Considering Some Alternatives For Alzheimer’s

Yesterday, we took a look some of the complementary and alternative approaches to the treatment of Alzheimer’s Disease, a devastating illness that affects nearly 4.5 million Americans.  We focused on what the scientific evidence call tell us about the safety and effectiveness of treating Alzheimer’s symptoms with antioxidants and Asian ginseng.  Today, we will take on cat’s claw, ginkgo and grape seed extract, three perhaps promising and popular CAM remedies.

Remember that defining CAM is very difficult.  CAM is generally described as a group of various and diverse medical and health care systems, treatments, practices and products that are not, as a rule, considered part of conventional medicine‘s arsenal.  CAM theories and treatments are hard to evaluate using Western scientific models; suitable clinical trials to test CAM therapies are very difficult to design.  Different, of course, is not necessarily wrong, but before any therapy is offered to any patient, it must be deemed both safe and effective.

The world of CAM treatments and therapies is being thoughtfully explored by more Western-trained doctors, scientists and health care professionals every day.  The men and women who daily work with ill and suffering patients and their families are always seeking ever better ways to manage disease, pain and recovery.  Doubtless more CAM approaches will win Western approval – but not before the evidence says it’s okay.

Cat’s Claw

The scientific evidence:

  • The National Institute on Aging has funded a study that examined how cat’s claw affects the brain.  At this point, there is not enough scientific evidence to decide if, or how, cat’s claw works for Alzheimer’s or any other health or medical condition.  Future findings may lead to the development of new directions for research in the treatment of Alzheimer’s, but we aren’t there just yet.
Side effects and cautions:
  • Women who are pregnant or trying to get pregnant should avoid using cat’s claw.  It’s past use was for preventing and aborting pregnancy.
  • Users of cat’s claw report very few side effects when it is taken at recommended dosages.  The very rare side effects reported included headaches, vomiting and dizziness.
  • Cat’s claw may stimulate the immune system.  Because of this, cat’s claw may be unsafe for individuals with health conditions affecting the immune system.
  • Cat’s claw may interfere with efforts to control blood pressure during or following surgery.
The scientific evidence:
  • The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine is investigating whether grape seed extract and its components benefit the heart or help prevent cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s and other brain disorders.  More research and study is needed to determine whether grape seed extract is effective in preventing the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease.  
Side effects and cautions: 
  • When taken by mouth, grape seed extract is usually well tolerated.   It has been used safely for up to 8 weeks in clinical trials.
  • Some of the side effects reported include dizziness, headache, high blood pressure, hives, indigestion, nausea and a dry, itchy scalp.
  • Reactions between grape seed extract and medicines and other supplements have not been carefully or systematically studied.
The scientific evidence:
  • There have been many studies of ginkgo for a number of conditions, including Alzheimer’s and dementia.
  • Some small studies of ginkgo for memory retention and enhancement have shown promising results.  However, a trial sponsored by the National Institute on Aging including more than 200 healthy adults over the age of 60 found that ginkgo taken for 6 weeks did not improve memory.
  • In a clinical trial known as the Ginkgo Evaluation of Memory study, sponsored by the NCCAM, researchers recruited more than 3,000 volunteers age 75 and older.  The participants took 240 mg of ginkgo each day, and were followed for roughly six years.  Analysis of the data found that ginkgo was ineffective in slowing cognitive decline, lowering blood pressure and reducing the incidence of hypertension.  The same data found the well-characterized ginkgo produce EGb-761 to be ineffective in reducing the overall incidence of dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Side effects and cautions:
  • Some severe allergic reactions have been reported.
  • Other side effects have included nausea, headache, gastrointestinal upset, diarrhea, dizziness and allergic skin reactions.
  • Some evidence suggests ginkgo can increase bleeding risk.  People with bleeding disorders, or who have surgery or dental procedures scheduled should use ginkgo with caution.  So should anyone taking anticoagulant drugs.  In any of these cases, be sure to talk with your health care provider before taking, or continuing to take, ginkgo.
  • Fresh, raw ginkgo seeds contain large amounts of ginkgotoxin, a chemical that can cause severe adverse reactions – including seizures and death.  Roasted seeds can also be dangerous.  
  • Ginkgo products made from standardized ginkgo leaf extracts contain little ginkgotoxin and, when taken orally and as recommended, appear to be safe. 

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