By John Malanca
For most of us, memory loss and cognitive decline are considered a normal part of getting older. We use terms like “memory fog,” “senior moments,” and “senility” to describe symptoms of brain diseases that have become an accepted part of the aging process.
So let’s set the record straight:
Memory loss is NOT a normal part of aging. Cognitive decline and memory loss (including Alzheimer’s disease) are signs of unhealthy aging. Likewise, the causes of Alzheimer’s are almost always brain damage or neurological decay, both of which are either treatable or preventable. Things like concussions, vascular issues, and even emotional trauma can damage our brains and wreak all kinds of havoc.
There are many other contributing factors, but virtually all memory loss and cognitive decline can be attributed to some type of brain cell death. The question is: how do we fix it? The most obvious answer would be to avoid anything that causes brain damage – concussions, emotional trauma, infections, clogged arteries, etc. But that isn’t always realistic. Many times, we suffer these injuries by accident. Other problems can be genetic or triggered by other diseases.
In this article, we want to talk about the underlying causes of Alzheimer’s disease and how the sacred plant may be the key to stopping or even preventing a disease that affects tens of millions of people around the world. Although this is not meant to be used as medical advice, our hope is that a better understanding of Alzheimer’s disease, its underlying causes, and the benefits of medical cannabis can help you and your loved ones live longer, happier, and healthier lives.
But first, let’s talk about what Alzheimer’s disease really is.
Named after the German psychiatrist who first described it, Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia and is an irreversible, progressive neurological disorder. Dementia can vary widely in severity, characterized by a loss of cognitive function and changes in behavior, and it is common for more than one form of dementia to manifest in a single patient. For example, Alzheimer’s disease will commonly occur alongside vascular dementia.
Alzheimer’s disease usually develops in people older than 65 years; that is termed “late-onset Alzheimer’s disease.” However, in rarer cases, the disease also can develop in people younger than 65, which is called “early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.”
Alzheimer’s is a progressive disorder, which means that the number and severity of symptoms will increase gradually over time. The main symptom is memory loss, which is often accompanied by symptoms like impulsive behavior, mood and personality changes, hallucinations, and confusion.
While the exact cause of Alzheimer’s disease is not known, we do know that brain damage and neurological decay are present in virtually all dementias. Amyloid plaques have been found in the brains of patients with Alzheimer’s disease and are thought to be one of the reasons behind this disease. Another suspected cause is tau protein tangles.
These plaques are a unique protein that builds up in certain areas of the brain. The presence of these proteins destroys the cells that control memory and other cognitive functions. This buildup is due to an imbalance in the production of peptides. It is hypothesized that if the balance is corrected early enough, it may be possible to avoid Alzheimer’s disease. But when the proteins continue to accumulate, patients reach a “point of no return,” wherein the neurological damage reaches a level that produces symptoms of dementia.
As Alzheimer’s disease progresses, brain tissue shrinks. However, the ventricles, chambers within the brain that contain cerebrospinal fluid are noticeably enlarged. In the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, short-term memory begins to decline when the cells in the hippocampus degenerate. Patients begin to lose the ability to perform routine tasks.
As Alzheimer’s disease spreads through the cerebral cortex (the outer layer of the brain), judgment worsens, emotional outbursts may occur, and language becomes impaired. Advancement of the disease leads to the death of more nerve cells and subsequent changes in behavior, such as wandering and agitation. In the final stages, people may lose the ability to feed themselves, speak, recognize people and control bodily functions.
From there, memory worsens and may become almost non-existent. Constant care is typically necessary. On average, those with Alzheimer’s live for 8 to 10 years after diagnosis, but the disease can last for as long as 20 years.
Due to exciting new science and research, we are beginning to learn how to avoid (and stop the progression of) Alzheimer’s disease.
Before we begin, it’s important to understand exactly how cannabinoids work with the brain. For that, we need to take a look at the ECS. The main job of the endocannabinoid system is to maintain balance (known as homeostasis) within the body as a whole in response to an ever-changing environment such as eating habits, level of stress, air quality, and much more. In addition to being a modulator, it’s secondary responsibilities are to protect and repair cells.
