Mercury, genes and the link with Alzheimer’s disease

cropped-IMG_7188-1.jpgMethyl mercury, a pollutant produced by various industrial activities, is a potent neurotoxin that has now caused serious contamination issues within our oceans. As a fat soluble molecule, methyl mercury enters the food chain and accumulates in the flesh of the fish that then may end up in our supermarkets. Consuming larger, longer living fish on a regular basis is now known to pose a serious health hazard, especially for children and pregnant women who are consequently advised to limit (or even avoid) the intake of some species such as fresh tuna or marlin.

The accumulation of mercury within the body can have profound long-term effects on the nervous system, and has been linked to a variety of conditions including Alzheimer’s disease where it is believed to play a part in nerve cell death. Lipoproteins, such as high density lipoprotein (HDL) and low density lipoprotein (LDL), are combinations of lipids (fat) and proteins that function to transport fat around via the blood, a function that is generally associated with cholesterol, and therefore cardiovascular health. However, approximately 1 in 7 people carry a gene that causes their body to produce a particular lipoprotein called apoE4, known to play a significant role in the development of Alzheimer’s disease. Those who inherit the apoE4 gene from one parent are three times more likely than average to develop Alzheimer’s disease, with those who inherit the gene from both parents having a tenfold risk of developing the disease (Donix et al, 2010). There are multiple hypotheses as to why those carrying the apoE4 gene are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s than those who carry the apoE3 or apoE2 genes; one such hypothesis regards the role that these lipoproteins play in mercury transport within the body, as mercury accumulation in the brain hasbeen linked to the progression of Alzheimer’s. Like all proteins, apolipoprotein is made of chains of amino acids. Cysteine is of particular relevance, as this amino acid contains sulphur, a member of a class of substances called ‘mercaptans,’ the Latin name for “mercury capture.” Because apoE2, the protective form of apoE, contains two cysteine amino acids, it is particularly efficient at removing mercury from the system. In contrast, apoE3 has only one cysteine, and apoE4 none, making it the most ineffective at removing excess mercury from the body.

Given that fish oils are thought to offer protection against neuronal death and therefore the onset of dementia, it seems that ingesting them in high doses may negate any beneficial therapeutic effects unless they are highly purified to ensure all heavy metals are removed. The growing omega-3 market means there are more products of differing qualities and strengths, and the processes used to isolate and purify oils can also differ quite significantly. It would certainly be advisable to choose fish oil supplements that have been purified under pharmaceutical grade conditions to ensure the product not only offers the best possible health benefits, but can also guarantee to be contaminant free.

Refrences

Dórea JG. Environmental contaminants as biomarkers of fish intake: a case for hair mercury concentrations. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2010 Sep 1. [Epub ahead of print]

Albert I, Villeret G, Paris A, Verger P. Integrating variability in half-lives and dietary intakes to predict mercury concentration in hair. Regul Toxicol Pharmacol. 2010 Aug 27. [Epub ahead of print]

Omega 3 and depression

IMG_0650There is growing evidence for the role of omega3 fish oil, not only in the etiology of major depression, but also as a treatment method. Given the numerous and undesirable side effects associated with conventional pharmaceutical treatments it is no wonder that many individuals actively seek natural alternatives, and the pure EPA fish oil (eicosapentaenoic acid – EPA) may just be what the doctor ordered.

Indeed, several studies have highlighted that abnormal cell membrane fatty acid composition is related to risk and incidence of major depression, and that supplementation with omega-3, and specifically with EPA, appears to normalize fatty acid levels and reduce the symptoms associated with this condition. However different studies can report different findings, and whilst several studies may appear to give varied and often conflicting results, performing a meta-analysis gives an indication of general findings by ‘pooling’ the data from several studies to give an overall picture and therefore adding clarity to a concept.

