Six natural therapies for dementia

There are lots of alternative, complimentary and natural therapies that can help people with dementia. In fact, there are so many it can be difficult to choose the best ones for you or the person you're caring for. Here's the basic information you need.

In a nutshell

Many people with dementia find natural therapies beneficial and enjoyable. Whether it's a herbal remedy to boost mood or memory, a massage to ease anxiety or agitation, or acupuncture to reduce tension and aid sleep, natural therapies can be a useful way to manage symptoms of dementia, but they don't – as yet – offer a way to cure or prevent it.

1. Acupuncture

What is it?
Acupuncture is a treatment from ancient Chinese medicine in which fine needles are inserted into various parts of the body, but don't worry – it’s not painful.

How does it work?
The needles stimulate nerves under the skin and in muscle tissue resulting in the body producing pain relieving substances such as endorphins.

The evidence:
There is scientific evidence that acupuncture can help manage pain – particularly back pain and arthritis. Acupuncture has also been shown, in small studies, to have a positive effect on people with dementia, and to bring 'significant therapeutic effects' by reducing anxiety and lifting mood.

You decide:
This may be worth a try if you are struggling with anxiety and low mood and aren't put off by the needles, though you'll probably have to pay privately, since acupuncture is only available on the NHS for pain management, and even then it's hard to get. Prices start at around £35.

2. Aromatherapy

What is it?
The use of plant based oils (either inhaled, applied to the skin or put in food or tea). Aromatherapy is becoming increasingly accepted as a way to treat the symptoms of dementia.

How does it work?
The oils stimulate the part of the brain connected to smell – the olfactory system. A signal is sent to the limbic system of the brain, which controls emotions and retrieves memories. This causes chemicals to be released which make the person feel relaxed, calm or stimulated.

The evidence:
Some studies have shown that aromatherapy can have significant benefits including a reduction in agitation, sleeplessness, wandering and depression. Lemon balm is the most studied oil and considered one of the most effective.

You decide:
You may wish to give it a go if the person you're caring for is mildly or moderately affected by dementia, but note that as the illness progresses some people lose their sense of smell. As aromatherapy is fairly easy to do at home, inexpensive (pure essential oils start from around £6 per bottle) even if there are no symptomatic changes your loved one’s environment will smell lovely!

Top oils to try:
• Lavender, for depression, anger and irritability, peppermint, to stimulate the mind and calm the nerves.
• Rosemary, to stimulate the mind and body.
• Bergamont to relieve agitation and anxiety, and lemon balm to improve memory.
Always dilute essential oils in a carrier oil when applying to the skin and follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

Did you know?
Aromatherapy is the fastest growing complementary therapy amongst nurses who use it on their patients.

3. Massage

What is it?
Massage therapy can be used on someone with dementia to bring comfort, rest and relaxation though gentle touch.

How does it work?
Massage releases the ‘feel-good hormones’, oxytocin and dopamine, which relieve pain and discomfort, help regulate sleep, improve circulation and aid mobility.

The evidence:
There is a lack of clinical research into the benefits massage can give to people with dementia, but there is sufficient interest in its potential benefits for government guidelines to recommend that massage be made available, as part of a care package, where possible.

You decide:
A massage may be a lovely treat for anyone but if you are considering it, make sure it's carried out by someone who has training and experience in working with clients who are living with dementia. Expect to pay anything from £20.

4. Bright Light Therapy

What is it?
The person receiving bright light therapy sits under a light box for a set amount of time, around 30 minutes per day.

How does it work?
The light box provides around 30 times more light than an average office light. The additional light encourages your brain to alter levels of melatonin (the hormone that makes you sleepy) and serotonin (the hormone that affects our mood).

The evidence:
Several studies have shown that bright light therapy can help people with dementia to sleep better and longer, and be less inclined to wander through the night. One study has shown it might also improve memory and cognitive ability.

You decide:
If disrupted sleep and night time wandering is a particular concern, it could be worth investing in a lightbox.

5. Kampo therapy

What is it?
The use of traditional kampo medicine, which is a Japanese variant of Chinese herbs.

How does it work?
Two remedies are used for treating dementia. They are called Chato-san, which contains 11 medicinal plants, and Kami-Umtan-To (KUT) which contains 13 medicinal plants.

The evidence:
Two studies suggest that Chato-san might be effective in treating vascular dementia and one clinical trial found that Kami-Umtan-To might help to slow down the progression of Alzheimer's.

You decide:
More research is needed but if you want to try these remedies make sure you tell your GP and buy them from a well known, reputable company or a professionally trained herbalist.

6. Betrinac

What is it?
A natural supplement containing an antioxidant called NAC (N-acetylcysteine) alongside B vitamins and folic acid.

How does it work?
High blood levels of the amino acid homocysteine are a known risk factor for stroke and dementia. B vitamins and antioxidants can help to lower them and bring them back to a healthy level.

The evidence:
The benefits of antioxidants and B vitamins for brain and memory have already been noted in several studies, (though results have been mixed). However this supplement is interesting because it combines them both.

You decide:
This could be useful for mild cognitive impairment or for someone in the very early stages of dementia.