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Marijuana as Medicine; Stopping Alzheimer's Before It Starts; 5 Foods You Should Never Eat

Aired August 18, 2013 - 07:30   ET



On tap today: a potentially groundbreaking new test to diagnose Alzheimer's a full ten years before you develop symptoms.

Plus, five foods you might think are healthy but you should actually never eat.

But, first, leading up to my marijuana documentary, I wrote this op-ed called, "Why I changed my mind on weed." I took the position that this is a plant and it could have real medical potential, and it's certainly deserving of further study.

Part of the reason I came around to this is because I met patient after patient whose lives are truly being changed by using this plant as medicine.

Now, one little girl in particular stuck with me. She is named Charlotte.


GUPTA (voice-over): It was January 2012, Afghanistan. About 7,000 miles away from his family in Colorado, Matt Figi received this video from his wife, Paige.

MATT FIGI, CHARLOTTE'S FATHER: It's horrible seeing these videos when I'm deployed.

GUPTA: It was his 5-year-old daughter, Charlotte, seizing. Diagnosed with a severe form of epilepsy, she was having 300 seizures a week. Each attack so severe it had the potential to kill her. They had already tried dozens of high-powered drugs. M. FIGI: We needed to try something else, and at that point in time marijuana was that natural course of action to try.

GUPTA: At home in Colorado, Paige searched for marijuana high in CBD. That's the ingredient some scientists think helps seizures. And also low in THC. Remember, she didn't want to get her daughter stoned. She found a small amount at a Denver dispensary. The owner was surprised that anyone would even want it.

PAIGE FIGI, CHARLOTTE'S MOTHER: And they said it's funny because no one buys this. You know. That was the general consensus, that nobody wanted it. It didn't have any effect.

GUPTA: Paige paid $800 for a small bag and took it home.

P. FIGI: I had a friend that was starting a business making medicine, and I said, can you help me extract the medicine from this bag of marijuana?

I measured it with a syringe and squirted it under her tongue. It was exciting and very nerve-racking.

GUPTA: Holding Charlotte in her arms, Paige waited. An hour ticked by. And then another. And then another.

P. FIGI: She didn't have seizures that day. And then she didn't have a seizure that night.

GUPTA: Did you sit there and look at your watch?

P. FIGI: Yes. Right. I thought this is crazy. And then she didn't have one the next day. And then the next day.

And I thought that is -- she would have had 100 by now. And I just -- I know. I just thought this is insane.

M. FIGI: I remember how happy Paige was. It's really working. I can't believe it. Yes, that was pretty amazing to hear.

GUPTA: It had worked. But in just a couple of weeks the excitement was overshadowed by panic. Paige was running out of marijuana and the dispensary didn't have any more of that particular strain. Even if there was more, the monthly price tag would have been astronomical, $2,000, and not a penny of it covered by insurance. But then Paige heard about Stanleys, the six brothers, and their greenhouse of marijuana that is high in CBD.

P. FIGI: I said, oh, my goodness. He says, I don't know what to do with it. We're trying these things with it, but no one wants it. It's not sellable. I said just don't touch that because we need that plant.

GUPTA: At first, they didn't want to take the risk of giving marijuana to such a young child. But then they met her.

(on camera): Tell me about the first time you met Matt, Paige, and Charlotte. I'm going to get you misty-eyed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, you get all of us crying when we start talking about that little girl.

GUPTA (voice-over): The Figis had hit the jackpot. A steady supply of high CBD marijuana, and they only had to pay what they can afford.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: People have called us the Robin Hoods of marijuana. They say that we sell pot so that we can take care of the kids and the truly less fortunate.

GUPTA: Charlotte was the first of those kids. Late spring 2012, she tried the Stanley special marijuana, and, again, it worked.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I can't tell you what that -- what that means to us.

GUPTA (o camera): Gets you, doesn't it, a little bit?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If it doesn't get you, something is wrong with you. She lived her life in a catatonic state. Now her parents get to meet her for the first time. What a revelation.

GUPTA: The child who'd had 300 seizures a week was now down to just one every seven days.


GUPTA: I'll tell you, we finished filming around the start of summer and just spent time with the family off camera. I'm happy to report Charlotte continues to do very well. The medicine is still keeping her seizures under control.

Just ahead, a new test throughout that can give people a head start on fighting Alzheimer's disease.

Plus, they can do now to help keep your brain in tip-top shape. That's up next.


GUPTA: Alzheimer's disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. Also the only one that has no effective treatment. By the time the symptoms arrive, it's too late because the disease has been developing for years.

So, the question becomes: what if you could catch it earlier, even with a sample exam in a doctor's office?


