What Extra Virgin Olive Oil Can Do for Your Brain

The Brain!

The brain is arguably the most important organ in our body. It’s where thoughts are developed, habits are formed, and memories are stored –– no wonder we take any and all processionary measure to protect it.

Cognition, defined as “The act or process of knowing, including both awareness and judgment,” is required for all activities. Furthermore, cognitive function, which encompasses learning, memory, and attention processes (1). It’s clear, cognition and cognitive function are not only important but necessary for life. 
But why do we need to supply our brains with healthy foods that help preserve these complex and intricate processes? And what is the role of extra virgin olive oil? 
Well, let’s take a look at the research!

Mediterranean Diet and Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO)

The Mediterranean diet is widely recognized for being low in saturated fat and high in monounsaturated fat and dietary fiber. It has a high concentration of omega-3 fatty acids, including alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). ALA is found in plant oils and EPA is found in seafood. 

One of the main components of the Mediterranean diet is extra virgin olive oil (EVOO). Today, we’re going to discuss extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) and its impact on cognition. To exemplify, in findings provided by McGrattan, et al. (2019) displays that “Anti-inflammatory dietary patterns such as the Mediterranean diet (MD) and dietary approaches to stop hypertension (DASH) may be neuroprotective” (4). Essentially, this means that dietary components such as omega-3 fatty acids can inhibit neuroinflammation associated with Alzheimer’s disease. 

What is DHA and Why do You Need It?

Fatty acids in extra virgin olive oil produce DHA and EPA. DHA is an essential part of the human brain, skin, and retina. The body can convert ALA to both EPA and DHA via various enzymes. Nonetheless, research cited by Swanson, Block, and Mousa (2012) suggests that the amounts that can be synthesized through this process are not sufficient (2).  If not enough is consumed, it can lead to DHA deficiency, which can result in cognitive impairment and neurological disorders. 

Learning and behavior are impacted by polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) deficits. Research has shown that deficiency of PUFAs, like DHA, impair neuronal signal transmission. Studies have also shown that dietary deficiency of ALA in animals results in decreased DHA levels (1).

Moreover, studies have found that EPA and DHA are important for “...proper fetal development, including neuronal, retinal, and immune function” (2). This displays the life long impact of these nutrients. However, it does not stop there! EPA and DHA have also been found to have physical benefits regarding cardiovascular function, including “...inflammation, peripheral artery disease, major coronary events, and anticoagulation” (2). Now that we know the dietary benefits, let’s explore the connections within the brain.

Connections Between DHA and the Brain

DHA is incorporated in the hippocampus and can alter the fluidity of the neuronal membrane, facilitate neurotransmission, and possibly improve learning and memory (1). It’s essential because these neurons act as the body’s messenger, sending information throughout the body. A study by Souza, Fernandes, and Carmo (2011) found, “A DHA deficit is associated with attention deficit disorder with or without hyperactivity in children” (1). This can be seen in the retina, whole brain, specific brain membranes, and specific brain regions from research with mice in water mazes. 

An important part of our daily lives is memory. Whether it is your daily routine or trying to remember where you parked your car, we rely on our brain. In a 2015 systematic review and meta-analysis by Yurko-Mauro, Alexander, and Van Elswyk, it was found that episodic memory outcomes of adults with or without mild memory complaints (MMC) improved with DHA and EPA (5). Episodic memory is your long term memory, meaning your recollection of your first kiss or a vacation. On the other hand, semantic and working memory changes from baseline were significant with DHA (5). Semantic memory is your general knowledge of facts, whereas semantic memory is your short-term memory while completing tasks. This study has shown an overall improvement in cognitive function and memory in adults that lasts a lifetime.

In addition, there have been many connections made between the consumption of Omega-3 Fatty Acids and cognition. During fetal development, DHA is important in both brain and retina development. In particular, during the third trimester, abundant amounts of DHA can be found in fetal tissue (2). This may suggest correlations between normal eyesight and brain function. For instance, in a study conducted by Judge, Harel, and Lammi-Keefe (2007) it was found that 9-month-old babies had better problem-solving abilities in comparison to babies whose mothers did not take DHA supplementation during pregnancy (3). It is evident that at such an early age, babies can benefit from their mother’s consumption of foods with DHA. For more information regarding brain development and children, check out Brain Development for Babies and How Extra Virgin Olive Oil can Benefit Your Child’s Health

By taking necessary measures, we can help keep our minds intact and even improve our brain function.

Now What?

You can begin by incorporating extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) into your diet. By doing this you can increase the amount of Omega-3 fatty acids in your diet. If you are still unsure of how to use extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), there is a recipe for a Mediterranean Couscous Salad linked below, as well as others on our blog. 

Moreover, Olivaio is an extra virgin olive oil subscription box that will be shipped monthly to the comfort of your home, directly from Italy. Not only will you receive the purest extra virgin olive oil, but you also won’t have to scavenge through many aisles for the best choice for your family!

Hungry? We’ve got you covered!

Do you find yourself constantly snacking throughout the day? If so, this Hummus recipe pairs perfectly with some pita chips or veggies and is a healthy alternative for smart snacking!

Written by Mridini Chandrasekaran
Reviewed by Kelly Powers, MA, RDN, a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist who takes a holistic approach to nutrition and health. Kelly is a recipe developer with a food blog highlighting whole foods, simple recipes, and her life in San Francisco. She’s the creator of 52 Weeks, a weekly meal plan program that helps users get back in the kitchen and feed themselves well. Kelly is also a co-founder of Olivaio.