Dr John Briffa: Peace of mind

The National Institute of Clinical Excellence (Nice) - the body that makes recommendations about NHS care - has recently suggested that doctors should desist from treating patients newly diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. After reviewing the evidence, Nice has concluded that the drugs currently used to treat the disease - 'cholinesterase inhibitors' - are not worth the tens of millions of pounds the NHS spends on them each year.

This got me thinking about what natural approaches may benefit those with Alzheimer's. On the nutritional side, there is some evidence that the so-called omega-3 fats found in oily fish may have some role here. These fats come in two principal forms: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Together, these fats are believed to play critical roles in the structure and function of the brain. Omega-3 fats also quell inflammation - a process implicated in the development of Alzheimer's.

Studies show that Alzheimer's-disease sufferers tend to be short on omega-3 fats, and consuming more of these fats has been associated with relative protection against the disease. Two studies have found that eating fish just once a week is associated with a 60 per cent reduction in risk. I recommend eating two or three portions of oily fish, such as mackerel, herring or sardine each week, or supplementation with 2-3g of concentrated fish oil each day.

The effects of boosting omega-3 intake on Alzheimer's disease has not been formally studied at this time, though one might anticipate some improvement in symptoms and a slowing in the progression of the disease in the long term. For quicker results, I recommend the herb ginkgo biloba, renowned for its ability to boost circulation, which will help supply the brain with essential nutrients and fuel. Ginkgo appears to slow the deposition of the extraneous substance found in the Alzheimer's disease-affected brains known as beta-amyloid.

Studies of at least six months have found that extracts of ginkgo are as effective as the cholinesterase inhibitor drugs in treating mild to moderate Alzheimer's. One analysis of 33 trials found that the herb is generally safe, and may lead to significant improvements in brain function. Ginkgo has blood-thinning effects, and should be used with some caution for those taking conventional blood-thinners such as warfarin. The normal recommended dose is 120-240mg of ginkgo biloba extract per day.

Dear John

Recently you recommended using ground linseeds to relieve constipation. What are the benefits of ground as opposed to whole linseeds? Also, what's the best way to grind linseeds?
Nuritza Daghlian

I have found that both ground and whole linseeds can be useful for relieving constipation and promoting bowel regularity. However, the seeds tend to have hard shells that are relatively indigestible, which makes it difficult to get the benefits of nutritional components found within the linseeds, including omega-3 fat in the form of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). ALA appears to help promote health in the lining of the gut and may also enhance health in other systems of the body, including the heart and circulation. Linseeds also contain substances known as lignans that belong to a class of compounds known as phytoestrogens. These have hormone-like action in the body, are believed to have cancer-protective properties, and contribute to the health of the bone and cardiovascular system. Grind linseeds in an electric coffee grinder and take with some water or add to porridge, salad, stews and soups.

Nutrition news

Last summer, I reported on research which shows that the dressing of salad with oil enhanced the absorption of a class of health-promoting nutrients known as carotenoids (such as beta-carotene, alpha-carotene and lycopene). This month saw the publication of research in which the effects of avocado consumption on carotenoid absorption was assessed. In one element of this study, the effect of eating avocado with salsa (based on chopped tomatoes) was found to increase the absorption of lycopene and beta-carotene, 4.4 and 2.6 times respectively. In another subsequent experiment, the effects of avocado were compared with those of avocado oil. The addition of either avocado or avocado oil to salsa was found to very significantly enhance the absorption of several carotenoid nutrients. There appeared to be no significant difference in absorption-enhancement between whole avocado or its oil.

This research, published in the Journal of Nutrition, suggests that the addition of avocado or avocado oil to raw vegetable dishes, such as salsa and salad, is likely to add to the nutritional value of these foods by boosting the absorption of health-giving nutrients.

· If you have any issues you would like Dr Briffa to address in his column, please email him on john.briffa@observer.co.uk. Please note that Dr Briffa cannot enter into any correspondence. You can also visit www.drbriffa.com.

Before following any recommendations in this column, you should consult your own medical adviser about any medical problems or special health conditions

Thanks to guardian.co.uk who have provided this article. View the original here.