The 3 Vitamins that Prevent Brain Loss

The 3 Vitamins that Prevent Brain Loss.jpeg

By our seventies, one in five of us will suffer from cognitive impairment. Within five years, half of those cognitively impaired will progress to dementia and death. The earlier we can slow or stop this process, the better.

Although an effective treatment for Alzheimer's disease is unavailable, interventions just to control risk factors could prevent millions of cases. An immense effort has been spent on identifying such risk factors for Alzheimer's and developing treatments to reduce them.

In 1990, a small study of 22 Alzheimer's patients reported high concentrations of homocysteine in their blood. The homocysteine story goes back to 1969 when a Harvard pathologist reported two cases of children, one dating back to 1933, whose brains had turned to mush. They both suffered from extremely rare genetic mutations that led to abnormally high levels of homocysteine in their bodies. Is it possible, he asked, that homocysteine could cause brain damage even in people without genetic defects?

Here we are in the 21st century, and homocysteine is considered "a strong, independent risk factor for the development of dementia and Alzheimer's disease." Having a blood level over 14 (µmol/L) may double our risk. In the Framingham Study, researchers estimate that as many as one in six Alzheimer's cases may be attributable to elevated homocysteine in the blood, which is now thought to play a role in brain damage and cognitive and memory decline. Our body can detoxify homocysteine, though, using three vitamins: folate, vitamin B12, and vitamin B6. So why don't we put them to the test? No matter how many studies find an association between high homocysteinea and cognitive decline, dementia, or Alzheimer's disease, a cause-and-effect role can only be confirmed by interventional studies.

Initially, the results were disappointing. Vitamin supplementation did not seem to work, but the studies were tracking neuropsychological assessments, which are more subjective compared to structural neuroimaging--that is, actually seeing what's happening to the brain. A double-blind randomized controlled trial found that homocysteine-lowering by B vitamins can slow the rate of accelerated brain atrophy in people with mild cognitive impairment. As we age, our brains slowly atrophy, but the shrinking is much accelerated in patients suffering from Alzheimer's disease. An intermediate rate of shrinkage is found in people with mild cognitive impairment. The thinking is if we could slow the rate of brain loss, we may be able to slow the conversion to Alzheimer's disease. Researchers tried giving people B vitamins for two years and found it markedly slowed the rate of brain shrinkage. The rate of atrophy in those with high homocysteine levels was cut in half. A simple, safe treatment can slow the accelerated rate of brain loss.

A follow-up study went further by demonstrating that B-vitamin treatment reduces, by as much as seven-fold, the brain atrophy in the regions specifically vulnerable to the Alzheimer's disease process. You can see the amount of brain atrophy over a two-year period in the placebo group versus the B-vitamin group in my Preventing Brain Loss with B Vitamins? video.

The beneficial effect of B vitamins was confined to those with high homocysteine, indicating a relative deficiency in one of those three vitamins. Wouldn't it be better to not become deficient in the first place? Most people get enough B12 and B6. The reason these folks were stuck at a homocysteine of 11 µmoles per liter is that they probably weren't getting enough folate, which is found concentrated in beans and greens. Ninety-six percent of Americans don't even make the minimum recommended amount of dark green leafy vegetables, which is the same pitiful number who don't eat the minimum recommendation for beans.

If we put people on a healthy diet--a plant-based diet--we can drop their homocysteine levels by 20% in just one week, from around 11 mmoles per liter down to 9 mmoles per liter. The fact that they showed rapid and significant homocysteine lowering without any pills or supplements implies that multiple mechanisms may have been at work. The researchers suggest it may be because of the fiber. Every gram of daily fiber consumption may increase folate levels in the blood nearly 2%, perhaps by boosting vitamin production in the colon by all our friendly gut bacteria. It also could be from the decreased methionine intake.

Methionine is where homocysteine comes from. Homocysteine is a breakdown product of methionine, which comes mostly from animal protein. If we give someone bacon and eggs for breakfast and a steak for dinner, we can get spikes of homocysteine levels in the blood. Thus, decreased methionine intake on a plant-based diet may be another factor contributing to lower, safer homocysteine levels.

