Natural strategies for keeping your hearing, vision, and thinking sharp well into old age
By Jonathan V. Wright, MD
“Eh? What’s that you say? Louder, please. No, don’t bother writing it down, can’t see very well, either! Oh, never mind…I probably won’t remember it, anyway!”
If you chuckled when you read that, it’s probably because it sounds familiar—whether it’s something you remember your parents or grandparents saying, or whether you’ve uttered similar things yourself. And while it sounds funny on the surface, the unfortunate truth underlying phrases like these is that varying degrees of failing hearing, vision, and mental function are still considered to be “normal” with advancing age.
But they need not be “normal” for you! You’ve read before in Nutrition & Healing about prevention and treatment of “age-related” hearing, vision, and cognitive function problems. This time, we’ll review them all in one place, while you—and I—can still remember to how to lower your chances of going deaf, blind, or losing your mind!
The hormone deficiency that could be destroying your hearing
Dennis Trune, Ph.D., of Oregon Health Sciences University, pioneered the research showing that the naturally occurring adrenal steroid hormone aldosterone can often reverse hearing loss in animals..
Based on Dr. Trune’s work, I’ve had aldosterone levels tested in many individuals with hearing loss (most of them “older”), and a significant number turned out to have low or “low normal” measurements. But after taking bio-identical aldosterone in “physiologic” quantities—amounts that would normally be present in adult human bodies—more than half of these individuals have regained a significant proportion of their “lost” hearing.
I’ve been surprised by two aspects of bio-identical aldosterone treatment for hearing loss. First, when it works, it works relatively rapidly, restoring a significant degree of hearing within the first two months. In fact, a few of the people I’ve worked with have literally heard improvement within just two to three weeks.
The other thing that surprised me about aldosterone therapy is that it’s capable of restoring a significant degree of hearing even years after the hearing loss initially occurred. So far, the longest interval I’ve witnessed was in an 87-year-old man who’d lost his hearing 13 years prior to regaining a significant degree of it using aldosterone.
None of the people I’ve worked with have had any adverse effects from aldosterone therapy, likely because the use of bio-identical, physiologic-dose aldosterone restores levels to those that would be found in the body anyway.
I’ve focused this treatment on individuals with hearing loss and low or low-normal aldosterone levels, but I do know of one individual—an M.D.—who decided to try this approach for his hearing loss even though his aldosterone levels were quite normal. His hearing did improve, but unless you too are an M.D., D.O., or N.D. who can prescribe bio-identical aldosterone and order lab tests for sodium and potassium (sodium and potassium regulation are two of aldosterone’s major responsibilities), please don’t take aldosterone, bio-identical or not, if your measured levels are perfectly normal! (For further details about the research behind this treatment and safety details, see Nutrition & Healing for May 2006.)
Beat the top 3 causes of blindness—without patent medicines or surgery
Glaucoma, macular degeneration, and cataracts are three very common causes of vision loss—if they’re left untreated, that is.
But many cases of these three sight-stealing conditions can be treated by natural means, often avoiding patent medicines and/or surgery entirely. Even better, it’s also possible to significantly reduce your risk of developing any of these problems in the first place.
The vision-robbing disease that’s actually a symptom in many cases
Let’s start with glaucoma. This condition occurs when the pressure inside the eyeball (intra-ocular pressure) rises. If the intra-ocular pressure rises high enough, it can cause blindness. Conventional treatment of glaucoma uses either patent medications (generally called miotics) or surgery to relieve the excess pressure.
But in 1937, Emanuel Josephson, M.D., an ophthalmologist in New York City, published a book titled Glaucoma and its Medical Treatment with Cortin. In it, Dr. Josephson reported many cases of individuals whose glaucoma and high intra-ocular pressure improved after treatment with a substance called cortin. Cortin was the 1930s name for entirely natural, injectable extracts from animal adrenal cortex—the part of the adrenal glands which make cortisol, cortisone, DHEA, aldosterone, and all other natural adrenal steroid molecules in natural balance with each other. (Later on, Cortin was renamed Adrenal Cortical Extract, or ACE.)
Some of the improvements Dr. Josephson related were quite dramatic, with the patients’ intra-ocular pressure dropping over 20 points to within the normal range. Dr. Josephson carefully explained that Cortin produced such impressive results because many cases of glaucoma don’t actually originate in the eye, but instead manifest in the eye as a symptom of weak adrenal glands. In other words, Dr. Josephson discovered that, in many cases, glaucoma is a symptom, not an “independent disease.”
