By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
I don’t often watch talk shows or reality television, and have never really had an opinion one way or the other about host Carson Daly. But when I saw him down a full shot of extra virgin olive oil in this Today Show clip, I instantly became a fan.
Carson, it may have burned a little going down, but it’s doing great things for your health!
I’m sharing this video clip because it’s a perfect way to remind you that olive oil is better for your health and longevity than just about any other food out there. Plus, I thought it would be a fun way to start a discussion about what makes extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) a brain healthy food.
Olive Oil: Food for Heart and Brain Health
Usually when you hear me talk about olive oil’s health benefits, it’s in relation to the heart. But as you may have noticed in the video, olive oil is also associated with healthier brain function. The clip singled out depression and dementia, but research dating back a decade or more shows that olive oil—or “liquid gold,” as I also like to call it—helps boost cognition and memory in general.
If that were as far as the benefits went, it would be enough to convince me that adding a little more olive oil to my daily diet was something I needed to do. But the news gets even better. There’s also evidence suggesting that olive oil may be a useful tool against the biggest and most feared brain disease of all, Alzheimer’s.
How Olive Oil Can Help Reduce Alzheimer’s Risk
In people who have Alzheimers’, memory, thinking, and motor skills gradually fail as beta-amyloid plaques and tangles of tau protein build up in the brain. These interfere with the ability of brain cells to communicate with each other, which slows thinking and causes lapses in memory. When the plaques and tangles become big enough, the part of the brain that’s affected stops working altogether.
Finding a way to stop these two issues has been the holy grail of Alzheimer’s research. As it turns out, some recent research shows that regular olive oil consumption can positively affect both of them.
Olive Oil Increases Autophagy
In a nutshell, it appears that olive oil helps protect against Alzheimer’s disease by stimulating a process in the brain called autophagy.
Autophagy is complicated, but you can think of it as a kind of detoxification system in your brain. It’s one way the brain naturally breaks down and cleans out toxic proteins and cell waste that can damage the connections between cells. People who develop Alzheimer’s have low levels of autophagy, which allow protein tangles and amyloid plaques to grow.
In this particular study, researchers divided mice that were genetically predisposed to developing Alzheimer’s into two groups. They fed one group a standard diet. The other group was fed the same diet supplemented with extra virgin olive oil. After six months (or about 20 years in “mice time”), the mice were tested for memory and learning ability and then euthanized so the researchers could examine how their brains had aged.
Compared to the control group, the mice in the olive oil group had more synapses intact—meaning their ability to learn and remember was better—along with less plaque, fewer protein tangles and, most importantly, signs of increased autophagy.
Folks, this is big. Really big.
Up to now, we haven’t been able to find a natural or even a safe way to improve autophagy because your genes determine how efficient your body is at it. These findings shows us that making a simple lifestyle change, in this case adding more extra virgin olive oil to the diet, may be able to “turn up” those genes so you’re more likely to stay mentally sharp.
This is also a good reminder of how “epigenetics” works to affect how we age. All of us have “good” genes and “bad” genes that influence our health – some are active, or turned on, and some are inactive, or dormant. Various environmental and lifestyle factors play a role in which genes become active. This is why the genetic cards you’re dealt matter to a certain degree, but are not the end-all-be-all with regard to your health. Your lifestyle and environmental exposures also help determine which genes are activated. It’s nature and nurture walking hand-in-hand, not nature vs nurture. This is why I’m such a strong proponent of living a heart (and brain) healthy lifestyle – no matter what your genetic predisposition, a healthy lifestyle always gives you a leg up to better health.
Healthy daily habits—from an anti-inflammatory diet to exercise to stress management (among others)—all have the power to slow down or even stop the genetic signals that encourage disease. Adopt poor habits, and you may actually speed up illness.
One last point about autophagy. I do want to acknowledge that the study was done with rats so there’s no guarantee that olive oil will produce the same effect in people. That said, knowing what I know about olive oil’s effect on the heart and cardiovascular system, I think the findings are promising. We need more follow-up research, of course. But in the meantime there’s certainly no downside to consuming more olive oil.
Olive Oil Helps Reduce Inflammation
Another thing that makes olive oil great (albeit slightly less impressive given the finding about autophagy) for brain health is its ability to fight inflammation.
Inflammation is a major factor in many long-term degenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s. Numerous studies have linked the two conditions, specifically the association between inflammation and amyloid plaque buildup.