The irony is that those who eat plant-based diets long-term, not just at a health spa for a week, have terrible homocysteine levels. Meat-eaters are up at 11 µmoles per liter, but vegetarians at nearly 14 µmoles per liter and vegans at 16 µmoles per liter. Why? The vegetarians and vegans were getting more fiber and folate, but not enough vitamin B12. Most vegans were at risk for suffering from hyperhomocysteinaemia (too much homocysteine in the blood) because most vegans in the study were not supplementing with vitamin B12 or eating vitamin B12-fortified foods, which is critical for anyone eating a plant-based diet. If you take vegans and give them B12, their homocysteine levels can drop down below 5. Why not down to just 11? The reason meat-eaters were stuck up at 11 is presumably because they weren't getting enough folate. Once vegans got enough B12, they could finally fully exploit the benefits of their plant-based diets and come out with the lowest levels of all.

This is very similar to the findings in my video Vitamin B12 Necessary for Arterial Health.

For more details on ensuring a regular reliable source of vitamin B12:

There are more benefits to lowering your methionine intake. Check out Methionine Restriction as a Life Extension Strategy and Starving Cancer with Methionine Restriction.

For more on brain health in general, see these videos:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Image Credit: Thomas Hawk / Flickr. This image has been modified.

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The 3 Vitamins that Prevent Brain Loss

The 3 Vitamins that Prevent Brain Loss.jpeg

By our seventies, one in five of us will suffer from cognitive impairment. Within five years, half of those cognitively impaired will progress to dementia and death. The earlier we can slow or stop this process, the better.

Although an effective treatment for Alzheimer's disease is unavailable, interventions just to control risk factors could prevent millions of cases. An immense effort has been spent on identifying such risk factors for Alzheimer's and developing treatments to reduce them.

In 1990, a small study of 22 Alzheimer's patients reported high concentrations of homocysteine in their blood. The homocysteine story goes back to 1969 when a Harvard pathologist reported two cases of children, one dating back to 1933, whose brains had turned to mush. They both suffered from extremely rare genetic mutations that led to abnormally high levels of homocysteine in their bodies. Is it possible, he asked, that homocysteine could cause brain damage even in people without genetic defects?

Here we are in the 21st century, and homocysteine is considered "a strong, independent risk factor for the development of dementia and Alzheimer's disease." Having a blood level over 14 (µmol/L) may double our risk. In the Framingham Study, researchers estimate that as many as one in six Alzheimer's cases may be attributable to elevated homocysteine in the blood, which is now thought to play a role in brain damage and cognitive and memory decline. Our body can detoxify homocysteine, though, using three vitamins: folate, vitamin B12, and vitamin B6. So why don't we put them to the test? No matter how many studies find an association between high homocysteinea and cognitive decline, dementia, or Alzheimer's disease, a cause-and-effect role can only be confirmed by interventional studies.

Initially, the results were disappointing. Vitamin supplementation did not seem to work, but the studies were tracking neuropsychological assessments, which are more subjective compared to structural neuroimaging--that is, actually seeing what's happening to the brain. A double-blind randomized controlled trial found that homocysteine-lowering by B vitamins can slow the rate of accelerated brain atrophy in people with mild cognitive impairment. As we age, our brains slowly atrophy, but the shrinking is much accelerated in patients suffering from Alzheimer's disease. An intermediate rate of shrinkage is found in people with mild cognitive impairment. The thinking is if we could slow the rate of brain loss, we may be able to slow the conversion to Alzheimer's disease. Researchers tried giving people B vitamins for two years and found it markedly slowed the rate of brain shrinkage. The rate of atrophy in those with high homocysteine levels was cut in half. A simple, safe treatment can slow the accelerated rate of brain loss.

A follow-up study went further by demonstrating that B-vitamin treatment reduces, by as much as seven-fold, the brain atrophy in the regions specifically vulnerable to the Alzheimer's disease process. You can see the amount of brain atrophy over a two-year period in the placebo group versus the B-vitamin group in my Preventing Brain Loss with B Vitamins? video.

