Herbs, Supplements and Studies: Alternative Treatments for Alzheimer’s


Alzheimer’s is a serious degenerative disease.  Doctors prescribe medications to slow the onset of symptoms though Alzheimer’s is an irreversible condition.  A number of herbal remedies are deemed memory enhancers which seek to delay the disease.  However, studies are performed to help educate consumers about the claims put forth by suppliers and promoters.

Alternative Concerns

While some doctors and patients are more open to trying alternative herbs and supplements, others have concerns as to the legitimacy of any one alternative’s effectiveness.

Firstly, the rigorous research required by the US Food and Drug Administration is reserved for prescription medications but not for dietary supplements.  A  manufacturer of a supplement is not required by law to prove through scientific data the basis for some claims used in marketing.

Secondly, the FDA has no authority over the production of supplements.  Manufacturers develop their own processes and monitor whether guidelines are met by workers during the production and shipping phase.  For example, the FDA does not ensure that the ingredients printed on the labels are actually followed or provided in specified amounts.

Thirdly, supplements can have interactions with prescribed medications, and no one should take a supplement without discussing it with their doctor.


Axona is marketed as a medical food.  It contains Caprylic acid, a triglyceride, derived from the processing of coconut or palm kernel oil.  Axona promises to be an alternative energy source for brain cells that lost the ability to use glucose.  Axona precedes Ketasyn, which was tested on patients with Alzheimer’s.  A study suggests that those who took Ketasyn performed better on memory tests than those who were given a placebo.

Ketasyn was in Phase II of studies, which means that results are too small to generalize or confirm that it will work on all patients.  Phase III studies would involve several hundred to thousands of volunteers.  The producers of Ketasyn did not go forth into Phase III, but used Ketasyn as the basis of Axona.  “Medical foods” do not require Phase III testing.  The Alzheimer’s Association Medical and Scientific Advisory Council has observed that there is not enough evidence to support that medical foods can treat symptoms of the disease.  However, some with Alzheimer’s and caregivers have used coconut oil as a less expensive source of caprylic acid.

Coenzyme Q10

Coenzyme Q10 or ubiquinone occurs naturally in the body and is needed for normal cell reactions.  A synthetic version called idebenone was tested for Alzheimer’s but did not show any benefits.  Doctors know very little about what doses of coenzyme Q10 is considered safe.

Coral Calcium

Coral calcium supplements have been marketed as a cure for Alzheimer’s, cancer, and other illnesses.  The coral calcium is a form of calcium carbonate that’s derived from shells or dead organisms that once comprised coral reefs.    Experts recommend individuals who need to take calcium for bone health take a purified form produced from a reputable manufacturer.

The Federal Trade Commission and the Food and Drug Administration have filed complaints against promoters and distributors.  The agencies state they are not aware of reliable scientific evidence to support the claims and believe it’s unlawful to make such claims.

Ginkgo biloba

Ginkgo is a plant extract that has several compounds that could have a positive effect on cells in the brain and throughout the body.  It is believed to offer anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.  Used for centuries in Chinese medicine, Ginkgo is used in Europe to alleviate cognitive symptoms related to neurological conditions.

Phase III tests showed that Ginkgo biloba had no better results on participants than those given a placebo regarding prevention or delay of Alzheimer’s disease.  View the Alternative Daily for more info.  

Huperzine A

Huperzine A is a moss extract used in traditional Chinese medicine.  It has similar properties to cholinesterase inhibitors, a class of FDA-approved Alzheimer’s medications.  Due to the similarity, it’s promoted as a treatment for Alzheimer’s.  A large-scale US study found that participants taking Huperzine A had no greater benefit over those taking a placebo.  Formulas are currently available as a dietary supplement.

Omega-3 fatty acids

Omega-3s are polyunsaturated fatty acids.  Research has shown that types of omega-3s reduce the risk of heart disease and incidences of strokes.  The FDA permits supplements and foods to display labels with a “qualified” health claim.  Labels may state that research supports claims made by manufacturers yet the evidence is not conclusive.  Labels must list the amount of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) contained.