Injections of Cortin (which was literally “hormone replacement therapy” for weak adrenal glands) would allow the eyes—which apparently depend on normal adrenal function—to normalize themselves in many cases. In fact, Cortin even helped alleviate high intra-ocular pressure in people who hadn’t responded to miotics or surgery.
At the time Dr. Josephson was using it in his patients, Cortin was sold by major patent medication companies, including Parke-Davis. While they couldn’t patent the extracts themselves (since they were 100 percent natural) patent medicine companies could patent—and make enormous profits from—the extraction process.
Unfortunately, though, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, patent medicine companies discovered ways to make totally unnatural but very powerful and patentable (and therefore much more profitable) versions of cortisone and cortisol. Even though these space-alien versions have an incredible list of adverse effects when used in human bodies—including diabetes, osteoporosis, high blood pressure, cataracts, and stomach ulcers—the patent medicine industry was so successful in blurring the lines between them and bio-identical cortisone and cortisol (which never have these sorts of adverse effects when used in “physiologic” quantities) that they’ve become the go-to choice for most mainstream physicians. A more recent example of this type of “blurring the lines” is the inability of the FDA, conventional medicine, and patent medicine companies to distinguish between Premarin and other patentable pseudo-estrogens and bio-identical estrogens. And just like the current situation with bio-identical HRT, los Federales used this line-blurring to outlaw Cortin/ACE in the 1970s.
They claimed that it should be banned because, unlike the synthetic version, ACE was “unapproved,” and therefore potentially “dangerous”—even though it had been sold and in use for decades with no reported side effects. In an accompanying illogical leap of FDA “logic,” after terming ACE “dangerous,” they also stated it was “ineffective.”
But I personally witnessed its tremendous success in normalizing glaucoma. Several individuals had decreases in intra-ocular pressure from well above 20 (normal is under 20) to below 20 following a series of intravenous injections of ACE. (All intra-ocular pressure measurements were done by ophthalmologists, not me.) Many other physicians practicing natural medicine had seen similar results and we all protested to the FDA. Unfortunately, the public didn’t get involved, and side-effect-free ACE remains illegal today.
However, individuals with glaucoma can still improve and even normalize their intra-ocular pressure by using more general techniques to improve their adrenal function. The very best place to start is with your diet, eliminating all refined sugar and refined carbs and making sure to get adequate amounts of salt.
There are also a number of supplements that can help boost adrenal function, including the sodium ascorbate form of vitamin C, pantothenic acid, chromium, vitamins A and E, and ginseng. Another relatively subtle but powerful technique for strengthening weak adrenal glands is “cell therapy” using fetal animal adrenal cells with other related fetal endocrine cells. Next month, you’ll read a brief note about cell therapy, and much more can be found in the March 2005 issue of Nutrition & Healing. For even more information on strengthening weak adrenal glands, check your local library for the book Adrenal Fatigue by James Wilson, N.D., Ph.D.
As you’ve likely guessed, adrenal-strengthening treatment is most likely to be successful in treating glaucoma in people who have weak adrenal function. The 24-hour urine test for natural steroids and other hormones can help you and your physician make an “official” diagnosis, but symptoms of weak adrenal function include lower-than-average blood pressure (especially if the “top”—systolic—number is consistently below 110), dizzy spells when standing up rapidly, and being easily tired out. Being underweight for your particular height and difficulty gaining weight are also common with weak adrenal function, but are not always present.
If you have any or all of these symptoms, check with a physician skilled and knowledgeable in natural and nutritional medicine, as well as bio-identical hormone replacement.
If weak adrenals aren’t at the root of your glaucoma, there are still a few other nutritional and natural therapies that may be able to help reverse it. Eliminating any food allergies you might have is a good first step. Research has also shown that daily use of fish oil (I recommend 1 tablespoonful daily) and high quantities of vitamin C (10 to 35 grams daily, split into three to four doses) can help reduce high intra-ocular pressure. Thyroid hormone also lowers intra-ocular pressure in some cases.
And both magnesium (250 milligrams daily) and standardized extracts of ginkgo biloba (40 milligrams three times daily) have been found to improve visual field defects for individuals with glaucoma.
The macular degeneration treatment that starts in your stomach
Just as Dr. Josephson found that many cases of glaucoma don’t originate in the eye, but elsewhere in the body, in the 1980s I discovered that many—if not most—cases of “dry” macular degeneration are “symptoms” of digestive malfunction, specifically poor digestion and assimilation of nutrients. So if you’re starting to have vision problems, I encourage you to have your digestive function tested. If it’s not operating up to par, correcting it (naturally, of course) will go a long way in helping you get the most from the nutrients that have vision-improving potential.