The beneficial effect of B vitamins was confined to those with high homocysteine, indicating a relative deficiency in one of those three vitamins. Wouldn't it be better to not become deficient in the first place? Most people get enough B12 and B6. The reason these folks were stuck at a homocysteine of 11 µmoles per liter is that they probably weren't getting enough folate, which is found concentrated in beans and greens. Ninety-six percent of Americans don't even make the minimum recommended amount of dark green leafy vegetables, which is the same pitiful number who don't eat the minimum recommendation for beans.

If we put people on a healthy diet--a plant-based diet--we can drop their homocysteine levels by 20% in just one week, from around 11 mmoles per liter down to 9 mmoles per liter. The fact that they showed rapid and significant homocysteine lowering without any pills or supplements implies that multiple mechanisms may have been at work. The researchers suggest it may be because of the fiber. Every gram of daily fiber consumption may increase folate levels in the blood nearly 2%, perhaps by boosting vitamin production in the colon by all our friendly gut bacteria. It also could be from the decreased methionine intake.

Methionine is where homocysteine comes from. Homocysteine is a breakdown product of methionine, which comes mostly from animal protein. If we give someone bacon and eggs for breakfast and a steak for dinner, we can get spikes of homocysteine levels in the blood. Thus, decreased methionine intake on a plant-based diet may be another factor contributing to lower, safer homocysteine levels.

The irony is that those who eat plant-based diets long-term, not just at a health spa for a week, have terrible homocysteine levels. Meat-eaters are up at 11 µmoles per liter, but vegetarians at nearly 14 µmoles per liter and vegans at 16 µmoles per liter. Why? The vegetarians and vegans were getting more fiber and folate, but not enough vitamin B12. Most vegans were at risk for suffering from hyperhomocysteinaemia (too much homocysteine in the blood) because most vegans in the study were not supplementing with vitamin B12 or eating vitamin B12-fortified foods, which is critical for anyone eating a plant-based diet. If you take vegans and give them B12, their homocysteine levels can drop down below 5. Why not down to just 11? The reason meat-eaters were stuck up at 11 is presumably because they weren't getting enough folate. Once vegans got enough B12, they could finally fully exploit the benefits of their plant-based diets and come out with the lowest levels of all.

This is very similar to the findings in my video Vitamin B12 Necessary for Arterial Health.

For more details on ensuring a regular reliable source of vitamin B12:

There are more benefits to lowering your methionine intake. Check out Methionine Restriction as a Life Extension Strategy and Starving Cancer with Methionine Restriction.

For more on brain health in general, see these videos:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Image Credit: Thomas Hawk / Flickr. This image has been modified.

Original Link

The Vitamin Everyone on a Plant-Based Diet Needs

NF-Dec18 The Vitamins that Every Vegan and Vegetarian Needs.jpg

A new study from China found that compared to omnivores, those who ate egg-free and meat-free diets had all the typical benefits of eating more plant-based: lower body mass index, lower blood pressure, lower triglyceride, lower total cholesterol, lower bad cholesterol, less free radical damage, etc. Having said that, if those on plant-based diets don't get enough vitamin B12, levels of an artery-damaging compound called homocysteine can start to rise in the bloodstream and may counteract some of the benefits of healthy eating.

In a study profiled in my video, Vitamin B12 Necessary for Arterial Health, a group of Taiwanese researchers found that the arteries of vegetarians were just as stiff as the omnivores and both had the same level of thickening in their carotid arteries, presumably because of the elevated homocysteine levels. The researchers concluded:

"The negative findings of these studies should not be considered as evidence of neutral cardiovascular effects of vegetarianism, but do indicate an urgent need for modification of vegan diets through vitamin B12 fortification or supplementation. Vitamin B12 deficiency is a very serious problem leading ultimately to anemia, neuropsychiatric disorders, irreversible nerve damage, and high levels of artery-damaging homocysteine in the blood. Prudent vegans should include sources of vitamin B12 in their diets."

One study of vegetarians whose B12 levels were really hurting found that they had even thicker, more dysfunctional arteries than omnivores. How do we know B12 was to blame? Because once they were given B12 supplements they got better. Their arterial lining started to shrink back, and the proper functioning of their arteries returned.