GUPTA (voice-over): Twelve years ago, Rosa Rodrigo took a wrong turn when she was pulling out of a shopping center parking lot.

ROSA RODRIGO, ALZHEIMER'S PATIENT: Well, a little scary because I didn't remember where I came from or where I was supposed to be going.

GUPTA: After that initial moment of panic, things got worse. Rosa had trouble getting dressed.

R. RODRIGO: I don't remember anything.

GUPTA: Remembering her favorite recipes. She started repeating herself.

CYDDIA RODRIGO, ROSA'S DAUGHTER: And I see every now and again she'll be walking on her way to do something, and then suddenly stop, because she can't remember where she was going and what it was that she was doing. GUPTA: Rosa is taking medication to try and blunt these symptoms. She also signed up for a clinical trial that could help unlock some mysteries of the aging brain.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hello. Welcome. Have a seat right here.

C. RODRIGO: Have a seat right there, mom.

DR. KEITH BLACK, CHAIRMAN, CEDARS-SINAI DEPARTMENT OF NEUROSURGERY: Currently, we're diagnosing Alzheimer's with a memory test. By the time you get memory loss, you've already lost 50 percent of your brain cells. It's very difficult for any treatment to be effective at that point.

GUPTA: What if you could spot the disease 5, 10, even 20 years before you become symptomatic? Dr. Black says he might have found a way by using the eyes a window into the brain.

BLACK: Normally, we do not think of an eye as an extension of the brain. But doing embryonic development, the back of the eye, the retina, actually develops from the brain itself. So, it's brain tissue.

GUPTA: One telltale sign of Alzheimer's is a buildup of sticky plaques. They're called Beta-Amyloid. They're inside the brain. They can start to develop years before the first symptoms and, in fact, those same plaques develop an eye tissue as well.

BLACK: The beauty of that is that it allows to essentially a non- invasive, repeatable high resolution test to be able to see these protein changes that are the hallmark of Alzheimer's disease very early.


GUPTA: And joining me now from Los Angeles is Dr. Gary Small. He's from UCLA's School of Medicine. He's the guy who we call on this topic. He's the author of "The Alzheimer's Prevention Program: Keep Your Brain Healthy for the Rest of Your Life."

Welcome back to the program, Dr. Small.


GUPTA: You may know at least three companies are developing eye tests looking for signs of impairment. One of them is based on some of Dr. Black's work. Last year, the FDA also approved a type of brain scan to try and help with early detection.

But the next question that people are always going to ask and I ask is, is there value in finding it early? Is there anything you can do about it?

SMALL: I think there's value in trying to find it earlier, and trying to develop technologies to detect it earlier, but I would agree with you. Unless that early detection tool is linked to a specific treatment, there may not be that much value. We need sort of a cholesterol test for the brain.


SMALL: If you have high cholesterol, check from your blood. Your doctor will give you a statin drug to lower your cholesterol and future risk of a stroke or heart attack, and we did the same kind of test and treatment link that we have with that.

GUPTA: Yes. And I mean, hopefully that's going to come, because I think that's what people are really clamoring for. Let me ask you, and this is a question again, that you're uniquely qualified to answer. But if you suspect problems in a loved one, for example -- how do you know at this time whether it's Alzheimer's or something else?

SMALL: Generally, it's a standard medical examination. There are blood tests to look for thyroid disease, other medical illnesses, that could cause a cognitive impairment. A brain scan will check for tumors or strokes. So, it's a bit of a diagnosis of exclusion.

Now, a lot of places are beginning to do these amyloid PET scan. But even there, you can have a false positive rate, people with normal cognition whose have a positive scan.

GUPTA: For people who are watching now who, you know, think, look, I'm worried about this, but it's not me right now. What -- what is your best advice base and all the things you've researched for keeping the brain health? Do you have a Dr. Small top list?

SMALL: Well, I do. I mean, first of all, if you're concerned about it, do see the doctor. A lot of times there are treatable illnesses. Even if it is Alzheimer's, there are symptomatic approaches.

But beyond that, we know that lifestyle is very important. Genetics is only part of the story. And there's compelling evidence that regular physical exercise, a good diet. Lowering stress levels and learning ways to compensate for age-related memory decline can have a big impact on people's lives.

GUPTA: You know, and you mentioned this a little. But I always tell people based on some recent data that exercising and maintaining, you know, good heart health is crucial to brain health as well. In fact, if you can find 30 minutes to work out, that might be better for your brain than doing 30 minutes of brain exercise. Would you agree with that?

