May 2013

Mediterranean Diet Linked to Improved Brain Function

A new study suggests that maintaining a Mediterranean diet rich in extra-virgin olive oil or mixed nuts may enhance brain function.

Olive oil, the main fatty component of the Mediterranean diet, is characterized by monounsaturated fatty acids as well as by its elevated content of antioxidant agents. An antioxidant is thought to protect the body's cells from the damaging effects of oxidation by scavenging for free radicals (highly reactive molecules that attack cells in the body) generated during the metabolic processes of the body. The high portion of monounsaturated fatty acids in olive oil may cause a decrease in LDL (bad) cholesterol and an increase in HDL (good) cholesterol, which may diminish the risk of experiencing heart problems.

In a new study, researchers evaluated the effects of two different versions of the Mediterranean diet versus a low-fat control diet in 522 elderly individuals throughout 6.5 years. All participants were at high risk of vascular problems at the beginning of the study. Participants in the first group maintained a Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil, while the second group maintained a Mediterranean diet supplemented with mixed nuts. The third group maintained a low-fat control diet. Brain function was assessed via the Mini-Mental State Examination and the Clock Drawing Test.

After the 6.5 year intervention and adjusting the data for various factors such as family history, sex and physical activity, the researchers found that participants who maintained the Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil had significantly higher brain function scores when compared to the control group. Brain function also improved for those maintaining the diet rich in mixed nuts.

The authors concluded that maintaining a Mediterranean diet rich in extra-virgin oil or mixed nuts may improve brain function. Further research is warranted.

In addition to the Mediterranean diet, many other integrative therapies have been studied for their potential to improve brain function. Caffeine has a long history of use for enhancing mood and cognitive (mental) function. Caffeine may be useful when consumed prior to a cognition-related task. It also appears to heighten working memory and improve reaction time, but it has less effect on long-term memory. Additionally, several studies suggest that Panax ginseng may improve mental performance in healthy individuals. Further studies are needed in this area.

For more information about the Mediterranean diet, please visit Natural Standard's Health & Wellness Database.

For more information about integrative therapies that may benefit mood, please visit Natural Standard's Comparative Effectiveness Database.

To comment on this story, please visit Natural Standard's blog.


  1. Martínez-Lapiscina EH, Clavero P, Toledo E, et al. Mediterranean diet improves cognition: the PREDIMED-NAVARRA randomised trial. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry. 2013 May 13. 
  2. Natural Standard: The Authority on Integrative Medicine. 

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