Olive oil is the ultimate anti-inflammatory cocktail. It’s loaded with polyphenols, flavanols, and other antioxidants that can help reduce oxidative stress in the body.
One polyphenol in particular, oleocanthal, has been singled out for its inflammation-stopping power. It’s also been identified as a substance that can help break down amyloid plaque, so it’s possible that oleocanthal is one of the factors that drives increased autophagy.
In addition, results from a 2010 study published in BMC Genomics demonstrated that olive oil can repress the expression of genes that cause inflammation. So in other words, if you’re genetically predisposed to having higher levels of inflammation in your body—which could in turn affect the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s—a daily dose of olive oil could help turn those genes down and reduce your risk (40 ml – which is around 2.7 Tbsp – was the dose utilized in this study).
The Good Fat In Olive Oil Is Food for the Brain
Finally, I want to mention olive oil’s monounsaturated fat content. Olive oil is almost all healthy monounsaturated fat. And while that hasn’t been specifically linked to Alzheimer’s risk, it has been associated with better memory and learning. After all, around 60 percent of brain itself is fat, and it needs fats to retain the structure of brain cells – without fat, brain integrity starts to decline. And since monounsaturated fats are so good for the heart, it’s no surprise that they benefit the brain as well!
Getting More Olive Oil for Brain Health
If you want to drink olive oil every day to support your brain health, feel free to go for it! If not, you can do what I do and eat a Mediterranean-style diet.
My Pan Asian Modified Mediterranean diet combines the traditional Mediterranean diet with foods common along the Pacific Rim (another long-lived region of the world). Olive oil is PAMM’s primary source of healthy fat, so it will help you reach the goal of getting at least 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil per day
I, myself, try for about 4 tablespoons each day…That’s the dose that was tested in the PREDIMED study, which demonstrated profound olive oil health benefits.
To get the most olive oil benefits for your buck:
- Buy cold pressed or extra virgin varieties from California. The doctor in the video was 100 percent right when he said that not all olive oils are equal. If you’re buying pure olive oil (no blended flavors), the best oils are cold pressed extra virgin. I also like brands made in California, for their quality control. If you’re buying flavored oil, though—say one mixed with garlic or herbs—you won’t find “extra virgin” on the label. Once anything else is added to the oil, it’s not considered “virgin” anymore so it can’t be labeled that way. It should still be cold pressed, though.
- Don’t cook with it.You can cook with olive oil if you want to, but you won’t get as many health benefits that way. Heating olive oil—or any healthy fat for that matter—can change its chemical structure and reduce its healing power. Better to eat it straight out of the bottle. My general rule: “drizzle, don’t sizzle.”
- Add it to everything.Use it to make your own salad dressings, drizzle it over raw or roasted veggies (I especially like it with dipping spices), spread it on whole grain toast, add it to sauces for extra body…the possibilities are endless. Don’t be afraid to get creative.
No matter how you decide to up your intake, adding more olive oil to your diet is a win-win for both your heart and your brain. The biggest winner, though, is you—as olive oil is once again proves to be “secret sauce” to a long and healthy life.
- Abuznait AH et al. Olive-oil-derived oleocanthal enhances β-amyloid clearance as a potential neuroprotective mechanism against Alzheimer’s disease: in vitro and in vivo studies. ACS Chem Neurosci. 2013 Jun 19;4(6):973-82.
- Camargo A et al. Gene expression changes in mononuclear cells in patients with metabolic syndrome after acute intake of phenol-rich virgin olive oil. BMC Genomics. 2010 Apr 20;11:253.
- DZNE – German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases. Inflammation drives progression of Alzheimer’s: A molecular complex of the immune system promotes aberrant aggregation of proteins. ScienceDaily. 20 Dec 2017. Accessed September 19, 2018.
- Epigentics Fundamentals. Whatisepigeneitcs.com, Accessed Oct. 12, 2018.
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- Okereke O et al. Dietary fat types and 4-year cognitive change in community-dwelling older women. Ann Neurol. 2012 Jul;72(1):124-34.
- Qosa H et al. Extra-virgin olive oil attenuates amyloid-β and tau pathologies in the brains of TgSwDI mice. J Nutr Biochem. 2015 Dec;26(12):1479-90.
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- Valls-Pedret C, et al. Mediterranean Diet and Age-Related Cognitive Decline: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Intern Med. 2015;175(7):1094-1103.
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