A recent meta-analysis of 14 studies comparing the levels of polyunsaturated fatty acids between depressive patients and control subjects found that omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid levels were significantly lower in those individuals suffering from depression (Lin et al, 2010). Because the primary sources of these long-chain omega-3 fats are fish and shellfish, it is not surprising that those individuals with the highest consumption are the least likely to suffer from depression (Suominen-Taipale et al, 2010). Treating people who suffer with depression using fish oils is therefore a viable method for alleviating symptoms whilst restoring omega-3 levels. Given that low levels of omega-3 are also associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease, as well as several other chronic disorders and conditions, the overall health benefits of raising omega-3 levels reach out much further as a nutritional approach to improving health.

Encouragingly, improvements in depressive symptoms can be seen as quickly as 8 weeks after commencing treatment. Indeed, a group of Montreal researchers have recently confirmed that taking omega 3 fish oil supplements, at doses higher than that normally consumed in an average diet, is superior to placebo in treating symptoms and that results can be observed within a two month time period (Lespérance et al, 2010). The results of this particular study also confirm EPA to be the predominant active ingredient responsible for the benefits of omega-3.

A meta-analysis of 28 trials investigating as to whether either EPA or docosahexanoeic acid (DHA) or both are responsible for the reported benefits showed that those trials in which EPA was the predominant or only fatty acid used, gave the most significant findings. Furthermore, it was suggested that the effects of 1g daily of EPA could be enhanced and prolonged by the addition of gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), an omega-6 fatty acid found in evening primrose oil (Martins 2009). Given that 1 in 4 individuals will suffer from depression at some point in their life, it is encouraging to know that there is a safe and natural way not only to treat depression but also as a method that could reduce the possibility of developing the condition in the first place.

 

Lespérance F, Frasure-Smith N, St-André E, Turecki G, Lespérance P, Wisniewski SR. The Efficacy of Omega-3 Supplementation for Major Depression: A Randomized Controlled Trial. J Clin Psychiatry 10.4088/JCP.10m05966blu

Lin PY, Huang SY, Su KP. A Meta-Analytic Review of Polyunsaturated Fatty Acid Compositions in Patients with Depression. Biol Psychiatry. 2010 May 7. [Epub ahead of print]

Martins JG EPA but not DHA appears to be responsible for the efficacy of omega-3 long chain polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation in depression: evidence from a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. J Am Coll Nutr. 2009 28:525-42.

Suominen-Taipale AL, Partonen T, Turunen AW, Männistö S, Jula A, Verkasalo PK.Fish consumption and omega-3 polyunsaturated Fatty acids in relation to depressive episodes: a cross-sectional analysis. PLoS One. 2010 May 7;5:e10530.

EPA fish oil and its role in Alzheimer’s disease risk

I have recently written an article on EPA fish oil and its role in Alzheimer’s disease, as there are currently around 700,000 people in the UK with dementia (it is believed that these figures are set to rise to one million in the next 10 years because of the ageing population) and new research adds to the weight of evidence that suggests that people who regularly include fish as part of their diet have a lower risk of developing dementia and, in particular, Alzheimer’s disease.

The human brain is a complex organ that controls our senses, our movements, receives information, analyses information, and stores this information as memories. Dementia, simply put, means ‘deprived of the mind’ and, contrary to what many of us consider an acceptable part of growing old, memory loss and dementia are not a natural part of the ageing process. Scientists are now suggesting that the omega-3 EPA, found in fish oil, can help. Like any organ, the brain needs nurturing, and if we provide our brain with the correct nutrients then we can help to ensure the function of our brain remains at its most efficient.

For those of you interested in finding out more about how EPA helps preventing memory loss, offering help for Alzheimer’s sufferers, the full article is available here: EPA fish oil and its role in Alzheimer’s disease risk

Omega 3s and Fatty Liver Disease

Whilst most people in the UK are familiar with alcohol-related liver disease as a result of heavy drinking, which is on the rise, many of us are unaware of the problems associated with another form of liver disease, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) – also known as non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH). A recent review of four human studies by a group based at the University of Edinburgh found that long-chain omega-3 fatty acids not only improve liver health and function, but also increase insulin sensitivity in people suffering from fatty liver disease.

I’ve recently published an article on Omega 3s and fatty liver disease and the study led by Dr Gail Masterton and I would be very interested to hear your feed back!

