Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia and a general term for memory loss and other intellectual disabilities serious enough to interfere with daily life, affects 5.6 million Americans. According to The Lancet Neurology, a well-respected medical journal on brain research, Alzheimer’s, which presently has no cure, is preventable.
“Lifestyle choices, like aerobic exercise and eating plenty of healthy fats and reducing carbohydrates, affect overall brain health, as well as the risk of Alzheimer’s,” says Dr. David Perlmutter, a board-certified neurologist and author of the new bestselling book, Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth about Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar—Your Brain’s Silent Killers.
Food is a powerful epigenetic modulator—it can enable or hamper our DNA, thus regulating the expression of many genes. Experts have only begun to understand the damaging consequences of wheat consumption. “Grain Brain is a timely wake-up call about how we are increasingly challenging human physiology by consuming what we are not genetically prepared to process, like the 133 pounds of wheat the average American eats annually,” says Perlmutter. He believes that one of the main culprits for the decline in brain health in modern times has been the introduction of wheat into the human diet. Today’s modernized and hybridized wheat crops share little genetic, structural or chemical similarity to the wild einkorn variety of grain our ancestors consumed in small amounts.
In the West, 20 percent of calories come from wheat-based food. Perlmutter is among those that regard this as a dangerous statistic, especially since Dr. Alessio Fasano, a pediatric gastroenterologist and research scientist who leads the Center for Celiac Research & Treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital, in Boston, found that the gluten in wheat leads to the production of zonulin in the gut. Zonulin increases the permeability of the intestinal wall, allowing proteins to leak from the gut into the bloodstream, explains Perlmutter. These proteins, which would normally remain within the digestive system, then challenge parts of the immune system, the macro fascia and certain other types of white blood cells that increase production of inflammation-related chemicals.
“Zonulin is the cornerstone of diseases characterized by inflammation in the brain—Alzheimer’s, autism, Parkinson’s and attention deficit disorders—as well as autoimmune diseases,” advises Perlmutter. Fasano’s research shows that such a reaction to zonulin is present in 100 percent of humans—not just in the 1.8 percent of the population that have celiac disease or 30 percent that are gluten sensitive. “A hallmark of what I term grain brain is that brain dysfunction is predicated on the inflammation from consumption of gluten, as well as the long chains of sugar molecules known as carbohydrates,” says Perlmutter. “This includes fruit, which also was consumed in limited quantities by our ancestors.” He cites a published analysis by Loren Cordain, Ph.D., author of The Paleo Diet.
A diet high in carbohydrates has been directly related to atrophy, or brain shrinkage, according to a recent German study by University of Bonn researchers, published in Neurology. A blood text for hemoglobin A1C, the standard laboratory measurement to assess average blood sugar, is frequently used in studies that correlate blood sugar control to disease processes like Alzheimer’s, mild cognitive impairment and coronary artery disease. The researchers concluded that elevated hemoglobin A1C is directly associated with brain shrinkage, says Perlmutter.
He further notes, “The function of the brain, which is 60 to 70 percent fat and maintained by the fats you consume, depends on its environment.” Grain Brain recommends a diet that’s aggressively low in carbohydrates (60 grams per day) and bountiful in supportive brain fats. These include extra-virgin olive oil, sesame oil, coconut oil, ghee, almond milk, avocados, olives, nuts, nut butters, cheese and seeds such as flaxseed, sunflower, pumpkin, sesame and chia. It is also rich in above-ground vegetables such as kale, broccoli, spinach, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and salad greens, while relatively low in below-ground vegetables like beets, carrots and potatoes, which are higher in carbohydrates. It also calls for reduced fruit consumption.
“Having two to four servings of fruit every day, based on America’s present food pyramid, is not helpful. More in line with avoiding brain drain is an apple or a handful of berries, or about 100 calories worth of any fruit. In my opinion, the pyramid needs to be stood on its head,” advises Perlmutter. “We should eat a diet similar to what our ancestors survived on for 2.6 million years and reprogram support of our genetic destiny for the better.”
Dr. David Perlmutter is a board-certified neurologist, Fellow of the American College of Nutrition and author of Grain Brain. For more information on his PBS Grain Brain series, visit DrPerlmutter.com.