The most useful of those nutrients are lutein and zeaxanthin, which are found in highest concentrations in spinach, collard greens, and other deep green leafy vegetables. Other important nutrients include zinc (found in oysters, fish and other animal protein), selenium (two to four Brazil nuts a day are an excellent source), riboflavin (which comes from brewer’s yeast, almonds, mushrooms, wheat bran, and dark green leafy vegetables), taurine (found in organ meats, fish, and other animal protein), and quercitin (good sources include onions, apples, kale, cherries, grapes, red cabbage, and green beans are all good sources). Bilberry and ginkgo are the best vision-supporting herbs.
I encourage anyone with macular degeneration to consider using Ocudyne II capsules (formulated by my colleague Alan R. Gaby M.D. and me), which contain all the nutrients noted above.
For much more information about preventing and treating macular degeneration, refer back to the February 2005 issue of Nutrition & Healing.
Clearing up cataracts, naturally
I wrote about an effective, well-researched cataract treatment three months ago (in the July 2008 issue), so I’ll refer you there for the complete discussion of N-acetylcarnosine eyedrops.
Another option for treating cataracts is a combination of Chinese botanicals called “Hachimi-jio-gan,” or Ba-wei-wan. This treatment has been used for centuries in China to treat cataracts, and even has a bit of clinical evidence to support it. In a human study of early cataracts conducted in Japan, Hachimi-jio-gan was associated with lessening of cataracts in 60 percent of the volunteers. In the USA, Hachimi-jio-gan is available as a (much easier to pronounce) formula called Clinical Nutrients for the Eyes, which is available from natural food stores, compounding pharmacies, and the Tahoma Clinic Dispensary.
Rounding out the natural treatment options for cataracts is a single, simple nutrient: vitamin A. Decades ago, an honest ophthalmologist with a sense of humor wrote a letter-to-the-Editor of a medical journal “complaining” that his income from cataract surgery had gone down by over 2/3 since he started recommending vitamin A to all his patients with any degree of cataract at all. I recommend 30,000 IU of vitamin A (not beta-carotene) for anyone who wants to prevent or treat cataracts. In fact, the only people who shouldn’t use this amount are very small children (who don’t get cataracts anyway) and pregnant women.
And while we’re on the topic of cataract prevention, one of the most important things you can do is to eliminate all sources of sugar and refined carbohydrates from your diet! Researchers have found that part of the cause of cataracts is the lens of the eye trying to “help” the body lower high blood sugar by “packing it away” within the lens, which gradually obscures the vision, which explains why individuals with type 2 diabetes have a much greater incidence of cataracts than people with normal blood sugar levels. So even though not eating sugar and refined carbohydrates is better for everyone’s health, it’s especially important for cataract prevention if you have diabetes—type 2 or type 1—in your family. Eliminating all sources of the milk sugar lactose (milk, ice cream, cottage cheese, and many soft cheeses) will reduce your risk of cataract, too.
In addition to eliminating refined sugar and carbohydrates, you may also want to consider incorporating some cataract-preventing nutrients (other than just vitamin A) into your daily supplement regimen. Riboflavin, vitamin C, quercitin, zinc, and carotenoids have all been associated with cataract risk reduction. And one study found that people with higher serum vitamin E levels had 50 percent less risk of developing cataracts than people with lower levels. (When you’re supplementing with vitamin E, remember to use mixed tocopherols, not just alpha-tocopherol.)
As a side note, patent-medicine “cortisone” preparations that are prescribed to suppress symptoms of asthma, severe allergies, rheumatoid arthritis, and other more severe inflammatory conditions always increase cataract risk. So if you’re using prescription patent-medicine “cortisone,” check with a physician skilled and knowledgeable in nutritional and natural medicine for effective alternatives.
Your guide for beating cognitive decline (a.k.a “keeping your marbles”)
According to health authorities, Alzheimer’s disease is slated to become the next epidemic. In fact, current estimates state that nearly half of people over the age of 85 have Alzheimer’s, whether it’s obvious or not. There are non-Alzheimer’s forms of dementia, too, most notably “multi-infarct” dementia, which is thought to be caused by a series of small strokes, and mild cognitive decline, which likely has many causes that have yet to be identified.
