May was host to several Health Observances, including National Mediterranean Diet month, National Arthritis Month, and Osteoporosis Month. While we are little late, seeing as it’s now June, we didn’t want to miss the opportunity to shed light on these important topics. Both osteoporosis and arthritis are health issues that affect our skeletal system and the structure of our body and mobility, which becomes increasingly important as our bodies age.
Osteoporosis literally means “porous bones” or bones that have lost much of their mass. The National Foundation for Osteoporosis explains that a healthy bone looks much like a honeycomb, or a tight network of compartments. However, when osteoporosis develops, the compartments or holes become much larger, creating a weaker and more fragile structure.
Arthritis, is a very general term to describe a number of different joint diseases that cause joint pain, stiffness, swelling, and a decreased range in motion as a result.
According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, more than 10 million Americans have osteoporosis, and 18 million more are at risk of developing the disease later in life. Arthritis is worse, with nearly 52 million adults currently diagnosed with the disease. The CDC estimates that as our population ages this number will increase. Stiff, swollen joints and weaker bones mean less mobility and more falls and fractures for many seniors. As you know, falls can lead to serious, even fatal injuries. Based on the numbers above, that’s a lot of potential falls and fractures!
Interestingly, in Kundalini, yoga practice age is defined as the flexibility of the spine- to stay young, one must stay flexible. In this way, keeping our skeletal system and joints healthy is a condition of keeping ourselves young and our bodies fluid. In the Eastern world this is often done by practicing yoga, as mentioned above. However, in much of the Western world, especially in the Mediterranean, healthy aging is often associated with diet.
There are several preventative measures people can take to decrease their chances of developing both osteoporosis and arthritis. Many of these behaviors have to do with food choices and lifestyle. The Mediterranean diet is, as the name suggests, a diet based on the foods and food traditions of the Mediterranean. In our last post, we discussed the importance of balance in our diets and the significance of eating whole foods, like our grandparents ate. And in many ways, the Mediterranean diet emphasizes the same themes: balance, whole foods, and, lots of olive oil. The diet is less of a regiment for what foods not to eat, like most diets, and more of a study of the cultural food practices of Mediterranean populations and how diet directly affects the way people in these countries age. The eating habits of people living in Greece, Italy, and France have actually been shown to decrease the risk of heart disease, slow aging, and promote longevity. Although this style of eating will not reverse existing medical conditions, a lifelong practice of eating the way these cultures do has been proven to help individuals age fluidly and healthfully. One of the (not-so-secret) vital aspects of the Mediterranean diet is the reliance on olive oil. Olives are one of the oldest domesticated trees known to man and the use of olives to make olive oil dates back to as early as 2500 b.c. in ancient Greece. In ancient times, olive oil was used as beauty product, pharmaceutical remedy, and culinary ingredient. In many cultures, olives and olive oil was considered sacred and used in religious ceremonies including to anoint the dead. The plant was attributed to have mythical powers because it provided light, heat, food and medicine.
So, it should come as no surprise that olive oil is now proven to have many healing properties and is directly linked with preventing osteoporosis and arthritis. Metaphorically speaking, olive oil keeps the body running like a well oiled machine: Oleocanthal is a phytochemical present in olive oil that mimics the effects of ibuprofen ( or should we say ibuprofen mimics the effects of oleocanthal?) and works to reduce inflammation. Now, if you have arthritis, reducing swelling and inflammation can greatly help reduce pain and, what’s more, reducing inflammation means healthier more able joints. Hopefully, more able joints will result in fewer falls! Recent studies have shown that diets high in olive oil actually show decreased chances of developing rheumatoid arthritis!
Eating olive oil has also been shown to improve calcium absorption and improve bone mineralization. So, turns out it also helps fight off osteoporosis, which sees a decrease in bone calcification and mineralization. The Olive Oil Times explains how the phenols in olive oil have actually been shown to increase bone mass by way of improving the absorption process.
If those benefits don’t lure you to eat more olive oil, consider this: olive oil has the highest occurrence of monounsaturated fats of all plant based oils. It has been shown to actually decrease obesity, despite the fact that it is calorically very dense, and it actively works to decrease the chance of heart attack, lower blood pressure, and fight off diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, which are generally associated with aging.