Use of anti-psychotics in dementia patients leads to premature death

Currently there are around 700,000 people in the UK with dementia and it is believed that these figures are set to rise to one million in the next 10 years because of the ageing population. The National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) guidance is that people with dementia should only be offered antipsychotic drugs if they are severely distressed or there is an immediate risk of harm to the person or others. However the use of sedatives in dementia has repeatedly been condemned due to the increasing evidence that the use of such drugs in dementia patients significantly increases their risk of death. One such study published earlier this year followed 165 patients with Alzheimer’s disease living in care homes in Oxfordshire, Tyneside, London and Edinburgh. Patients who were already taking anti-psychotics either continued on their treatment, or given a dummy pill for a year and then followed up over a period of three years. After two years, 46% of patients who had been treated with anti-psychotics were alive compared with 71% on the placebo. Three years after the start of the study, fewer than a third of people on anti-psychotics were alive compared to nearly two-thirds taking the placebo (Ballard et al, 2009). A recent review ordered by the Department of Health outlines the over prescription of antipsychotic drugs to treat aggression and agitation in people with dementia and contrary to NICE guidance. The review authored by Professor S. Banerjee goes as far as suggesting that up to two thirds of those individuals with dementia receiving anti-psychotic drugs are prescribed them unnecessarily.

So why is it that pharmaceutical drugs, with such well documented findings in terms of their negative health effects, continue to be prescribed? It certainly appears that they are offered as a ‘quick fix’ regardless of the long term consequences. Originally discovered in the 1950s, anti-psychotics were found to block receptors in the dopamine pathway and used quite successfully in the treatment of schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder before being introduced as treatment for dementia where their actions serve as nothing other than “chemical restraints”. It seems shameful that pharmaceutical companies can benefit in such situations whilst nutraceutical companies struggle to get clearance for health claims from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). This government agency is responsible for ensuring that medicines and medical devices work and are acceptably safe, and consistently rejects claims for many well-known safe and commonly used nutritional products.

The benefits of fish oil and the role of long-chain fatty acids in brain chemistry and in dementia are generally accepted but not endorsed. Ironically the side effects of consuming fish oils include only relatively minor complications (gastrointestinal upset, nausea, headaches) when compared with the potentially very serious sides effects of some pharmaceutical products. Given that long-chain fatty acids are involved in the dopamine pathway influencing dopamine concentration, number of vesicles and D2 receptors, and have been beneficial in studies where the dopamine pathway is known to be involved such as schizophrenia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), would it not be prudent to suggest a role of fatty acids as a regular or add-on treatment in individuals with dementia? The recent positive findings of the role of eicosapentaenoic acid EPA in reducing cerebral atrophy in Huntington’s disease is certainly indicative that non-pharmaceutical products need to be investigated and that their role in dementia, not only in the treatment but in the prevention of the condition, is sadly underrated at the expense of the patient.


Ballard C, Hanney ML, Theodoulou M, Douglas S, McShane R, Kossakowski K, Gill R, Juszczak E, Yu LM, Jacoby R; DART-AD investigators. (2009) The dementia antipsychotic withdrawal trial (DART-AD): long-term follow-up of a randomised placebo-controlled trial. Lancet Neurol. 2009 8:151-7.

Puri BK, Bydder GM, Manku MS, Clarke A, Waldman AD, Beckmann CF. (2008) Reduction in cerebral atrophy associated with ethyl-eicosapentaenoic acid treatment in patients with Huntington’s disease. J Int Med Res. 36:896-905

DHA, Fish and Alzheimer’s: Press Misinformation

The general public are reliant on the media for their most recent update on “what to eat and what not to eat” and so it’s terribly important that studies are reported objectively and fairly – and, of course, that we are given the whole picture. It is not a very new concept that eating fish such as salmon, sardines and mackerel may offer an element of protection against developing dementia and indeed the media has reported on a number of studies showing that people who consume a significant amount of oily fish or fish oil are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. This week’s headline, “Fish may not be Alzheimer’s answer” suggests, however, that Alzheimer’s patients may not benefit from eating fish, despite this “brain food” reputation.

