FEED YOUR BRAIN WITH OLIVE OIL: Benefit with improved brain health!

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Above photo was taken last week at the Memory Matters Mediterranean Lifestyle & Cooking demonstration at Sun City.

This short blog is merely an “overture” to a story that is older than written history. I refer to the story of olives and wine in the southern Mediterranean before I fast forward to today and describe the postive benefits that olive oil in particular can bring to those who embrace the Mediterranean lifestyle.

The “extra virgin” oil that is cold pressed from the olives has been the principal source of healthy nourishment in Greece, and southern Italy for thousands of years. Today we can include southern France and Spain too. Olive oil is the most fundamentally important ingredient in the Mediterranean lifestyle diet. There is substantial evidence to prove that people who follow the Mediterranean lifestyle live longer, with less incidence of heart disease, other ailments or dementia, and on average experience healthier lives than those living in Northern Europe and other parts of Western  Civilization including the USA. In fact I wrote a blog about this back in March entitled “Where People Forget to Die”. It contains important research data to back up the claims made by proponents of the Mediterranean diet, and you can count Memory Matters as one of those enthusiasts.

The olive was native to Asia Minor and spread from Iran, Syria and Palestine to the rest of the Mediterranean basin 6,000 years ago. It is among the oldest known cultivated trees in the world.  It was being grown on Crete by 3,000 BC and may have been the source of the wealth of the Minoan kingdom. The Phoenicians spread the olive to the Mediterranean shores of Africa and Southern Europe. Olives have been found in Egyptian tombs from 2,000 years BC. The olive culture was spread to the early Greeks and then the Romans. As the Romans extended their domain they brought the olive with them.

This story also mentions wine. Yes, taken in moderation, wine is an important part of the Mediterranean lifestyle! Two five ounce glasses per day is a typical recommendation for those who like me, enjoy wine.

Like the olive, the grape arrived in the southern Mediterranean a long time ago. Wine arrived with civilization from the East and the Egyptian tombs and paintings are evidence. Then in the Mediterranean world developed first by the Phoenicians and later the Greeks, viticulture and wine production blossomed and, of course, the Romans added their disciplined and practical abilities to the creative flair of the Greeks. So wine became a huge industry vitally important throughout the southern Mediterranean and was promoted by the Church and especially the Benedictine, Cistercian and Franciscan orders.

This “chronicle” is in four parts, namely:

  1.  A discussion of what comprises the “Mediterranean diet”.
  2.  A short review of a recent and thoroughly enjoyable cooking demonstration sponsored by Memory Matters in Sun City.
  3. Importantly an up-to-date account of how a US University research team has made dramatic progress in the fight to find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. You will not be surprised to hear that extra virgin olive oil is front and center of this exciting progress!
  4. Imagination. Just for fun, I will conclude by taking you on a short “imagined” journey to sample the Mediterranean lifestyle in southern Italy!

Wherever possible Memory Matters is intentionally offering our Club Members, families and volunteers a Mediterranean lunch diet. Our two caterers are working with us to provide, healthy but tasty meals. For example: delicious tuna sandwiches on whole-grain bread, served with fruit.

 

1. The Mediterranean lifestyle diet includes:

Lots of plant foods
Fresh fruit as dessert
High consumption of beans, nuts, cereals (in the form of wheat, oats, barley, corn or brown rice) and seeds
Olive oil as the main source of dietary fat
Cheese and yogurt as the main dairy foods. Feta cheese and Greek yogurt are prime examples.
Moderate amounts of fish and poultry
No more than about four eggs each week
Small amounts of red meat each week (compared to northern Europe)
Low to moderate amounts of wine. It is suggested that be no more than two five ounce glasses per day.
25% to 35% of calorie intake consists of fat
Saturated fat makes up no more than 8% of calorie intake

Fats – the Mediterranean diet is known to be low in saturated fat, high in monounsaturated fat, and high in dietary fiber.

Legumes – the Mediterranean diet includes plenty of legumes. Legumes are plants in the pea family that produce pods which slit open naturally along a seam, revealing a row of seeds.

Examples of legumes include peas, chick peas, lentils, alfafa, fava (broad) beans and green beans.

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Even if you have not yet had the opportunity to travel to Italy or other southern Mediterranean regions, it is important to note that people there are discerning, and live to eat. Eating should be a pleasure! 