According to the University of California, Los Angeles Cannabis Research Initiative, “Taxonomic investigation has revealed that the endocannabinoid system is incredibly old, having evolved over 500 million years ago. Moreover, it is present in all vertebrates—mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, etc. … all produce endocannabinoids.”
Think of endocannabinoids as unique keys that fit into millions of little locks throughout our bodies. Plant-based cannabinoids have the unique ability to mimic these keys and unlock doors that may otherwise have remained shut.
What makes cannabis unique are cannabinoids. What is even more unique is that there is a direct relationship between the body systems of all vertebrates, and the cannabinoids that exist in all three forms of cannabis: cannabis indica, cannabis sativa, and cannabis ruderalis (i.e. hemp).
There’s evidence that cannabis can help with memory, epilepsy, autoimmune disease, brain trauma, stroke, PTSD, depression, and more. Cannabis is able to help with nearly all of these afflictions thanks to the endocannabinoid system, the ECS. And although the current research is encouraging, we are still in the early stages of our journey. Thirty years ago, scientists had no idea that this extensive system even existed.
The endocannabinoid system works naturally to prevent and repair damage. For example, after a head injury, there’s an excessive amount of glutamate, which – in excess – can damage neurons. This is called excitotoxicity. Because the glutamate neurotransmitter is a stimulatory neurotransmitter, it causes excitation in the next neuron as opposed to inhibition. This means that it is signaling the neuron to “fire.”
If you have too much glutamate in your brain, you are prone to excitotoxicity. This causes an increase in acetylcholine and leads to excessive levels of anxiousness, fear, insomnia, restlessness, and more, making it imperative that we find a way to bring those levels back down.
The endocannabinoid system has a natural response built in to reduce the damage. There is a spike in anandamide and 2-Arachidonoylglycerol (2AG) – which are the two primary endocannabinoid molecules. These molecules work to reduce the amount of glutamate being produced, naturally protecting your brain from incurring initial or further damage.
Both phyto- and synthetic cannabinoids can bind to the ECS receptors, altering neural communication via neurotransmitters such as acetylcholine, GABA, dopamine and serotonin. Disrupted activity of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine in the brain, for instance, directly impairs processes such as learning, memory, restful sleep and other cognitive functions. Indeed, many of dementia’s symptoms are linked to disruption in acetylcholine (neuro-muscular) activity and this neurotransmitter is a primary target of current dementia medications.
Although medical research into cannabis has been limited because of prohibition, the research that has been conducted on the treatment of Alzheimer’s Disease with medical cannabis has yielded encouraging results. Multiple studies have looked at the relationship between THC and the brain. As mentioned previously, one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s is the buildup of amyloid plaques in the neural tissues.
A study published in 2008 showed that THC slowed the growth of beta-amyloid. This was seen again in a 2014 study appearing in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. The researchers determined that THC was, “a considerably more effective inhibitor of AChE-induced Aβ deposition than the approved drugs for Alzheimer’s disease treatment, donepezil and tacrine, which reduced Aβ aggregation by only 22% and 7%, respectively, at twice the concentration used in our studies.”
Another way that cannabis helps stop the progression of Alzheimer’s is the reduction of inflammation caused by the buildup of amyloid plaque. By activating the CB1 receptor sites, cannabis creates an anti-inflammatory effect which aids in slowing down cognitive decline.
CBD has also been shown to prevent brain cell death, in addition to THC. Researchers in 2004 noted that CBD contains neuroprotective, anti-oxidative, and anti-apoptotic properties, which is important as it can reduce the neurotoxicity caused by the amyloid buildup in the brain.
Additionally, cannabinoids have been shown to play a role in promoting the growth of neural tissue in the hippocampus — the area of the brain associated with learning new memories and regulating emotions. Perhaps the most compelling reason for many Alzheimer’s patients to turn to medical cannabis, is its ability to improve their quality of life by alleviating many of its symptoms.
