphism, metallothionein expression, and mercury levels among students in Austria. Sci Total Environ. 2007 Oct 15;385(1-3):37-47. Epub 2007 Aug 22.
- Dorszewska J, Florczak J, Rozycka A, Kempisty B, Jaroszewska-Kolecka J, Chojnacka K, Trzeciak WH, Kozubski W. Oxidative DNA damage and level of thiols as related to polymorphisms of MTHFR, MTR, MTHFD1 in Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases. Acta Neurobiol Exp (Wars). 2007;67(2):113-29.
- Rodrïguez E, Mateo I, Infante J, Llorca J, Berciano J, Combarros O. Cholesteryl ester transfer protein (CETP) polymorphism modifies the Alzheimer's disease risk associated with APOE epsilon4 allele. J Neurol. 2006 Feb;253(2):181-5. Epub 2005 Aug 17.
- Mutter J, Naumann J, Schneider R, Walach H. Mercury and Alzheimer's disease. Fortschr Neurol Psychiatr. 2007 Sep;75(9):528-38.
- Testing for heavy metals is performed by taking a chelating agent, then collecting your urine to measure the amount your body excretes. This test is usually only done by functional medicine doctors or doctors specially trained in detoxification.
- Torres-Alanís O, Garza-Ocañas L, Bernal MA, Piñeyro-López A. Urinary excretion of trace elements in humans after sodium 2,3-dimercaptopropane-1-sulfonate challenge test. J Toxicol Clin Toxicol. 2000;38(7):697-700.
- Removal of dental mercury or silver fillings should only be performed by a biological dentist. See www.iaomt.org to find a biological dentist.
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