The Natural Approach to Alzheimers
Dr. W. M. Bortz II
Q: Have you ever heard that natural
medicines (herbs) could help or even possibly reverse the symptoms of Alzheimers
disease? If so, what are your views on this and would you be open to discussion on this
A: I would bet that some herb or another
has been proposed for every ailment from which the human family suffers. In one way this
is natural. Since prehistory, mankind has sought remedies for every bruise and misery that
came its way. Before scientific medicine made its legitimate entry only a little over a
century ago with Louis Pasteurs demonstration of the bacterial origin of illness,
all the medicines available were assorted ground roots, berries, powdered animal horns and
the like much like the Chinese apothecary shops of today.
by chemical science has allowed us now to isolate and purify the exact pure compounds
intended for therapeutic use. Certainly the modern pharmaceutical industry is an immense
advance. It provides thousands of specific drugs for specific purposes.
But modern pharmacy certainly is not the whole answer
to illness, although some people would like it to be. It is a constant truth that
prevention is far better than cure, even when the possibility of one exists. Polio comes
immediately to mind. There never was, is, or will be a cure for polio but,
thankfully, we no longer need to search for one since polio is now only seen largely in
the history books.
Alzheimers disease is polio's cousin. This
horrible condition maims millions of people and lacks a cure but were
searching. No cure is found in the drugstore, so it is logical to see if Mother Nature may
offer something of value that has not been suspected. Enter Ginkgo biloba. This
herbal compound, derived from the ancient ginkgo tree has been extensively employed in
Europe Germany, in particular for dementia. Many positive results have been
reported, but close reading of these reports reveals the poor nature of the studies, made
worse by the lack of standardization of the ginkgo extract itself. The active ingredients
are possibly flavonoids and isoprenoids, chemical substances common to many plants.
Experts say these act as anti-oxidants, but this is not established. Ginkgo conceivably
could increase blood flow to the brain.
Ginkgos use for Alzheimers disease
receives support by an article published in 1999 in the Journal of the American Medical
Association which showed a mild improvement in the symptoms of a group of patients
Besides ginkgo, experimenters have tried ginseng, the
hormone DHEA, Vitamin E and superoxide dismutase (SOD) in an effort to slow or reverse the
awful progress of Alzheimers disease. To date, no enthusiasm for any of these
approaches has occurred, which leaves G. biloba as the herbal choice. I am aware
that greatly expanded research efforts are under way, including one at my parent
institution, Stanford University, to see whether ginkgo helps or not. This will involve
recruiting a large number of Alzheimer's patients and conducting a double-blind study to
see whether it helps.
Certainly, the pharmaceutical industry has not found
any magic bullet. Knowing that Alzheimers disease brain tissue has low levels of the
neurotransmitter acetylcholine, efforts have been instituted trying to increase this
substance by giving a drug. Tacrine and Aricept have been marketed in this effort with
very little medical enthusiasm. Other nonspecific medicines including estrogens and the
anti-inflammatory drugs are employed.
To me, the fact that we have not found the
answer, no miracle drug, is not at all surprising. As you look at brain specimens
from people who died with Alzheimers disease and witness the awful gummy mess that
burdens the delicate brain tissue, it is simply unrealistic to think that taking a pill
could prove effective in restoring the original circuitry. Again, reference to polio is
appropriate. Polio is the destruction of the anterior portion of the spinal cord by the
polio virus. Looking at the spinal cord of a polio victim reveals what looks like a
frazzled telephone cable. What pill could you imagine that would serve to untangle that
mess? It's impossible.
So, we confront the awful disease of Alzheimers unarmed with the
likelihood of a cure anytime soon, if ever. But that should not make us lose heart. To the contrary, in my view our understanding of
Alzheimers disease is exploding. What I am hoping for so desperately is a vaccine, a
preventive that once universally applied will make Alzheimers disease a historical
relic too. That will be a joyous day for all humanity.
But in the meantime, we wait. There is no good reason
not to try G. biloba, but it is inappropriate to hold out great hope for much
improvement from it. The positive placebo effect is strong, particularly when a person is
so eager to find improvement.
For me, I would advocate taking the money you would
spend for the ginkgo and give it instead to the Alzheimers Disease and Related
Diseases Association for their research. It is a cause worthy of all our constant support.