Medical cannabis has been shown to help by stimulating appetite, boosting motor functions, controlling anxiety, providing restorative sleep, and treating depression. While the research into medical cannabis shows how it can be beneficial in slowing the progression of the disease, the improved quality of life is often reason enough for many patients to pursue a medical cannabis protocol.
Due to almost a century of false media stories, many people view cannabis as “bad” for our brains. But the truth is that cannabis can be a powerful medicine by protecting against a series of changes in brain chemistry that occur during normal aging.
PET imaging studies of humans have shown that, after age thirty, the brain gradually displays increasing evidence of inflammation. With advancing age, brain inflammation continues to worsen, leading to a decline in the production of new neurons (a process known as neurogenesis) that are important for making new memories.
Much research energy has been spent devising ways of getting rid of amyloid beta plaques because it was thought that if you get rid of the plaques, you can prevent Alzheimer’s disease. Further research shows, the proteins that form these plaques have other important contributions to brain cell function, so if you get rid of the proteins, there are other severe consequences that are likely to occur.
An alternative approach could be to limit the harmful consequences of having plaques. Mainly, neutralize the damaging free radicals and reduce the harmful inflammatory processes. Fortunately, studies indicate that the prominent cannabinoids tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), are good at helping with both.
THC and CBD are potent antioxidants and have anti-inflammatory properties. These are important qualities because brain inflammation is thought to be a major contributor to Alzheimer’s disease. So it’s not surprising that anti-inflammatory drugs, like non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (like ibuprofen) reduce the risk for developing Alzheimer’s. But these drugs, especially their chronic use, can damage the kidneys. Many cannabinoids have been used with little or no side effects, making cannabis a much safer alternative to traditional drugs.
Numerous studies using mouse models reveal that CBD blunts the ability of amyloid plaques to induce inflammation, thereby limiting their toxic effects on brain cells. But CBD can also reduce the plaques themselves by activating one of its many targets, the PPAR-γ receptor, which improves brain cell survival.
This PPAR-γ receptor is an important target for CBD’s treatment benefits in this disease. A phase II clinical trial found that an activator of PPAR-γ successfully improved cognition and memory in patients with Alzheimer’s disease. CBD may also protect against the development of neurofibrillary tangles in cases where amyloid beta plaques are the root cause.
The benefits of CBD on memory and cognition result largely from its ability to protect the brain’s hippocampus from toxins and disease. One important way CBD seems to protect these brain cells is by reducing the activation of microglia.
Microglia make up 10% of the cells in the brain. They’re similar to neurons and are “activated” following injury or in disease. Although the purpose of microglia is to protect other brain cells, their chronic activation leads to more harm than good. Activated microglia release glutamate, cytokines, and other substances which, over time, kill neurons.
Not surprisingly, activated microglia are prevalent in Alzheimer’s patients and contribute to the disease. Some of the current strategies to block the release of harmful chemicals from microglia have serious side effects which preclude their clinical use. Cannabis, however, presents a well-tolerated strategy to dampen the activation of these microglia.
THC has also been found to promote the removal of toxic clumps of amyloid beta protein in the brain, which are thought to kickstart the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
“Although other studies have offered evidence that cannabinoids might be neuroprotective against the symptoms of Alzheimer’s, we believe our study is the first to demonstrate that cannabinoids affect both inflammation and amyloid beta accumulation in nerve cells,” says David Schubert from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California.
Schubert and his colleagues tested the effects of THC on human neurons grown in the lab that mimic the effects of Alzheimer’s disease. The study has demonstrated that THC, among other cannabinoids, may not just slow down but even remove a significant amount of amyloid beta protein from brain cells. The study also showed that cannabinoids could counteract inflammation in nerve cells and prevent associated brain cell death.
This shows that THC may have a protective role to play in the prevention of Alzheimer’s and other brain degenerative diseases.
Unfortunately, brain damage is almost impossible to reverse once it’s occurred. While we can prevent and even minimize this damage, researchers have not yet discovered a way to regenerate these cells once they’ve been destroyed.