Our understanding of the significant health benefits associated with fish oil supplementation has come a long, long way since scientists’ original discovery, back in the 1950s, that cod liver oil was a rich source of fatty acids. Researchers have since then progressed far beyond the basic understanding that fish oil is a promoter of general good health, and moved onto the next phase of innovation – investigating which particular elements within this oil are biologically active and whether a physical deficiency in this bioactive element results in some degree of physical deterioration. Indeed, fish oil contains two major fatty acids EPA and DHA and it is only really in recent years that these important fatty acids have been investigated individually rather than dumping them in the same boat with the generic label of omega-3.

DHA is the most abundant omega-3 fatty acid in cell membranes, present in all organs and most abundant in the brain and retina. In contrast, EPA is present in minute quantities. It could be easily assumed that DHA is the more dominant of the two fatty acids and put all of our focus here. However whilst DHA has a primarily structural role, EPA plays an important functional role. In actual fact whist EPA and DHA are both considered to be important regulators of immunity, platelet aggregation and inflammation, their influencing bi-products arise from very different pathways and it is therefore not surprising that their mechanism of action will differ.

So what is my problem with the latest headline? Well what’s very misleading with this is the loose use of the word “fish”. The study didn’t even have a vague whiff of fish about it but was conducted using a DHA supplement and a dummy placebo. The importance of this is that the information put forward to eager ears gives the impression that all that mackerel eating is a waste of time. But hear me out. This study took but one of the major fatty acids associated with fish oil, showed no benefit, but happily used the word fish to summarise the findings. If we recall, fish oil contains two important fatty acids, DHA and EPA. It is becoming increasingly clear that the marked differences between the effects of EPA and DHA mean that we can no longer generalise the effects of ‘fish oil’ as a reservoir of omega-3. EPA not only plays a major role in cell signalling but also contributes to the compaction and stabilisation of neurones. Indeed previous studies have shown that high plasma EPA concentration may decrease the risk of dementia and that EPA can actually reduce the atrophy associated with the shrinking brain. I’m not objecting to their findings that DHA is not the fatty acid which plays a role in dementia, rather it’s the fact that the message implies that it we should now question or even rule out the protective role of fish altogether. But when we dig deeper and unravel the scientific evidence and put that on our plates to eat, we see that things are a little more convoluted than we initially thought – well, if you read the recent headlines, that is. Just because the bigwigs are now telling us that DHA won’t save our brains (this week at least) it doesn’t mean that we should now disregard our efforts to include fish as part of our diets in our bid to prevent age-related mental decline. I, for one, shall be continuing to get my twice weekly portions in and I hope you will too. Do remember that once again, it’s not black or white, to fish or not to fish.

Coffee debate update

So the coffee debate continues. Today’s headline in The Telegraph shouts an enthusiastic message that drinking coffee could reverse the signs of Alzhiemer’s disease. The trial led by Dr Gary Arendash, an American neuroscientist presents evidence that indicates that caffeine not only helps to stave off the disease, but can actually treat it. The defining hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease is the accumulation of β-amyloid protein plaques in the the areas of the brain responsible for memory (the cortex and hippocampus). These ‘sticky’ deposits are known to damage nerve cells, interfere with nerve signalling and therefore memory. Caffeine, it appears, actually reduces the production of β-amyloid protein and therefore would reduce the production of plaques. So that’s the good news folks. The bad news is that this groundbreaking research was conducted using mice. Not bad news as such if you’re a coffee drinking mouse who can’t remember where you’ve left your cheese. These findings do however support an earlier study published in January this year. Led by Marjo H. Eskelinen the study found that among 1,400 Finnish adults followed for 20 years, those who drank three to five cups of coffee per day in middle-age were two-thirds less likely than non-drinkers to develop dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. So for the time being I shall continue to enjoy my morning cafetière, not only because I enjoy the ritual and the taste but because it may, just may help me retain my memory in years to come.

Peripheral Neuropathy in Diabetics; what steps can we take to avoid it?