Without B12 fortified foods or B12 supplements, omnivores who were switched to a vegan diet developed vitamin B12 deficiency. Yes, it may take our blood levels dropping down to around 150 picomoles per liter to develop classic signs of B12 deficiency, like anemia or spinal cord degeneration, but way before that, we may start getting increased risk of cognitive deficits and brain shrinkage, stroke, depression, and nerve and bone damage. The rise in homocysteine may attenuate the beneficial effects of a vegetarian diet on cardiovascular health. The researchers concluded that while the beneficial effects of vegetarian diets on cholesterol and blood sugars "need to be advocated, but at the same time efforts to correct vitamin B12 deficiency in vegetarian diets can never be overestimated."

I have dozens of videos on B12. For a quick cut-to-the-chase see my Q&A What is the best way to get vitamin B12? and for some context Vegan B12 deficiency: putting it into perspective. Vitamin B12 supplementation with fortified foods or supplements is critical on a plant-based diet.

-Michael Greger, M.D

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, and From Table to Able.

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The Healthiest Diet for Weight Control

NF-Sep4 Why Plant-Based Might be the Healthiest Diet for Weight Control.jpg

We know that vegetarians tend to be slimmer, but there's a perception that veg diets may somehow be deficient in nutrients. So how's this for a simple study, profiled in my video Nutrient-Dense Approach to Weight Management: an analysis of the diets of 13,000 people, comparing the nutrient intake of those eating meat to those eating meat-free.

They found that those eating vegetarian were getting higher intakes of nearly every nutrient: more fiber, more vitamin A, more vitamin C, more vitamin E, more of the B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, & folate), more calcium, more magnesium, more iron, and more potassium. At the same time, they were also eating less of the harmful stuff like saturated fat and cholesterol. And yes, they got enough protein.

And some of those nutrients are the ones Americans really struggle to get enough of--like fiber, vitamins A, C, and E, calcium, magnesium, potassium--and those eating vegetarian got more of all of them. Even so, just because they did better than the standard American diet isn't saying much--they still didn't get as much as they should have. Those eating vegetarian ate significantly more dark green leafy vegetables, but that comes out to just two more teaspoons of greens than meat eaters on average every day.

In terms of weight management, the vegetarians were consuming, on average, 363 fewer calories every day. That's what people do when they go on a diet and restrict their food intake--but it seemed like that is how vegetarians just ate normally.

How sustainable are more plant-based diets long term? They are among the only type of diet that has been shown to be sustainable long-term, perhaps because not only do people lose weight but they often feel so much better.

And there's no calorie counting or portion control. In fact, vegetarians may burn more calories in their sleep. Those eating more plant-based diets appear to have an 11% higher resting metabolic rate. Both vegetarians and vegans seem to have a naturally revved up metabolism compared to those eating meat.

Having said that, the vegetarians in the first study mentioned were also eating eggs and dairy, so while they were significantly slimmer than those eating meat, they were still, on average, overweight. As profiled in my video, Thousands of Vegans Studied, the only dietary pattern associated on average with an ideal body weight was a strictly plant-based one. But at least the study helps to dispel the myth that meat-free diets are somehow nutrient-deficient. In fact, the editor-in-chief of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association asked, "What could be more nutrient dense than a vegetarian diet?"

Anyone can lose weight in the short term on nearly any diet, but diets don't seem to work in the long-term. That's because we don't need a "diet"; we need a new way of eating that we can comfortably stick with throughout our lives. If that's the case, then we better choose to eat in a way that will most healthfully sustain us. That's why a plant-based diet may offer the best of both worlds. It's the only diet, for example, shown to reverse heart disease-our number one killer-in the majority of patients, as described in my video: One in a Thousand: Ending the Heart Disease Epidemic.

There are a number of theories offered as to why those eating plant-based are, on average, so much slimmer. Check out these videos for more information:

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, and From Table to Able.

