Common polysaccharides are igniting interest as a possible nutrient treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.
What if something as simple as aloe vera could hold the key to treating Alzheimer’s—a devastating disease that currently has no cure and is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States?
Dr. John E. Lewis, a past full-time, now voluntary associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine has spent his career studying the effects of nutrition on the brain and immune system. In one fascinating study, he found that polysaccharides from aloe vera had a remarkable effect on Alzheimer’s patients.
Dr. Lewis reported that some research subjects were able to regain speech or the ability to walk after participating in the study. Others regained memory that had long seemed lost.
So, how did this happen? How could a polysaccharide complex from a common plant deliver such profound results?
“We did not treat, cure, manage, or mitigate disease, but we showed the ability of the body to repair and regenerate itself when given the proper raw materials to do so,” he said.
The Alzheimer’s Study
Dr. Lewis and his colleagues conducted a series of studies investigating various polysaccharides—namely those from aloe vera and a hydrolyzed rice bran—to evaluate their effects on the immune system and cognition.
The study, a clinical trial, was published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease in 2013.
The study involved 34 patients who were just under 80 years of age on average. Each had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s for at least one year but had the disease for an average of three years, and their condition was characterized as moderate to severe. Most study participants also had varying comorbidities.
After being enrolled in the study, participants had their blood drawn to assess their immune function and evaluate markers of inflammation. The researchers wanted to study the immune system to see whether they could demonstrate that changes in the way it functioned were related to changes in cognition.
One of the immune system’s most basic tools is inflammation. Inflammation is a bit like a firestorm the immune system deploys to the site of an injury or infection to combat pathogens, such as bacteria that get in through a wound or viruses that get in through food. As important as inflammation is, this firestorm is routinely over-triggered and contributes to countless diseases. It ends up burning healthy tissues and systems.
Markers of inflammation were an important aspect of the study because cognitive dysfunction, like many other chronic diseases, is marked by higher levels of inflammation.
All aspects of cognitive function were tested using a range of neuropsychological tests.
After the cognitive testing, the participants were given an aloe polysaccharide nutrient complex composed of polysaccharides, antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, and other phytonutrients. Participants took one teaspoon (2.5 grams) by mouth four times daily for 12 months.
Participants came in every three months throughout the study period for neuropsychological assessments. At 12 months, they had their blood drawn again to reassess their immune systems and markers of inflammation.
Changes in cognition were assessed using the ADAS-cog, or Alzheimer’s Disease Assessment Scale Cognitive Score, a widely used tool in dementia research and considered the benchmark measure for assessing cognition in studies of dementia. The ADAS-cog has 11 subscales that evaluate memory, orientation, attention, language, reasoning, and constructional and ideational praxis, which are combined to create a total cognition score.
Cytokine and growth factor levels were also evaluated via blood tests at the beginning of the study (baseline) and 12 months. Cytokines and growth factors play a central role in the immune system and, according to the study, are involved in a variety of immunological, inflammatory, and infectious diseases. They are also involved in neuroinflammation, which is inflammation within the brain or spinal cord. Neuroinflammation is linked to the pathogenesis of Alzheimer’s disease. Twelve cytokines, both pro and anti-inflammatory in total, were evaluated.
Dr. Lewis and his team found that from baseline to 12 months, the Alzheimer’s patients demonstrated significant and sustained improvements in cognitive functioning at the nine- and 12-month marks using the ADAS-cog test.
They also showed a significant improvement in overall immune function and inflammatory markers thought to lead to reduced inflammation in the brain. The participants also exhibited a 300 percent increase in the production of adult stem cells, thought to lead to the repair of neuronal areas.
These cells have a self-renewal capability and can differentiate into all cell types.
Regarding one of the inflammatory markers measured, the study states:
“We also found a substantial drop in VEGF levels at the 12-month follow-up assessment. Others have suggested that VEGF might be linked to the progression of [Alzheimer’s disease] through abnormal endothelial activation, resulting in neuronal loss and [amyloid-beta] deposits.”
VEGF, or vascular endothelial growth factor, is a proinflammatory cytokine, and lowered levels indicate there was reduced neuroinflammation.
Amyloid-beta is the main component of amyloid plaques, extracellular deposits found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease.
Levels of TNF-alpha–another inflammatory marker the study measured–also declined from baseline to 12 months.