SMALL: I would agree with that. In fact, a study, one study found that 30 minutes of brisk walking each day lowers an individual's risk for Alzheimer's disease. And when you're getting your heart to pump oxygen and nutrients to your brain cells you're protecting those brain cells. We know that physical exercise and the diet will reduce the risk for diabetes, and if you develop diabetes that doubles the probability you'll develop Alzheimer's.

GUPTA: Dr. Gary Small. Always enjoy having you on the program. You always teach us something. Appreciate it. SMALL: Thank you very much. My pleasure.

GUPTA: You know, earlier this year, I traveled to a small village in the Netherlands for a rare look inside that village where every resident has severe dementia. And I can tell you, it's one of the most humane things I've ever seen. You can watch the entire documentary on my life stream and

Now, still ahead on SGMD: five foods you should never eat, including some you would never guess.

But, first, the human effect.


GUPTA (voice-over): As long as twins Evan and Eric Edwards can remember, they had allergies. The official diagnosis when they were 3.

ERIC EDWARDS, HAS ALLERGIES: We were allergic to all egg products, all seafood, including shellfish and fish, all peanuts, all tree nuts, and most antibiotics.

GUPTA: Plus, seasonal allergies as well.

EVAN EDWARDS, HAS ALLERGIES: We didn't have pets growing up. We were allergic to dogs and cats.

GUPTA: To top it off, chronic asthma. For them, school was a huge challenge.

ERIC EDWARDS: We were those guys who had to be placed at a special table at lunch to try to insure that there was no potential for contamination.

EVAN EDWARDS: If you have an allergy, there's a stigma, you are kind of weird, or, you know, we were the weird kids at the end of the cafeteria table.

GUPTA: With the near constant threat of anaphylaxis, which is a severe life-threatening allergic reaction, the twins had to have EpiPens at all time. It's a pen-like device that injects a dose of epinephrine to stop a sharp drop in blood pressure in serious breathing problems. But they both thought their EpiPens were too bulky and they often didn't carry them. Both have had three really close calls. So when they left high school, they decided to invent a smaller, more portable device.

ERIC EDWARDS: This was about us trying to take our experience and then develop another option for these millions who are at risk.

GUPTA: They tailored their college classes around the new invention they were designing. Evan took engineering courses. Eric took the pre-med route.

After college, they started their company, Intelliject. And last year, the FDA approved Auvi-Q. It's an epinephrine auto-injector. It's about the size of a credit card and it's the first to talk you through an injection.

COMPUTER VOICE: To inject place black end against outer thigh.

GUPTA: Now, as parents themselves with children of severe allergies, their message to others is simple.

ERIC EDWARDS: Don't give up hope. And know that, you know, more treatments are coming available, more research, the awareness is growing. People understand this more than ever.



GUPTA: The truth is most of us probably avoid certain foods because we simply don't like the way they taste. But even if we're told that they're healthy, there are many foods in the market that will taste great but still contain ingredients that are potentially hazardous to your health.

And this is where it gets interesting. Food industry experts compiled this list of foods they say we should never eat.

David Jack has insight on this. He's a nutrition expert. He's also contributing editor to "Men's Health" magazine.

Thanks for being here.

DAVID JACK, NUTRITION EXPERT: It's a pleasure to be here.

GUPTA: You know, this is going to open up a lot of eyes I think because, again, you know, and I'm guilty to this as well. As a doc, you tell people what you think are the rights to food eat. And nutrition is such an important part of their health, but then, we have to dig deeper sometimes, as you've done here. We've got some of these foods that are laid out. Maybe we can just sort of talk through this.

JACK: Sure.

GUPTA: The strawberries.

JACK: Right here.

GUPTA: Healthy food.

JACK: So, strawberries, Environmental Working Group that comes up each with this list of a clean 15 and a dirty dozen.

GUPTA: Right.

JACK: And basically what they look at it is, they look at fruits and vegetables, how they're grown and how they're treated with pesticides. So, we have a fruit like a strawberry that actually when they spray strawberries with pesticides they're in gear that protects them while they're spraying the strawberries with the pesticides. Is that good for our body?

So they've studied there's over 13 pesticides in the common strawberry. So we think we're eating healthy, but really we have to choose in this case organic to get away from those pesticides, which are so detrimental to our health, and ultimately get back to good food as it was designed.

GUPTA: You don't need to buy everything organic?

JACK: Correct.

GUPTA: Then this dirty dozen, if you're peeling the fruit.

JACK: Yes.

GUPTA: You're getting rid of it. But strawberries, you don't have that luxury.

JACK: Yes, this year, we're finding kale on that list which never was because it's in such popular demand now that some of, it's getting the overspray because it's grown in crops near other things. So, it's really getting interesting.

