Women are disproportionately affected by Alzheimer's disease:
Women in their 60s are about 2x as likely to develop Alzheimer’s over the rest of their lives as they are to develop breast cancer.
At the age of 65, women have a 1 in 5 chance of developing Alzheimer’s, compared to a 1 in 11 chance for men.
Additionally, out of the 5 million people living with Alzheimer’s in the U.S. 3.2 million are women.
Why is that? Well, one thing of course is genetics: if you have the APOE gene variant, you are at higher risk of getting Alzheimer’s, but that doesn’t explain why women are so much more affected by this disease than men?
Well, there’s another reason and you might have guessed: it’s your hormones! The ones we’re actually talking about here are estrogen, cortisol and insulin.
Scientists now call Alzheimer’s disease “Type 3 diabetes.” Source
Research shows that insulin resistance is one of the major factors that starts the brain-damage cascade, which eventually can lead to a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease.
Don’t think that too much insulin affects only older people’s brains. It doesn’t just suddenly occur once you’re older. Dementia actually begins when you’re younger and takes decades to develop and worsen. You don’t have to have type 2 diabetes to develop brain damage and memory loss from high insulin levels and insulin resistance. (I’ll explain this more in detail below under the section blood sugar imbalance).
One of the most common symptoms of blood sugar imbalance is brain fog: many women in perimenopause and menopause have brain fog….
Ever went into a room not remembering why you went there or what you were going to do?
Feel like you cannot focus or have fuzzy thinking?
Menopause-related brain fog is often overlooked though: yes, estrogen also has an impact on your mental clarity and memory. The hippocampus actually has many receptors for estrogen and when estrogen begins to wane, it can result in brain fog as the brain adjusts to working with less estrogen than it used to.
(Brain fog can also be a side effect of many medications – especially when taken with alcohol.)
STRESS: One of the biggest triggers for brain fog is stress: it can affect your ability to concentrate and remember things. You remember that any form of stress will trigger the release of Cortisol right? As we get older, cortisol levels tend to stay high due to our increasingly stressful lifestyles. The chronic elevation of cortisol is one of the major culprits in the decline of sex hormones. It robs your body of DHEA, progesterone, estrogen, and testosterone and causes your blood sugar to rise.
When your body is tired, you usually recognize that you need to rest. But when your brain is tired, it’s much easier to ignore isn’t it? When your brain is tired, or there are toxins onboard, it is designed to shut down the release of adrenaline and noradrenaline, your fight or flight hormones. The area of the brain that is affected by this shutdown is the hippocampus, which is responsible for taking in new information and consolidating it into long-term memory storage.
The hippocampus is also controlling the hormone output in your body, so you can imagine that if your hippocampus isn’t working properly, it deeply affects your hormone balance too and that then results in the nasty symptoms like weight gain (especially around your belly), loss of sex drive, night sweats, mood swings, insomnia, and burn out—all because of cortisol.
BLOOD SUGAR IMBALANCE:
Proper glucose metabolism and a steady supply of glucose is essential for a functioning brain. The brain is the most energy-demanding organ and uses half of all the glucose energy in the body.
Blood sugar imbalance is incredibly common today. In fact, I rarely have a client who’s not consuming too much sugar/carbs despite already making healthy choices. Most people are lacking quality protein, essential fatty acids, phytonutrients, and fiber. This type of diet or lack of digestive capacity contributes to an inefficient fuel supply and creates inflammation (in form of blood sugar dysregulation) and that then leads to brain degeneration.
Too little glucose (hypoglycemia) leads to a loss of energy for proper brain function, your brain is lacking fuel to function properly and is linked to poor attention and cognitive function.
Too much glucose (that’s if your blood sugar is too high), is linked to memory and cognitive deficiencies. Chronic diabetes, including both type 1 and 2, negatively impacts brain neurons and connectivity and can cause the brain to degenerate. But as I said in the beginning, you don't need to be diabetic in order to impact your brain with too high glucose levels... It also causes restricted blood flow in the brain, which causes cognitive difficulties that can eventually develop into vascular dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease. (Source)
A brain that’s saturated with glucose is inflamed, and that inflammation promotes the accumulation of protein. As they pile up, they have a negative impact on your memory, movement, thinking, mood, and more. (Source)
So having balanced blood sugar is really important not only for keeping off the belly fat, but as you see also for keeping good energy levels, stable mood, and keeping your brain healthy.