In regions such as Umbria and Apulia in Italy food choice is simple and rustic but still qualitative, fresh, organic, and cooked with care and attention for the properties of the ingredients, attention for the balance of flavour and harmony of the ingredients.
Recipes are mostly simple, condiments are basic and natural (as much as possible). Salt is used judiciously since many organic foods already have salt content. So why add more!
The use of locally sourced and seasonal vegetables and fruits are essential parameters. If they are on sale at your local farmers market, it’s a good time to buy!
Their seasons play a big part: you eat products available in a given season and others in another season.
Locations play an important part too: temperatures, humidity, elevation (mountain, seaside, countryside etc.) and you determine the products available and their nutritional parameters (example: in winter in the mountain you would eat richer food than say in summer at the seaside).
They choose earthly and not processed (or lightly processed) food, with little chemical manipulation, with mostly vegetables and fruits. These are key elements of a daily consumption, as are meats from organically fed animals, and simple foods rich in Omega 3, including non-farmed fish like sea bass (Branzino) shrimp, sardines or squid. In our fantastic Lowcountry we would choose shrimp, grouper, snapper, trout, and mackerels.

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I learned from my Italian relatives that eating in the southern Mediterranean is a pleasure! It is NOT a healthy obligation! However look at the benefits:

  • improved cognitive function with decreases in dementia
  • protection against heart disease
  • help to control blood pressure and cholesterol
  • protection against many kinds of cancer and diabetes
  • reduced obesity
  • reduced risk of dementia including Alzheimer’s
  • reduced risk of arthritis
  • reduced risk of depression

All the five senses controlled by our amazing brain are active when pairing nutritious food, wine and music (never forget the power of music therapy!) in harmony. Scientists have proven that our memory functions work better when we use all or at least multiple senses to store memory.

2. Brain Health: Mediterranean Lifestyle & Cooking demonstration at Sun City.

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We recently commenced a new series of practical demonstrations at Sun City. The series is entitled “Brain Health with Memory Matters” and the first in the series was “The Mediterranean Lifestyle & Cooking”. It featured a live cooking demonstration by one of our volunteers, Chef Kim Baretta. Kim is a trained Chef with extensive experience in catering and teaching cooking classes in the US and London, England. She has also worked in Paris, France. Kim gave a tremendously enjoyable and informative demonstration that, without exaggeration, garnered rave reviews from around seventy attendees!

The demonstration included a Mediterranean style lunch being served, paired with a red wine. The complete entree comprised half an aubergine (eggplant) stuffed with ground lean lamb and lentils, and other mouth watering ingredients were extra virgin olive oil, onion, minced garlic, diced green pepper, diced plum tomatoes, cumin, mint, red chili flakes, salt and pepper, brown rice, Italian parsley and freshly grated parmigiano reggiano cheese.

A Tzatziki was prepared to spoon on top of the finished entree and the ingredients were fat free Greek yogurt, English cucumber, garlic, white wine vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, fresh mint, salt and pepper.

The eggplant and tzatziki were complimented with a full Greek salad topped with feta cheese. The empty plates seemed to confirm the guests enjoyment and Chef Kim further complimented the entree with fresh macerated strawberries drizzled with a blend of lemon juice and high quality aged balsamic vinegar.

For those of you who would like to know more about the Memory Matters Brain Health programs and demonstrations at Sun City, please contact Debbie Anderson at 1 843 842 6688.

3. The results of a recent US university study into the benefits of extra virgin olive oil in the fight to find a cure for Alzheimer’s.

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The following good news is “hot off the press” and was published in Medical News Today

I have summarized the key findings but please read the whole published account by clicking on the link for Medical News Today.

The new  research explores the neurological benefits of extra-virgin olive oil and finds that it may help to prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
New research suggests that extra-virgin olive oil – a key component of the Mediterranean diet – may protect the brain from Alzheimer’s disease symptoms. Mouse experiments revealed changes in both cognitive performance and the appearance of nerve cells.

The new research moves closer to a prevention – and potentially reversing – strategy, by studying the effects of extra-virgin olive oil on the cognitive performance and brain health of mice.

The new study – published in the journal Annals of Clinical and Translational Neurology – was carried out by a team of researchers from the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University (LKSOM) in Philadelphia, PA.

Lead investigator Dr. Domenico Praticò – a professor in the departments of Pharmacology and Microbiology and the Center for Translational Medicine at LKSOM – explains why several studies have singled out olive oil and hailed it as the main reason why the Mediterranean diet is linked to so many health benefits.

“The thinking is that extra-virgin olive oil is better than fruits and vegetables alone, and as a monounsaturated vegetable fat it is healthier than saturated animal fats,” he says.

Studying the effect of olive oil in mice

Dr. Praticò and team used a traditional Alzheimer’s transgenic mouse model to study the effect of the oil. The rodents were genetically modified to have the three main characteristics of Alzheimer’s disease: memory impairment, the buildup of amyloid plaques, and neurofibrillary tangles.