GUPTA: It's fascinating.

White chocolate -- now, a lot of people aren't going to put white chocolate on the healthy list, but there's again more than meets the eye here?

JACK: Well, chocolate is something that actually in its rare form, cacao, that bean, is really very healthy and high antioxidants, that really helps our body to be well. There's obviously things that help brain function in chocolate.

What happens like with other foods is the beauty of that food gets stripped down and stripped away and gets processed. So, what we end up with this kind of healthy snack we want to give ourselves just to feel good, and we think we're doing good for ourselves. It takes out all the nutrition.

We really want to stay closer to the dark chocolate at organic cacao that keeps all of those key nutrients inside of it. You get the healthy snack, but you also get benefit from it.

GUPTA: So, it's more of the cacao butter, right?

JACK: Yes.

GUPTA: Not really chocolate per se?

JACK: Correct. It's the butter. It's the actual -- that actual --

GUPTA: It's marketing genius. We'll call it white chocolate.

JACK: Further away from the truth as you get down to it.

GUPTA: And then you realize.

JACK: Yes.

GUPTA: Sprouts, again, you know, this is something that a lot of doctors recommend?

JACK: Yes. Healthy. Here's the problem. Sprouts, the seed generally needs moist, warm environments to grow, which is a breeding ground for bacteria.

GUPTA: All sorts of different organisms and food recalls.

JACK: Exactly. They found sprouts are usually the cull pretty at the sent of these massive food recall and getting people sick. So, if you're going to do sprouts, we recommend that you heat them to try to kill some of the bacteria, or you get some crunch with the sprouts.

So, you take your carrots, you take your cabbages and you shred them and use those instead.

GUPTA: To try to get that texture.

JACK: Sure. Get the texture. Stay away from the bacteria.

GUPTA: Canned tomatoes. Is it the can or is it the tomatoes?

JACK: It's really the can.

So, there's a resin n the can that brings these synthetic estrogens into our body, which starts to mess with our hormones. And hormone regulation is really the issue that a lot of people are facing and being unwell and unhealthy weight gain.

So, we want to get away from the can and we want to move to things like glass that don't have those resins in there or even like a tetra pak like Trader Joe's has tomatoes in a tetra pak, which also helps get us away from the dangers that would be inside the can.

GUPTA: And, finally, and specifically swordfish over here.

JACK: Sure.

GUPTA: And I should point out, you guys interviewed a lot of different experts for this column.

JACK: We did.

GUPTA: Dr. Lander (ph), someone I know well, weighed in on this.

What do you say?

JACK: Swordfish is really high in mercury. The other thing, it's not sustainably fished a lot. So, they'll use methods that damage other sea life.

So, you're getting double whammy with it. You're getting high mercury, which there's tons of issues with that. It's a toxin. But you're also having this insustainable fishing practices. So, you want to move to things like, you know, wild Alaskan salmon. You want to move to things like Pacific -- even Pacific tuna, closer.

Snakehead fish now, they're saying, tastes a lot like swordfish but these are more sustainably fished. They're line caught, they're trolled for, the mercury is down, so, it's better for the environment. It's better for your body.

GUPTA: Have you had snakehead fish?

JACK: I haven't yet.

GUPTA: I heard it tastes a lot like swordfish.

JACK: I know. I got to get over the name a little but I'm willing to give it a shot.

GUPTA: Change that name. I really appreciate it.

JACK: Thank you so much.

GUPTA: Thanks for being here.

JACK: Pleasure.

GUPTA: We appreciate it.

We got a check's of your top stories just minutes away.

But still ahead on SGMD, we're chasing life.

Stay with us.


GUPTA: You know, getting a full restful night's sleep can be a real challenge sometimes. In fact, last year, doctors wrote nearly 60 million prescriptions to help us get some shut eye. But as you may know, you know, those pills that can sometimes take a while to wear off. A particular concern is getting behind the wheel.

In January the government told the makers of Ambien, another sleep drug, to lower the dose, in large part because these types of medicines can stay in the system even the next day and that could affect driving.

So, before you reach for a pill, I say there's some good tips to help you get a good night's sleep. First of all, avoid caffeine and alcohol late in the day. You probably heard that. Turn off your cell phone at night, sometimes easier said than done. Make sure your room is dark, as dark as possible.

And here's one that I use. If you're tossing and turning, simply get out of bed for a while. Do something else. A few more hours of beauty rest can help all of us chase life. That's going to wrap things up for SGMD. But stay connected with me at Let's keep the conversation going on Twitter @DrSanjayGupta.

Time now, though, to get you back to the CNN NEWSROOM with Pamela Brown.