You might already be aware that of the many deteriorative conditions related to diabetes; ‘peripheral neuropathy’ is perhaps the most common, with an estimated 60-70% of diabetics reportedly experiencing symptoms. ‘Neuropathy’ describes damage, whether moderate or severe, to the peripheral nervous system (the ‘external’ portion of the nervous system, situated beyond the brain and spinal cord), which transmits information directly from the brain and spinal cord to the rest of the body.

Our nervous system acts very similarly to an electrical cable; with the nerve’s ‘impulse’ adopting the role of the electrical wire itself, and the ‘myelin sheath’ (the ‘skin’ of the nerve), mimicking the insulation surrounding the wire. If the wire becomes damaged, then the nerve signal will not travel efficiently along the wire, nor will it transmit the intended messages as instantaneously. This delay results inevitably in the ‘classic’ symptoms of neuropathy; namely; tingling, numbness, ‘burning’ and pain.

A causative link has been drawn between neuropathy and deficiencies of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids within the body. Indeed, insulin itself plays a pivotal role in the metabolism of EFAs (essential fatty acids), by alerting the genes necessary for enzyme-conversion to begin the process of converting short-chain fatty acids into a bio-available (i.e. usable by the body) long-chain fatty acid.

Where insulin is absent, or enzyme-activity impeded, the enzymes needed to create specific fatty acids cannot be produced and a deficiency results. Of the myelin layer which protects our vulnerable nerves, an estimated 75 % is composed exclusively of EFA’s (these are termed ‘essential’ because the body cannot generate them independently, but must instead source them externally from the diet). Depletion of this fatty, insulatory layer, leads to severe nerve damage (Neuropathy).

Nutrition, as all Diabetics are painfully aware, is central to the manufacture of insulin and for creating the right ‘biological environment’ to encourage enzyme conversions to take place. By boosting or supplementing our dietary levels of long-chain fatty acids we can essentially sidestep the risk that the enzyme-mediated conversions will fail to progress past the initial hurdle.

Fatty acid supplementation nourishes the myelin sheath, and prevents further degeneration of inter-cellular communication; it reduces the risk of developing Neuropathy, and actually reinvigorates nerve endings to overcome numbness and the likelihood of eventual tissue loss. However, EPA, a specific omega-3 fatty acid found in fish oil that appears to have significant beneficial effects on diabetic neuropathy and serum lipids as well as other diabetic complications such as nephropathy (kidney damage) and macroangiopathy (damage to the blood vessels). EPA plays a role in the compaction, stabilization, and maintenance of myelin sheaths by regulating the production of proteolipid protein or PLP. PLP is literally the ‘glue’ that hold in place the sheets of protective fats that cover the nerve axon. Loss of PLP is associated with many conditions that have nerve damage including Multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease and Huntington chorea.

OmegaForce is a patented formulation of omega-3 and 6 long-chain fatty acids with a multitude of health-enhancing properties, including anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving actions. For more information on the relationship between EPA deficiency and the pathogenesis of Diabetic Neuropathy, please go to www.igennus.com

Omega-3 fish oil supplements reduce cardiovascular disease in diabetics

According to a new study from Tehran University of Medical Sciences in Iran, daily intake of omega-3 fatty acids may reduce levels of a trigger substance linked to heart disease in diabetics.

Results published in the peer-reviewed journal Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Disease suggest that high doses of omega-3 fish oil daily (3 grams per day) cut levels of the amino acid homocysteine by 22%, compared with less than 1% in the placebo group.

81 diabetics took part in this randomised, double-blind placebo-controlled trial, which lasted two months with participants randomly assigned to either receive 3 grams of omega-3 or a sunflower oil placebo daily.

Previous research has linked increased levels of homocysteine with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. By lowering levels of this amino acid in the blood, scientists believe it is possible to reduce their heart disease risk, providing support for the inclusion of omega-3s as part of the diabetic diet. Evidence is not yet conclusive however, and further research needs to be conducted before firm conclusions may be drawn.

The number of diabetics diagnosed with the disease soared by 70,000 in the UK between 2006-7, according to a report by the Information Centre for Health and Social Care.
According to their report, people affected by diabetes in the UK has climbed to 3.7 per cent, with a record number of 1,986,200 people diagnosed with the condition; a further 750,000 people are likely to have diabetes and not be aware of it. These figures paint a worrying picture for the health of the nation.

