The island of Ikaria off the coast of Greece is home to some of the healthiest, most vibrant older women on earth. Their lifestyles were researched by Dr Gianni Pes, from the University of Sassari in Italy and Ikaria became part of the Blue Zones group of countries. This is a term coined by Belgian demographer Dr Michael Poulain, who together with Dr Pes, have been studying the pockets of countries around the world who have the healthiest older people on the planet.
These are called Blue Zone’s countries. I first heard about these countries just under a decade ago. I was attending and presenting at the WHO conference on health and ageing. WHO had just developed new guidelines and there was an exciting and vibrant community of health and longevity researchers presenting numerous findings on health, ageing and disease patterns.
This is where I also learnt that Australia, New Zealand, the UK and USA are at the bottom of the ‘healthiest countries’ lists and none more so, than women in post-menopause. Changing health during menopause throws thousands of women into obesity, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, depression and joint problems in their post-menopause years, hence, I knew I had to understand what women in these Blue Zones countries were doing to enjoy symptom-less menopause and a healthy older age.
One of the foods they were having daily was extra virgin olive oil. 30-50mls a day to be precise. (Preedy & Watson, 2020).
The ancient olive tree is native to the Mediterranean Basin and much of the Middle East. Whilst many varieties exist, it is becoming well known in ageing and health research that this ancient fruit has a number of nutrients that are beneficial to our health. This includes gut health, cardiovascular health and joint health. These are all systems that are affected by our hormonal changes during menopause.
But a note of caution – all olive oils are not the same.
The type of olive oil you need is Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Yes, it’s a bit more expensive than other oils sitting on the supermarket shelf, but it could save you heaps in supplements that may or may not be working for you. And not only is this powerful oil and it’s components great for your cardiovascular, gut and joint health, but it’s also powerful to help reduce the build up of inflammation in your body as well.
Before the world turned to chaos I was over in Switzerland, where my son was competing in skiing. Stomasia was the waitress working in a little cafe in the village where I stayed. It was whilst talking to her about Olive Oil and it’s amazing properties for our health as we aged, that she told me about her father’s olive oil from Crete. There it was on the table in front of me.
“It’s my father’s olive oil” she enthused. “He makes it from trees that my grandfather and great-grandfather owned. It is very healthy and you mustn’t have any other oil. My mother doesn’t have any aches and pains but I see women here in the cafe who are skiers and complain about their joints.”
I nodded in agreement, thinking of my own aching joints when I arrived in menopause and the exercise that I struggled with – including skiing and hiking – activities that I had enjoyed for years. Whilst structural changes occur with age in virutally every component of our joints, knowing what to do to slow down this rate of change is crucial to living our lives in ways that support staying active. That’s why attending a lifestyle medicine conference as part of my own studies helped, because I learnt about the powerful health research coming out of the Olive Wellness Institute in Australia.
Whenever women come onto the MyMT™ programmes, I find it extraordinary how many of them tell me how their gut health and joint health have changed for the worse, since they arrrived in menopause.
But with evidence from randomised controlled trials demonstrating that extra virgin olive oil exerts beneficial effects on markers of inflammation and endothelial function in the gut [Schwingshackl et al., 2015], and helps to restore joint function (Chin & Pang, 2017).
It’s been almost 50 years since researchers first started studying the Greek diet and studying Greeks living on the island of Crete. Low rates of heart disease and other conditions arising from inflammatory changes with age, led epidemiological researchers to the island. ‘Olive oil is the foremost source of fat in the Mediterranean Diet and this is what sets this diet apart from other dietary regimes’, states the 2018 report exploring the role of this remarkable oil in the context of the prevention of chronic diseases caused by inflammation. [Visioli, Franco, Toledo, et al., 2018].
There is so much information about how to look after our health these days, but as I discovered too, very little of it is supported by research specific to our menopause transition. However, with menopause heralding the gateway to your biological ageing, it’s time to look after yourself and ensure that your gut health and joint health are optimal as you age.
Save your Gut with EVOO
Extra Virgin Olive Oil [EVOO] differs from refined oils that are readily available these days. EVOO is obtained by th eprocess of the mechanical pressing of hte olive without undergoing any other type of treatmetn, except the tteps of washing, decantation, centrifugation and filtration.
These processes allow the preservation of the minor components of the oil, one of which is called Hydroxytyrosol (HT), and this compound represents one of the main polyphenol contents of extra virgin olive oil. Polyphenols are naturally occurring micronutrients in plants. Increasing your intake of polyphenol-rich foods is important for your health as you age.
The amount of Hydroxytyrosol in EVOO matters to your gut health – more specifically, to your gut microbiome. The gut microbiota are the collection of bacteria, viruses, fungi and other organisms, that are in your gut. There are over 100 trillion cells that make up your microbiome and scientists have become more specialised in exploring how the gut manages these cells and why they matter. In essence, they have a beneficial role in the maintenance of your body’s balance or homeostasis.
