Every day, we’re exposed to free radicals — unstable molecules that can alter or damage the cells in our bodies. We simply can’t escape them because not only do our bodies produce them as part of the normal metabolism of oxygen cells (or oxidation), but we are also exposed to them through pollution, pesticides, alcohol, cigarette smoke, sunlight, chemotherapy and radiation, stress, and even unhealthy fried or processed foods.
Free radicals (or pro-oxidant molecules) are unstable because they are missing an electron. In order to achieve stability, they steal electrons from normal molecules, and in the process damage those cells and their DNA. This process creates new free radicals that go on the prowl for electrons to strip away from other normal, stable molecules. It’s a chain reaction that, as you can imagine, damages countless cells along the way.
Free radical damage has been blamed for various diseases and conditions associated with aging, including wrinkles and age spots, macular degeneration, cataracts, cancer, diabetes, heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease. (And it’s not just humans that are prone to this type of thing. A similar oxidation process is what causes apples to turn brown and iron to rust.)
Antioxidants to the Rescue
Enter antioxidants — the body’s best defense against free radicals. Antioxidants neutralize free radicals, preventing them from doing more damage. Antioxidants also can donate electrons to free radicals, stabilizing them and cutting off the chain reaction of cell destruction before it gets out of control.
Your body produces antioxidants on its own, and you can also get an abundance of antioxidants by eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, and by taking antioxidant nutrients like vitamins C and E.
There are different types of antioxidants, as well. Polyphenols, for instance, are one type of potent antioxidant abundant in extra virgin olive oil.
Since free radical damage is considered to be one potential cause of Alzheimer’s disease and age-related memory problems, researchers from the St. Louis University School of Medicine wanted to see if giving mice extra virgin olive oil (hence, boosting their antioxidant polyphenol intake) could reverse oxidative damage in their brains and improve their learning and memory.
They administered either extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil or butter to 11-month-old mice for six weeks. The mice were then given two tests: a T-maze test and an object recognition test.
The mice that received the olive oil performed better in both the T-maze and object recognition tests compared to the mice that received the coconut oil or butter.
Researchers concluded that extra virgin olive oil has beneficial effects on learning and memory deficits associated with aging, as well as memory diseases associated with the overproduction of amyloid beta protein, like Alzheimer’s.
They said they believe these effects are due to the antioxidants in extra virgin olive oil reversing the oxidative damage done in the brain by free radicals. And the higher the concentrations of antioxidant polyphenols, the better the effects.
Boost Your Antioxidant Intake
Of all the common oils on the market, extra virgin olive oil is one of the best ones to have in your pantry. Not only is it rich in powerful antioxidants, as shown in the above study, it’s also an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids. And, olive oil is a main component of the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet.
Extra virgin olive oil is derived from the first pressing of the olives, making it more deeply hued, thicker and tastier than lighter, more refined olive oils. So, extra virgin olive oil should be used for salad garnishing or in marinades and should not be used for cooking, as heating it can destroy its health-promoting properties.
One other thing to note: While olive oil is a very healthy fat, it should still be used in moderation. It contains up to 14 grams of fat per tablespoon, so try to use no more than one or two tablespoons at a time.
To up your antioxidants without overdosing on olive oil, you should also eat a colorful variety of fruits and vegetables every day. Some antioxidant-rich choices include avocados, broccoli, berries, spinach, mangoes, bok choy, peppers and cauliflower.
Green tea is another great source of antioxidants. One cup of green tea contains about 100 mg of polyphenols. And finally, you should take a daily multivitamin that contains several antioxidant nutrients, like vitamins A, C, and E.
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 Farr SA et al. Extra virgin olive oil improves learning and memory in SAMP8 mice. J Alzheimers Dis. 2012 Jan;28(1):81–92.