“TNF-alpha and other cytokines have been shown to be elevated in the cerebrospinal fluid and plasma of persons with AD [Alzheimer’s disease] compared to controls,” the study noted.
Additional Alzheimer’s Research
In the years since Dr. Lewis’s initial study, similar studies using various polysaccharides have affirmed his findings.
A 2023 study in rats with Alzheimer’s disease using a polysaccharide from Schisandra chinensis showed that the rats had improved learning and memory, decreased brain inflammation, and restored intestinal barrier integrity.
An in vitro and in vivo study using rats that was published in 2021 demonstrated the efficacy of a polysaccharide derived from Bletilla striata for preventing and alleviating the effects of Alzheimer’s disease through its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. The authors concluded that the polysaccharide used in the study could be a potential therapeutic agent in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.
In a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled phase 3 clinical trial published in 2021, researchers gave a marine-derived oligosaccharide to 818 participants with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease. Oligosaccharides are essentially smaller polysaccharides. At the end of the 36-week trial, the oligosaccharide group had significantly improved cognition, which was sustained over the entire 36-week trial period.
Such results fuel interest in the use of polysaccharides for disorders of the brain.
A review article published in 2022 titled “Protective Effects of Polysaccharides in Neurodegenerative Diseases states,” “The use of polysaccharides has received significant attention due to extensive biological activities and application prospects.”
The authors found that “polysaccharides can reduce oxidative stress, apoptosis, and neuroinflammation, regulate the balance of neurotransmitters, increase autophagy, ultimately decrease [amyloid beta] peptide formation and tau phosphorylation, [and] alleviate cognitive impairment in [Alzheimer’s disease] models.”
What Are Polysaccharides?
Polysaccharides are the most abundant carbohydrates found in food and are ubiquitous in plants, animals, algae, and microorganisms. Polysaccharides are defined as long-chain carbohydrates composed of monosaccharide units held together by glycosidic bonds. We usually think of these sugars as the body’s primary source of energy.
Dr. Lewis explained that the emerging field of glycomics is demonstrating the importance of polysaccharides, or sugars, and how they are used in ways that go far beyond simply being a source of energy. Glycomics is the study of the full spectrum of sugars and their various effects. Discoveries in the field are revealing the ways that polysaccharides are used by every cell in the human body.
These natural polysaccharides shouldn’t be confused with processed sugars such as white table sugar and high fructose corn syrup, which are detrimental to health and pervasive in the standard American diet. Glycomics research, which studies the entire spectrum of sugars, has found that some polysaccharides, such as mannose—in aloe vera—and fucose, present in some seaweeds, medicinal mushrooms, and algae, are vital for good health.
In fact, Dr. Lewis has conducted multiple studies on the effects of aloe polysaccharides on patients with Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis, and he has conducted studies using polysaccharides from hydrolyzed rice bran with healthy adults and patients with HIV and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease with promising results.
Dr. Lewis was so encouraged by the results of those studies on polysaccharides that he created a supplement based on the aloe polysaccharide complex given to patients in the 2013 Alzheimer’s study and has been taking it ever since.
Polysaccharides in Our Diet
When asked whether we are able to get enough polysaccharides in the average diet, Dr. Lewis told The Epoch Times that it’s hard to know with any certainty. He says we likely ate more polysaccharides in the past but fewer today.
“When that shift occurred, along with genetic modification and our soil not being as nutritious anymore, and then, of course, the air and water pollution, it’s definitely caused a shift not only in polysaccharide content of typical foods, but just in general, of vitamins, minerals, and other phytonutrients,” he said.
When it comes to aloe vera, something that humans haven’t historically consumed, Dr. Lewis said that to get it at therapeutic levels without using a supplement, one would have to drink buckets of the gel because it’s 99 percent water. The polysaccharides in rice bran (in brown rice and not white rice), which he has also studied, would also have to be eaten in large quantities; but, he says, geography probably plays a role.
“People on our side of the planet, as opposed to maybe in Asia where rice historically has been a bigger part of the diet—Asians probably got a lot more of the beneficial polysaccharides than, say, Europeans and people in the Americas did, or do.”
The studies Dr. Lewis and his colleagues have conducted involving polysaccharides using all-natural, nutrition-based supplements offer new hope for millions of Americans suffering from neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis.
Mairelys Martinez, the study neuropsychologist said, “I have never seen more impressive changes in cognitive function in response to the dietary supplement in this trial compared to all of our other memory disorder studies.”
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