If your gut microbiome is out of balance, then this affects your health and your symptoms in menopause – especially, depression, anxiety, brain fog and hot flushes. The imbalance of organisms that make up your microbiota is known as dysbiosis and when this occurs, as it does in numerous women during menopause, this can lead to greater permeability of the gut wall, a condition known as leaky gut syndrome. This is why gut health matters during menopause – obesity, inflammation and changing cardiac and joint health are all implicated in the health of our gut.
Whilst the variation in gut bacteria content is influenced by genetic, environmental and dietary factors, this is where EVOO comes in. Research supports it’s role with the promotion of intestinal health, favouring a higher biodiversity of intestinal bacteria. (Marcelino, Hiane, et al, 2019).
But there’s more to EVOO too … and that is the powerful effect it has on our Joint Health. I’ve written numerous articles about this aspect of our health. Our joint health is so important to turn around in mid-life – simply, because lack of activity can lead to other health problems, including weight gain with age.
Very few women understand that our joints are replete with oestrogen receptors and as oestrogen levels decline in menopause, these receptors are looking for oestrogen which isn’t available. They become dry, inflamed and sore. But we aren’t being told that extra virgin olive oil has wonderful nutrients such as oleocanthal and Vitamin E, which attach to these receptors, taking over the role of oestrogen as we age. Australia’s Olive Wellness Institute, adding olives and Extra Virgin Olive Oil to the diet is crucial in reducing joint pain and improving cardiac health as we age.
Olive oil contains tocopherol (vitamin E); coconut oil doesn’t. Tocopherol or vitamin E is a powerful anti-oxidant necessary for hormonal and joint health during our menopause transition. Vitamin E is unique among vitamins because the biological activity of it varies considerably and for its adequate absorption, it requires fat digestion to be functioning normally.
The recommended daily intake from the FDA in America is 15mg daily but in New Zealand the recommended daily intake is 7-10mg. I recommend olive oil on the MyMT™ programmes as this has around 1.5 mg of vitamin E per tablespoon. Avocadoes, almonds, sunflower seeds and hazelnuts are high in vitamin E, as is kumara (sweet potato).
When women come onto the MyMT™ programmes, I introduce them to the Mediterranean Diet, which I’ve modified for women in menopause and post-menopause.
The overall quality of the Mediterranean Diet is related to improved quality of life in women as they age and the intake of EVOO in numerous scientific trials, is that it generates health benefits, such as the prevention of cardiovascular diseases, the improvement of inflammatory markers and in the composition of the gut microbiota. These benefits are attributed to the excellent nutritional composition of EVOO, which has a higher content, of mono-unsaturated fatty acids and minor compounds such as oleuropein and hydroxytyrosol.
I hope you can join me sometime. If you like to learn more about the programmes then have a listen to the video below. It would be my privilege to support you.
Dr Wendy Sweet (PhD)/ Member: Australasian Society of Lifestyle Medicine/NZ Registered Exercise Professional.
Chin, K. Y., & Pang, K. L. (2017). Therapeutic Effects of Olive and Its Derivatives on Osteoarthritis: From Bench to Bedside. Nutrients, 9(10), 1060.
Frizziero, A., Vittadini, F., Gasparre, G., & Masiero, S. (2014). Impact of oestrogen deficiency and aging on tendon: concise review. Muscles, Ligaments and Tendons Journal, 4(3), 324–328.
Kendall B, Eston R. (2002). Exercise-induced muscle damage and the potential protective role of estrogen. Sports Med. 32(2):103-23.
Marcelino G, Hiane PA, Freitas KC, Santana LF, Pott A, Donadon JR, Guimarães RCA. (2019). Effects of Olive Oil and Its Minor Components on Cardiovascular Diseases, Inflammation, and Gut Microbiota. Nutrients. 11(8):1826. doi: 10.3390/nu11081826. PMID: 31394805; PMCID: PMC6722810.
Millman JF, Okamoto S, Teruya T, Uema T, Ikematsu S, Shimabukuro M, Masuzaki H. (2021). Extra-virgin olive oil and the gut-brain axis: influence on gut microbiota, mucosal immunity, and cardiometabolic and cognitive health. Nutr Rev. Feb 12:nuaa148. doi: 10.1093/nutrit/nuaa148. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 33576418.
Preedy, V. & Watson, R. (2020). The Mediterranean Diet: An evidence-based approach. 2nd Ed. Elslvier Academic Press.
Schwingshackl, L., M. Christoph, and G. Hoffmann (2015). Effects of Olive Oil on Markers of Inflammation and Endothelial Function-A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Nutrients, 7(9): p. 7651-75.
Visioli F., Franco M., Toledo E., Luchsinger J., Willett W., Hu F., Martinez-Gonzalez M. (2018). Olive oil and prevention of chronic diseases: Summary of an International conference. Nutr Metab Cardiovasc Dis. 28(7):649-656.