Neurofibrillary tangles are the result of twisted strands of a protein called tau. In a healthy brain, tau helps with the transportation of nutrients and other molecules that the brain cells need. In Alzheimer’s disease, this protein gets tangled up inside the brain cells, which happen to be dying because essential nutrients no longer reach them.

Amyloid plaques are the result of the excess production and buildup of beta-amyloid, a fragment of the protein called “amyloid precursor protein.” In Alzheimer’s disease, these plaques build up in the spaces between neurons.

Dr. Praticò and colleagues split the rodents into two groups: one group was fed a chow diet with extra-virgin olive oil, and the other group received a regular chow diet with no added oil.

Alzheimer’s characteristics begin to develop in a rodent model quite early on, so in this experiment, the oil was added to the diet when the mice were 6 months old, before any symptoms could have appeared.

The researchers evaluated the mice’s cognitive abilities by administering tests for their spatial memory, working memory, and learning skills.

Olive oil preserves brain cell health

In terms of general appearance, no differences were noted between the two animal groups.

But, when the mice were 9 months and 12 months old, the mice that had been fed the extra-virgin olive oil diet performed much better in the cognitive tests.

Dr. Praticò and his team also analyzed the brain tissue of these mice, and the studies revealed striking differences between the appearance and functioning of the nerve cells.

Firstly, the integrity of the synapses – which are the parts of the brain cell that facilitate communication among neurons – was preserved much better in the olive oil group. Secondly, the brain tissue in the mice fed olive oil revealed a “dramatic increase” in the autophagy activation of the nerve cells.

Autophagy is a process that sees nerve cells disintegrate and eliminate the toxic debris that tends to accumulate between the cells.

In this experiment, the increase in autophagy led to a decrease in the amyloid plaques and phosphorylated tau.

Dr. Praticò says, “This is an exciting finding for us. Thanks to the autophagy activation, memory, and synaptic integrity were preserved, and the pathological effects in animals otherwise destined to develop Alzheimer’s disease were significantly reduced.”

“This is a very important discovery, since we suspect that a reduction in autophagy marks the beginning of Alzheimer’s disease.”

Dr. Domenico Praticò

Next, the researchers plan to introduce olive oil at a later stage, when Alzheimer’s symptoms will have already emerged. In the case of mice, this would mean at 12 months of age.

“Usually when a patient sees a doctor for suspected symptoms of dementia, the disease is already present,” Dr. Praticò explains. “We want to know whether olive oil added at a later time point in the diet can stop or reverse the disease.”

4. Imagine!

The discovery described in this Temple University study offers hope for the future, but there is a long way to go. As I wrote in my opening paragraph, the story of the olive and its oil is older than written history. Over thousands of years it has prospered and been a healthy food to millions of people. That history certainly encourages us to hope! So let us now take a short imaginary tour and dwell in the land of the olive……………………………..

Imagine traveling south in Italy during a Tuscan summer, pausing along the way to revel in the remarkable history and stunningly beautiful countryside peppered with cypress trees, standing like Roman sentinels shimmering in the sun, and immersed in fields of girasol. Why venture even further south while being mesmerized by the enchanting Tuscan medieval hilltop towns where the food and wine too are simply wonderful?

But you the brave traveler, in search of the quintessential Mediterranean lifestyle, will leave behind the charms of Tuscany’s Siena, Pienza, Montalcino and Cortona – to name but four –and travel further south, into Umbria, Lazio and maybe Apulia with its “white towns” such as Ostuni, owing much to early Greek development. You will be rewarded!  An abundance of historic places to discover and explore, fabulous renaissance art, mountains, lovely rustic countryside, and a seemingly endless choice of great places to relax and dine simply, but gloriously, while soaking up the unique ambiance.

In Umbria you soon arrive in Assisi, the final resting place of St. Francis, where in a beautiful Duomo you stand transfixed by the mighty and evocative frescoes painted by Giotto. Close by Assisi and clinging to the western side of the alkaline limestone Apennine Mountains you find Trevi, a tiny hillside town which arguably is the center of one of the southern Mediteranean’s finest olive oils! Stop, linger and enjoy! 

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So just like my imaginary Italian traveler please do take the time to study and enjoy the Mediterranean lifestyle and its olive oil basis. All the indications are that it is really beneficial to the health of your brain!

For information about Memory Matters including a free of charge memory test,  call 1 843 842 6688. All calls are treated with confidentiality.

Vision: Memory Matters optimizes brain wellness.

Mission: Memory Matters optimizes brain wellness and memory care through education, programs, and support for individuals, care-givers in the Low Country community.

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