The Chief Executive of Diabetes UK, Douglas Smallwood, commented: “These figures are truly alarming as diabetes is a serious condition, which can lead to blindness, kidney failure, heart disease, stroke and nerve damage that can cause amputation . We need to do all we can to raise awareness of the condition and to encourage people to follow a healthy diet, and pursue an active lifestyle to help them reduce their risk of developing diabetes.”

When you consider that the impact of our 24/7 culture is that we tend to drive to work, drink a little too much, eat too few freshly prepared meals (not to mention that most of us are probably short on dietary fibre) you can appreciate why diabetes is becoming a real problem.

This is not to say that there’s nothing we can do about it, however. Simple changes to our diet and lifestyle and dramatically decrease our chance of developing diabetes and, if you’re affected already, it is definitely possible to influence the likelihood of associated health problems as the condition advances. As a nutrition scientist I would advise a diet with increased fibre, whole grains, few sugars, as well as cutting out the bad fats – this is actually a good approach for anyone.

I’d also add to the diet highly concentrated omega-3 fish oil containing pure EPA, an active component of fish oil which is especially beneficial for reducing the risk of complications in the cardiovascular system. OmegaForce is ideal in this respect, as it combines with pure EPA the omega-6 GLA (highly anti-inflammatory) with the omega-9 oleic acid from olive oil, its benefits associated with the healthy Mediterranean diet.

For more information about omega-3 fatty acids and how they can be included as part of the diet, click here.

A diet rich in fish oils could extend your life, research shows

Researchers from Norway and France found that elderly people who consume plenty of omega-3 acids, found in oily fish such as salmon, not only performed better in cognitive function tests than those who do not, but also demonstrated greater longevity than those who don’t regularly consume fish.

Norwegian researchers studied 254 frail, elderly patients and measured their dietary intakes of omega-3 fatty acids using plasma phospholipid concentrations of EPA. Patients’ omega-3 consumption was analysed and they were asked to return for further analysis after a period of three years. The results later showed that those tested with the lowest plasma phospholipid EPA levels were approximately 40 per cent more likely to die.

The French researchers observed 1214 healthy participants over a period of four years, 65 of which developed dementia. The results showed that only those with higher blood levels of EPA were linked with the reduced risk (31 per cent) of contracting dementia.

The omega-3 fatty acid EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), which occurs naturally in oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and tuna, is responsible for a range of health benefits, from combating heart disease to boosting intelligence.
Despite this, most people eat just a fifth of the amount recommended for good health. The fact of the matter is that most people do not consume enough oily fish to reap the benefits of fatty acids, so supplementation with fish oils is a more viable option for many.
Vegepa is a patented formulation of completely natural long-chain omega fatty acids. It contains a unique ratio of ultra-pure EPA (the omega-3 eicosapentaenoic acid) and cold-pressed, non-raffinated, virgin evening primrose oil (containing the omega-6 gamma-linolenic acid). As such, Vegepa combines the benefits that both these natural substances bring to the body.

Fatty acids play an important part in the functioning of every living cell in the body. Specifically they may help the body in several ways including: improving the circulatory system, aiding concentration, maintaining a well-balanced state of mind and keeping joints in good condition.

The EPA in Vegepa is derived from fish oil – the highest yielding source of long-chain omega-3 fats. This fatty acid forms a vital part of the diet as it enables the body to produce many substances that are necessary for health and well-being.

The evening primrose oil (EPO) in Vegepa is derived from the cold pressing of evening primrose seeds. When EPO is unprocessed and unrefined it is a rich source of botanical triterpenes hormone-like substances, which play an important role in immune function. Just two capsules daily provide 560 mg EPA and 200 mg organic EPO, and help to reverse fatty acid deficiencies by nourishing the brain’s phospholipids. Vegepa is available from all good health food shops, or online at www.igennus.com

The Alzheimer’s Society provides a national help line on 0845 3000 336 and website www.alzheimers.org.uk.