Now, women have an extra “handicap” when it comes to blood sugar regulation when your hormone levels decline or are simply imbalanced: you can become "insulin-resistant." This happens when your estrogen levels decline, because estrogen also is key to glucose utilization in the brain.
Insulin resistance can also trigger lower levels of sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG), the hormone that binds to excess estrogen and testosterone.
High blood sugar = lower SHBG = PMS, hormonal migraine, acne, fibroids, cysts….
What is insulin resistance?
Insulin resistance means you have excess insulin in your blood which is produced as the key to open up your cells for glucose absorption. You can guess from the word resistant, that this “key” in form of insulin no longer works and therefore the glucose cannot enter your cells. Which then results in a lack of energy overall but also energy supply for your brain as you just read.
We develop insulin resistance because our bodies can no longer deal with high amounts of carbohydrates we used to eat—even healthy ones like fruits, whole grains, potatoes, or brown rice. Too much sugar builds up in our blood, and the result is hormone chaos: hot flashes, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, weight gain, and other perimenopausal symptoms.
LACK OF SLEEP:
Another culprit with brain fog is lack of sleep. Sleep is often referred to as the brain’s “detox cycle”. It’s when the brain reviews new information and consolidates it, helping us form stable, long-term memories and clearing out the unimportant stuff. Even more importantly, this cycle also clears amyloid protein or also known as amyloid plaque.
Women develop more amyloid plaque than men - childbearing age, perimenopause and menopause. While hubby is sleeping soundly (and/or snoring) next to you and you are tossing and turning with insomnia, night sweats etc to find some peace and sleep, you can see how that impacts your risk to develop Dementia or Alzheimer’s at a later stage because your brain has not had the chance to properly regenerate and detoxify during the night.
EXERCISE/OVEREXERCISE: Humans are meant to move. Exercise releases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). This growth factor helps neurons enhance the potential for brain plasticity. A good example of this is when you learn a new dance step: new neural pathways are created that give your body instructions on how to perform it.
Vigorous or strenuous exercise also improves your ability to produce growth hormone that help the brain recover from trauma. Growth hormone positively impacts the entire brain and nervous system. Exercise can also release opioids that support immune cells, which are essential to modulate inflammation and autoimmunity. Even small amounts of exercise improve insulin resistance; however, in order to improve insulin receptor signaling, exercise must be regular, intense and for a longer duration.
Too much exercise on the other hand is a source of stress for the body and therefore has a negative impact on your brain. So it’s all about finding the balance and adapting to what your body is able to do.
Is there anything you can do diminish your Alzheimer's risk?
Luckily, even if you have the APOE gene, it does not mean that you will get Alzheimer's, it just means that you need to be more careful with your lifestyle and diet and the same applies for everyone who wants to decrease their risk of getting Alzheimer's.
So here's a recap of what I recommend:
stay away from sugars but also pay attention to minimizing grains in general (my cookbook for blood sugar & hormone balance is a good reference that gives you all the indications from a dietary standpoint)
eat enough healthy fats! They provide a steady and slow burning source of energy while carbohydrates provide a less stable and fast burning source of fuel
eat a protein-rich and high fat breakfast - your blood sugar is the most sensitive in the morning so if you start with a high carb breakfast you set yourself up for the blood sugar roller-coaster for the rest of the day
avoid snacking between meals - you may need to have some nutrient-dense snacks in the transition time, but normally you should be able to go 3-4 hours between meals without the need to snack.
move your body every day! exercise is not only important for your physical fitness and mood, but also to keep your brain healthy
And let’s not forget about stress (physical or mental) that will impact your cortisol and hence your blood sugar levels: use apps like Insight timer to get started with (even 5-10 mins) meditation each day, try breath work, yoga or journaling or take a nice Espom salt bath!
meal prep! if you cook ahead or have a plan, you are less likely to make bad last minute choices and you have less mental stress trying to come up with a last minute plan for dinner, possibly rushing to the store and not finding the ingredients you need...
learn something new every day
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