Why do people who have or who are risk for Alzheimer's Disease (AD) need antioxidants? One way to visualize the effects of oxidants and antioxidants is to imagine a bug zapper in your brain.
For those of you who live in large cities or in blissfully bug-free environments, or, if you are like me, you don’t kill bugs, a bug zapper is an electrical device that traps and zaps flying insects.
On a molecular level, no organ in the human body generates more “electricity” than the brain. Although the brain comprises only about 5 percent of the body’s mass, it uses 25 percent of the body’s oxygen. A trillion times a day, every cell in the brain absorbs a molecule of oxygen and releases nearly a molecule of water.
The process of combining hydrogen (from sugar) with oxygen releases electrons that the “battery” of the cell stores in ATP. About 20 billion times a day, however, something goes wrong. The cell becomes charged in a way that oxygen trying to go inside is “zapped” and acquires an electrical charge without providing energy for the cell.
These oxygen radicals can attack protein and produce free radicals of nitric oxide. They can interact with the cholesterol that lines (and is supposed to line) the brain cell and create free radicals of hydrogen peroxide.
Or they can “miss a turn” in the mitochondria, the energy-producing organelle of the cell, and escape as a free radicals of molecular oxygen. Instead of “burning” glucose, free radicals of oxygen can burn carbohydrates in the structure of the cell.
“Flying” unhindered through the brain, free radicals of oxygen can spread damage far away from where they are created. Free radicals are about fifty times more abundant in the brains of smokers. In smokers, each cell operates as a zapper not just 20 billion times a day but almost all the time.
Theoretically—no one actually knows—consuming very large amounts (several ounces a day) of absinthe, anise, basil, caraway, dill, marjoram, mustard, rosemary, sage, savory, tarragon, thyme, or drinking enormous volumes of coffee, on the order of 40 cups a day, would have the same effect on free radicals on the brain (although smaller amounts of some of these foods can protect against oxidation).
The problem is that the brain is poorly equipped to deal with antioxidants. Bloodstream antioxidants do not readily circulate to the brain, and the brain has few antioxidant mechanisms in its own tissues.
Amazingly, the plasticity of the brain allows it to function even in the lightning storm of free radicals, at least for most of life. As long as it gets an occasional break from the process (described above), however, the brain can rewire itself and continue to function.
But if glucose from food always pours into the brain, the process of oxidation and free radical production continues unabated. Like a bug zapper that runs all the time, burned tissue gradually accumulates and short circuits the tissues of the brain, interfering with sensation, muscular control, memory, language, and reasoning.
When the symptoms of AD set in, it’s too late just to give the brain a rest. The whole mechanism of free radical production has to be drastically reduced. This is done with chemicals that catch the “flying electrons” before they can do damage, antioxidants. And when the cells of the brain do not contain a gene called APOE epsilon 4, outside antioxidants are the only way to restore the integrity of the brain.
What foods supply antioxidants?
The most antioxidant-rich foods are foods that are almost never recommended for Alzheimer’s: rose hips (specifically, hips of the dog rose, Rosa canina, which can be eaten whole, as an addition to salads, in jams, and jellies), walnuts, pomegranate, blackcurrants, blueberries, and sunflower seeds. Dried apricots and prunes, Ancho peppers, strawberries, bell peppers, red (or “purple”) cabbage, and kale are also high on the list. These foods are by far the best for treating and preventing AD.
Common foods such as carrots and tomatoes play other roles in the diet, but they do not help AD. Eating these foods is more important than taking supplements, and also far less expensive. However, if you cannot eat or serve these foods, antioxidant supplements may also be effective. Photo Credit: Ahypodejos