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Food Dyes and ADHD

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Food Dyes and ADHD

There are currently thousands of additives in our food supply. Some are good—like supplementing foods with vitamin B12, for example (See Vitamin B12 Necessary for Arterial Health). Other additives involve weighing the risks and benefits. Take nitrites in processed meats. Yes, they may increase our risk of cancer but, as preservatives, they decrease our risk of dying from botulism (See When Nitrates Go Bad and Bacon and Botulism). Then there are additives used for purely cosmetic purposes, like food dyes, used to provide color to colorless and “fun” foods. According to the FDA, “Without color additives, colas wouldn’t be brown, margarine wouldn’t be yellow and mint ice cream wouldn’t be green.” Heavens forbid! Color additives are now recognized as an important part of practically all processed foods we eat.

Because we’re eating a lot more processed foods, we’re now getting five times more food dyes in our daily diet than we were 50 years ago. Fifteen million pounds of food dyes are used every year in foods, drugs, and cosmetics in the United States.

I always wondered why they called them, for example, Blue #1 instead of their actual chemical name in the list of ingredients. Then, after reading this report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, I realized why. Picture a box of Kraft mac and cheese. It has Yellow #5. Would people be as likely to buy this product if instead of Yellow #5 it listed Trisodium 1-(4-sulfonatophenyl)-4-(4-sulfonatophenylazo)-5-(pyrazolone-3-carboxylate) on the label?

The list of food dyes used to be longer (See Artificial Food Colors and ADHD), but different dyes kept getting banned—including Violet #1, which, ironically, was the color used in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s meat inspection stamp, so they may have been actually further cancer-ing up the meat.

Years ago I featured a landmark study in my video Are Artificial Colors Bad for You?, a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled food challenge in perhaps the most prestigious medical journal in the world. It showed that artificial colors increased "inattentiveness, impulsivity, and hyperactivity among young children." So what happened? Well, the British government said, OK, there’re no health benefits to these dyes, only health risks, so it’s a no-brainer. They mandated that food manufacturers remove most of the artificial food colors from products. In fact, the whole European Union said that if manufacturers want to keep using the dyes, then they have to put a warning label stating: “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.” Many international food companies have taken them out of their products in Europe, but continue to use them in the same products here in the U.S. where similar regulations are not currently in place. Why did the U.S. government take steps to get rid of them as well?

The FDA put together a committee that looked at the landmark study and conceded that the food additives may have resulted in changes in behavior, but the “type of treatment effects reported in the study, even though the investigators referred to increases in levels of ‘hyperactivity,’ were not the disruptive excessive hyperactivity behaviors of ADHD but more likely the type of over-activity exhibited occasionally by the general population of preschool and school age children.” A distinguished toxicologist basically responded, “look, low level lead exposure may only shave off a few IQ points off of kids, but just because they’d still fall within a normal range, doesn’t mean it’s OK to expose it to our kids.” And looking back now, the lead in leaded gas may have been causing brain cancer and possibly even urban violence—the aggravated assault rate in cities around the U.S. seemed to closely follow the lead levels in the air.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest continues to call on the FDA to ban food dyes and for food companies to voluntarily stop using them. Good luck with that. In the meantime, some researchers recently suggested a way to see which food colors may be damaging our child’s brain, advising parents to test artificial colors by purchasing little bottles of food dyes at the grocery store. Then have their kid do some homework or something and then have them chug down an artificial color and see if it affects their handwriting/reading/math at 30 minutes, at 90 minutes, and 3 hours. They also see if they get irritable later, have problems sleeping, and so on. If that’s OK, they say you should try even more to see if more will mess with their mind. If I may offer an alternate suggestion, maybe we shouldn’t buy our kids processed junk in the first place.

This whole saga reminds me of the artificial flavor in my video Butter-Flavored Microwave Popcorn or Breathing. It’s amazing what the food industry is able to get away with. There’s even sometimes Artificial Coloring in Fish.

There is a campaign to get Kraft to remove yellow #5 from their mac & cheese, but even if the stuff didn’t glow in the dark it’s still just a blob of sodium (750 mg), saturated fat (4.5 g), and trans fat (2.8 g). The food movement might better spend its time encouraging healthier fare altogether.

How can we get our kids to eat less processed junk? I review some practical tips in my videos Tricks to Get Kids to Eat Healthier at School and Tricks to Get Kids to Eat Healthier at Home. 

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death and More Than an Apple a Day.

Image Credit: Asif Ali / Flickr

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