Mariyamma Alexander was 64 when she noticed she was developing memory loss and irritability. As a nurse working in Kuwait, she was quick to suspect she may have Alzheimer’s disease. Several medical tests later, her suspicion was confirmed.
“She was often lost in thought or would get forgetful; many times, she committed mistakes in her daily tasks. As a precaution, she opted for voluntary retirement and returned to Cochin,” recalls Eldo George, her grandson and primary caregiver, in a conversation with Happiest Health.
Alzheimer’s disease is an age-related neurodegenerative disorder where the individual faces progressively declining and irreversible memory loss, personality changes and an inability to think clearly, remember, and reason.
Science has shown that Alzheimer’s develops when nerve cells in the brain region called hippocampi begin to degenerate. As the disease progresses, there are significant structural and functional losses, making the individual increasingly dependent on caregivers.
For seven years, Mariyamma managed her symptoms with medication and family support, being fairly independent with her daily activities. Then came the pandemic – her symptoms escalated, and she came down with a severe bout of constipation. “We approached an ayurvedic practitioner to relieve her constipation symptoms,” George says. When Mariyamma’s condition improved in two weeks, much encouraged, the family began to explore ayurvedic treatment for her dementia as well.
An integrated approach
Although Alzheimer’s was described a century ago (1901), a cure for the condition has been elusive so far. Studies indicate that lifestyle, diet, environment, and genetic factors contribute to the progression of Alzheimer’s, but the exact cause is still unclear.
“The few drugs currently available have limited effectiveness, especially if the condition is in its moderate-severe stage,” says Dr Ram Mohan Rao, Principal Research Scientist-Apollo Health, Burlingame, California. This has led some to question whether the single-drug therapeutic approach is optimal, he adds.
“Genetic and biochemical research studies from our laboratory and others revealed an extensive network of molecular interactions involved in Alzheimer’s disease development. So, an integrated therapeutic approach rather than a single target-based treatment is feasible, and potentially more effective in treating cognitive decline caused by Alzheimer’s,” says Dr Rao. He has also worked as a Research Associate Professor at the Buck Institute for Research on Ageing, Novato, CA, on various aspects of age-associated neurodegenerative diseases.
Dr Rao explains that Ayurveda has a multi-therapeutic approach to Alzheimer’s. The therapy involves seven foundational strategies that improve mood, energy, health, and cognition. The strategies are nutrition, sleep, physical exercise, stress management, brain training, ayurvedic detoxification, herbs, and supplements.
When is a good time to introduce ayurveda to a person with Alzheimer’s?
The sooner, the better, says Dr Rao, as Alzheimer’s progresses in five stages of cognitive impairment:
- Alzheimer’s disease
The last three stages are severe. Considering compliance is an issue for people with mild-severe condition cognitive impairment, it is preferable that treatment begins in the pre-subjective or subjective stages, advises Dr Rao.
The gentle care of ayurveda
Ayurveda therapy recommends an individualised and holistic approach to the treatment. The therapies involve combining diet, herbs, lifestyle changes, yoga, meditation, colour and aroma therapy.
“A healthy wholesome diet and mindful eating are crucial to managing Alzheimer’s as an overabundance of calories or highly refined food with poor eating practices can trigger inflammation,” says Dr Rao.
He says ayurveda uses a single or combination of nervine herbs (nerve nourishing) like ashwagandha, brahmi, shankhpushpi, cat’s claw, saffron and gotu kola to manage Alzheimer’s and dementia. Recent research indicates promising outcomes of saffron extracts for Alzheimer’s.
Ayurveda also suggests other treatment therapies such as nasya, abhyanga (medicated oil massage) and other transcranial oleation therapies like Shirodhara (oil dripping), Shirobasti and Shiro abhyanga (head oiling and massage), says Dr Rao, who is also a clinical ayurvedic specialist and faculty of California College of Ayurveda, California.
George says that improving Mariyamma’s digestion and nourishing her brain came first in her treatment. Herbal medicines, nasya, shiro pichu and head massages were given to Mariyamma, he said.
“In nasya dry herbal powders or medicated oils are administered through the nostrils. It is a practical, non-invasive, rapid, and simple method of delivering therapeutic agents into the central nervous system. On the other hand, head oil therapies increase the blood flow to the brain,” says Dr Rao. Studies have shown that in participants who received an abhyanga massage there was increased cerebral blood flow.
Further help from yoga and aroma therapy
Studies suggest that yoga, meditation (dhyana) and diaphragmatic breathing techniques can slow Alzheimer’s disease progression and improve different aspects of cognitive function by lowering stress and inflammation, enhance neuron strength, and increase antioxidant levels.
Therefore, yoga, meditation, and gentle breathing exercises (pranayama) are excellent methods for keeping the nervous system calm and balanced for people with early and moderate Alzheimer’s.
In addition, Dr Rao says, massages with aromatic oils of lavender, lemon, and rosemary can help reduce agitation and may improve cognitive function in people with Alzheimer’s.
Following two years of ayurvedic treatment, Mariyamma, now at 74, looks more energetic, says George. “Her appetite has revived, and most importantly, she has started watching television – her favourite pastime,” he informs us happily.