The best way to combat any and all of these cognitive problems is to prevent them from occurring in the first place. You keep reading about it over and over again, but an excellent diet is truly the most important aspect of preventing most—if not all—health problems, including cognitive decline. In fact, more and more research is being reported linking blood sugar problems (such as diabetes) and potential blood sugar problems (such as metabolic syndrome and insulin resistance) with a higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease. So here we go again: Eliminate the sugar and refined carbohydrates! Make sure to eat several non-starchy vegetables and a wide array of colorful vegetables every day, too. (You want a varied palette on your plate because each color signals a different and necessary-to-good-health group of nutrients.)
It’s also a good idea to “eat organic” as much as possible, since organically raised foods have significantly more minerals and vitamins than “commercially” grown varieties, not to mention a much lower risk of being contaminated with pesticides, herbicides, and miscellaneous non-food chemical additives.
When you can, I encourage you to even go beyond organic produce and also opt for organic, free-range meat and poultry as well. The essential fatty acid ratio in free-range protein is anti-inflammatory, while the essential fatty acid ratio found in grain-fed animal protein actually promotes inflammation, and inflammation is also being implicated more and more as raising the risk of Alzheimer’s and other cognitive malfunction.
Along these same lines, one of the best “brain foods” you can eat is fish. (Low-mercury fish, that is.) Not only are the omega-3 fatty acids in fish anti-inflammatory, but they’re also essential components of the membranes of every brain cell we have. And since our bodies can’t make them on their own, it’s critical to get enough omega-3s and other essential fatty acids from supplements (like cod liver oil) and foods (like free-range meat and fish).
Phospholipids are another key component of brain cells. While our bodies can make them, as with many other things (co-enzyme Q10 and glutathione are two prominent examples) our bodies make less and less with age. Eggs—specifically the yolks—are excellent sources of phospholipids, as is the lecithin found in soy. Supplemental lecithin—another good source of phospholipids—is available in any natural food store and is an excellent idea for anyone over 40.
Boost your brain—and your sex life
I can’t tell you how many men I’ve seen at the Tahoma Clinic who have the idea that testosterone is mostly for sexual function. I always let them know that its most important job is maintaining cognitive function. The sex part is important, no doubt, but who cares about sex if you can’t remember who you’re with or what you’re doing with her?
Unfortunately, thanks to this misunderstanding word hasn’t gotten around that—just like estrogen replacement for women—bio-identical testosterone replacement for men is extremely important for significantly reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive decline. Since we’ve covered this subject before (see the March 2004 and March 2006 issues of Nutrition & Healing ) I’ll just mention a few of the highlights:
• Higher serum estrogen levels in women in their 60s are directly correlated with lower incidence of Alzheimer’s in those same women decades later. (And the reverse is true too: Lower estrogens equal higher incidence of Alzheimer’s in later years.)
• The 15-year Princeton men’s study determined that men who had higher serum free testosterone in 1983 had less risk of Alzheimer’s disease in 1998. (Once again, the reverse was also true: Lower serum free testosterone corresponded with higher risk of Alzheimer’s.)
• Researchers observing neurons found substantially less accumulation of beta-amyloid, neurofibrillary tangle, tau protein, and other “neuronal garbage” associated with Alzheimer’s when those neurons were exposed to “physiologic quantities” of either estrogen or testosterone (depending on whether the neuron was from a woman or a man).
• In numerous controlled experiments, elderly men without Alzheimer’s disease do better on tests of cognitive function when given testosterone than men given placebo.
• Testosterone for men and estrogen (that’s real, bio-identical estrogen—not horse estrogen) for women is very protective for the entire cardiovascular system, including the blood supply to the brain. (Remember that cognitive decline due to repeated small strokes?)
The bottom line is, if you want to “keep your marbles” for as long as you live, consider bio-identical hormone replacement when it’s appropriate for you. Just make sure to be working with a physician who is skilled and knowledgeable in all aspects of this therapy. If you’re not sure if your doctor is, one way to find out is to ask the physician’s office whether they do routine monitoring of therapy with the 24-hour urine steroid determination. This test is the very best way to check not only the levels of the bio-identical hormones being replaced but also their metabolization (the natural transformation of the starting hormones into pro- and anti-carcinogenic metabolites). Blood and/or saliva testing just doesn’t cut it when it comes to bio-identical HRT. See Nutrition & Healing for December 2007 for a much more detailed discussion of safety monitoring for bio-identical hormone replacement (and, rest assured, if safety monitoring does indicate that there’s an imbalance in the “wrong” direction, it’s almost always correctable with nutrients or botanicals).