But the current research shows great promise. As we mentioned earlier, Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease. Slowing or stopping its progression would represent a huge advance in the prognosis and quality of life for patients. And once again, the sacred plant may be the key to stopping neural degeneration – and potentially stopping the disease from getting worse. It can also help with many of the symptoms of dementia.
In one mice-based study, THC, CBD and other cannabinoids were combined and administered to the subjects while they were experiencing the early symptomatic stage of Alzheimer’s. THC and CBD did the most to “prevent learning impairment,” and there was change in the plaques responsible for building up and causing memory blockages.
Even though medical research into cannabis has been stifled due to legal roadblocks, the research that has been conducted into treating Alzheimer’s Disease with medical cannabis has yielded encouraging results. Multiple studies have looked at the relationship between the cannabinoid known as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and the brain.
As we discussed above, THC has been shown to be effective in reduction of these amyloid plaques. It has the potential to reduce the inflammation caused by the plaque buildup, while CBD can help prevent brain cell death. CBD is also a neuroprotective and anti-oxidative. Furthermore, cannabinoids have been shown to play a role in promoting the growth of neural tissue in the hippocampus – the area of the brain which is associated with forming new memories and regulating emotions. Perhaps the most compelling reason that many Alzheimer’s patients are turning to medical cannabis is its ability to improve their quality of life by alleviating many of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s.
Some of the ways medical cannabis can help include stimulating appetite, boosting motor functions, controlling anxiety, providing restorative sleep, and treating depression. While the research into medical cannabis is showing how it can be beneficial in slowing the progression of the disease, the improved quality of life is often reason enough for many patients to pursue a medical cannabis protocol.
In a world where instant gratification is the standard, an easy and immediate fix to problems is expected. For the most part, conventional western medicine employs a “one-size-fits-all” approach. Our bodies and minds are incredibly unique. The sacred plant represents a fundamental shift in the way we approach medicine.
The chemical makeup of each body is unique and treatment protocols should be unique as well. Personality, life events, genetic predisposition, lifestyle, sex, age and social environment are only a few examples of individual factors that influence our health and potential disease progression. The goal of individualized medicine is to focus on the whole person and less on the condition, resulting in customized prevention, diagnosis, and therapy.
One of the benefits of personalized medicine is that it empowers patients with control over their treatment. The patient (along with a qualified practitioner) decides which formulation best suits their treatment goals and what dosing amount and schedule is most appropriate. This alone makes the experience more personal.
We want to give you some useful information that you can use immediately, but without knowing you and your specific conditions, it would be impossible to accurately or ethically make recommendations about your care.
However, we can give you some general guidelines that you can use as a “jumping off” point for finding the perfect protocol for you based off what the research has shown us so far. Just remember that your comfort and safety are the top priority. We strongly recommend working with a physician when creating your treatment plan.
Ideal Formulation: THC, CBD, THCa, CBC, Linalool, Pinene
Recommended Dose: Type II ratio. Approximately 2.5mg whole plant to start, then up to 20mg as needed.
Recommended Delivery Method: Capsules or Tinctures
Special Notes: Potential intoxication can be especially overwhelming for patients in mid-to-late stages of dementia. It’s always best to start with a whole-plant extract first to evaluate the patient’s tolerance. Consider sleeping and eating schedules when evaluating side effects of the new medicine.
While there is still much to learn about the causes of Alzheimer’s disease and the therapeutic effects of cannabis, preliminary research and anecdotal evidence suggests that using cannabis to unlock the natural healing power of the endocannabinoid system may be the key to stopping and preventing this awful disease.
Although the information contained in this article is not meant to be used as medical advice, we hope that it will increase your understanding of Alzheimer’s disease and provide you with a starting point for finding the perfect personalized protocol for you.
Want to learn more about medical cannabis and how this amazing plant can help restore and regenerate optimal brain health for years to come?
Discover how medical cannabis can safely protect, heal, and strengthen your brain in my NEW book Medical Cannabis For Alzheimer’s, Dementia, and Other Brain Conditions available now at 43% off for a limited time.
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