An Ancient Herb is Getting Well-Deserved Attention for Alzheimer's
Drug companies have been scrambling for years to develop prescription medications that treat Alzheimer’s and other degenerative brain diseases. As many of us know, their success has been limited.
At the same time, cutting-edge researchers are discovering that certain natural substances that have been used successfully for thousands of years by natural healers are outshining their synthetic counterparts, often dramatically.
Here’s a case in point. Ashwagandha is an herb derived from the roots of a small evergreen tree. For centuries alternative practitioners in India have used it to treat rheumatoid arthritis, anxiety, fatigue, gastrointestinal problems and even sexual potency. In fact, its healing powers are so far-reaching, that ashwagandha is often dubbed the "wonder herb".
Now, this wonder herb is finding its place in mainstream medicine "•including the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.
At the National Brain Research Centre in India, researchers conducted studies on mice with the equivalent of Alzheimer’s. The animals were unable to learn or retain new information. But after being given ashwagandha for 20 days, their symptoms improved dramatically. After 30 days, their learning and retention returned to normal.(1) That’s an amazing reversal.
Here’s what the researchers learned about how ashwagandha works in the body. Rather than having a direct effect on the brain, ashwagandha instead impacts the liver to produce a protein that helps clear beta-amyloid from the brain. Beta-amyloid is the protein fragment that accumulates in the brain causing plaque to build up that prevents brain cells from communicating. This is a major contributor to Alzheimer’s disease.
And that’s just for starters. Along with removing beta-amyloid plaque, ashwagandha blocks the harmful effects of stress due to excess cortisol production, a process that causes major damage to your brain and is another contributor to Alzheimer’s. In the largest human study to date, ashwagandha was shown to reduce cortisol levels by up to 26%.(2)
Still more research has shown that ashwagandha derivatives extended the length of neurites in both normal animals and those with damaged brain cells due to Alzheimer’s.(3) Neurites are the neuronal projections that enable communication between brain cells. Damaged or shortened neurites are another hallmark of Alzheimer’s.
Free radical damage is another contributing factor in the development of Alzheimer’s. In 2010, researchers found that extracts from ashwagandha called withanamides can manage brain cell damage caused by free radicals in test animals. They concluded that that these extracts may be even more potent than the antioxidant protection provided by vitamins A, C, and D.(4)
We can conclude from this research that ashwagandha has the potential of stopping or reversing the progression of Alzheimer’s by four significant markers:
- Helping to clear beta-amyloid plaque from the brain and returning brain function to normal.
- Blocking the damaging effects of cortisol on the brain and dramatically reducing its level in the body.
- Restoring the length of neuronal projections, enabling brain cells to communicate.
- Reducing the effects of free radical damage to brain cells by providing potent antioxidant protection.
- Neurosignals. 2005;14(1-2):34-45.
- Phytother Res. 2010 Jun;24(6):859-63.
Dharma S. Khalsa, M.D., is President and Medical Director of the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation in Tucson, Arizona. The ARPF is dedicated to fighting Alzheimer’s disease and finding a cure through research and prevention. Dr. Khalsa wrote about Alzheimer’s for HealthCentral.