Small dose, big protection
I’ve written about lithium’s brain-protecting benefits before too (see Nutrition & Healing for August 2003 and April 2008), and this is getting a bit long (sorry about that) so I’ll be brief: No matter what neurotoxin your brain is exposed to, lithium protects against it.
Not only that, but lithium actually promotes the growth of new brain cells, even in individuals past age 50. So far, no other nutrient has been found to do that.
Yes, high-dose prescription lithium can be toxic, but low quantities like the ones used for boosting cognitive function and protecting brain cells (20 milligrams daily and under) are not associated with toxicity. In over 30 years, I’ve only encountered two or three individuals who reported a possible reaction to low-dose lithium: These people thought that it might have given them a slight tremor (which went away when the lithium was discontinued). But on the flip side of that same coin, I’ve also encountered dozens of individuals who reported improvement in benign tremors with the use of low dose lithium.
Even though risk of toxicity from low-dose lithium is very small, I always recommend you work with a physician skilled and knowledgeable in nutritional and natural medicine if you decide to supplement with lithium. And to be on the extra-cautious side, I always recommend using supplemental essential fatty acids when using even low-quantity lithium supplements. Essential fatty acids are the primary treatment for toxicity caused by high-dose prescription lithium, so using them in conjunction with low-dose treatment helps avoid that possibility altogether.
Spicing up your brain-boosting regimen
There are many, many more supplemental items that can help you maintain cognitive function, but we’re quickly running out of space, so I’ll just mention two more: curcumin and ginkgo.
Although no one is entirely sure how it works, the research on curcumin’s ability to protect against Alzheimer’s (as well as its many other beneficial effects) has been more than a little exciting. Areas of the world in which the spice turmeric (which has a high concentration of curcumin) is routinely used have very little—if any—Alzheimer’s compared with areas that don’t. Perhaps the best aspect of curcumin is that you don’t need to take yet another pill to get its brain-boosting benefits. Just use turmeric in your cooking, perhaps an average of 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoonful daily. (For those of us who just can’t stand the taste of turmeric, it is available in capsules, too. If you’re using it for long-term cognitive maintenance, consider taking two 200-milligram capsules a day.)
Ginkgo has been used for the brain for thousands of years, and (like lithium) has been found to be neuroprotective. Next month, we’ll have the latest information about ginkgo and cognitive function from Kerry Bone.
We all know that none of us will live forever, but there’s no reason not live as long as our “genetic programs” will allow, and keep all of our faculties while we’re here. If you can do all of the things outlined above (or at least come close), you’ll have a much better chance of living as long as your oldest known relative, getting to know your great-grandchildren, and hearing, seeing, enjoying, and remembering those years of life so much better!.
Measuring and monitoring your aldosterone if you have hearing loss.
Many labs use blood tests to measure aldosterone levels, but I definitely prefer measuring aldosterone as part of an over-all steroid analysis done from a 24-hour urine collection. This test measures all the aldosterone output in a 24-hour period; since aldosterone and other steroid hormones are secreted into the bloodstream in “pulses,” a blood test isn’t quite as accurate.
Also, the 24-hour urine collection measures the “hormone context” in which aldosterone is found, including measurements of cortisol, cortisone, and “downstream metabolites” of cortisol and cortisone. Putting these measurements together allows your physician to assess your adrenal strength and weakness.
The 24-hour urine test also measures pro-carcinogenic estrogens (estrone, estradiol, 16-alpha-hydroxyestrogens, 4-hydoxyestrogens) and anti-carcinogenic estrogens (estriol, 2-hydroxyestrogens, 2-methoxyestradiol, 2-methoxyestone), as well as progesterone, testosterone, and testosterone’s pro- and anti-carcinogenic metabolites DHT and androstanediol (“5-alpha” and “5-beta” forms of both). Thyroid hormones (“free T3” and “free T4”) and growth hormone (HGH) can be added to the test, too.
These measurements may seem unrelated, but all of these hormones interact with each other, so a physician skilled and knowledgeable in bio-identical hormone replacement can do a lot more for you if he or she has ALL of your hormonal information.
Those of you who have been reading Nutrition & Healing for some time know that I’m the Medical Director for Meridian Valley Labs. Back in 1982 I asked them to develop the 24-hour urine analysis so that so I could do a better job with bio-identical hormone replacement for Tahoma Clinic clients. I’ve been using it ever since and it has proven to be an invaluable tool. By Washington state law, individuals can order their own lab tests—including the 24-hour urine analysis. To find out more about it, contact Meridian Valley Labs at 206-209-4200 or see www.meridianvalleylab.com