Originally published on Arab America, a national organization founded with the purpose of promoting an accurate image about the Arab American community and the Arab world.
Modern allopathic medicine offers a great deal to us in the intervention, prevention, and reversal of acute and chronic diseases. On a whole, we enjoy a much longer life expectancy than our ancestors. But perhaps there is still much to learn. A great deal that modern medicine still cannot fully address in informing the quality of our prolonged lifespans. The practice of aging gracefully, with dignity, and vitality.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 47.5 million suffer from dementia worldwide and there are 7.7 million new cases every year. The WHO predicts may double by 2030 and more than triple by 2050.
Our ancestors knew a little something about improving – and celebrating – the quality of our lives. The Arab or Mediterranean diet, now considered the gold standard in nutrition for its track record in cultivating longevity and optimal health, is distinguished by its whole grains, legumes, and freshly foraged greens simmered in generous amounts of olive oil and garlic.
And perhaps these ancestral prescriptions for living, complete with traditional foods of the Arab diet, offer much more wisdom than previously thought. And modern science is just beginning to confirm what our mothers and grandmothers already knew.
1. Swirls of Olive Oil
A staple of the Arab and Mediterranean Diet, olive oil is a high quality monounsaturated fat rich in Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) – that is, fatty acids that your body does not naturally produce – like omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. An elixir, a life force unto itself, olive oil not only nourishes our senses and enhances the flavor of traditional Arab dishes, but it is also vital to: improving digestive function and nutrient absorption; promoting healthy skin and hair; increasing satiety between meals (which (reduces mindless snacking); and supporting cognitive brain function, with improved concentration, mood, and memory.
Researchers are now establishing the correlation between low fat diets and the increasing rates of ADHD in children and Alzheimer’s in seniors.
The human brain, after all is almost 60% fat and we need healthy amount of high quality fats from dietary sources to maintain the balance of fatty molecules and promote optimal cognitive function into old age.
2. Fish of the Mediterranean
While our ancestors enjoyed chiefly plant-based diets of freshly foraged greens, whole grains, and beans, they regularly indulged in heart-healthy fish, rich with polyunsaturated fat and the long chain fatty acids vital to cardiovascular health and cognitive function. In particular, small oily fish like mackerel and sardines are particularly rich in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.
Omega-3 fatty acids are effective in preventing brain atrophy and slowing cognitive decline. A recent study concludes that people who regularly eat fish have more voluminous brains than those who do not—preventing the onset of Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Remember, if the human brain is mostly comprised of fat, and we need a healthy amount of high quality fat from dietary sources to promote healthy cognitive function, then the essential fatty acids found in fish offer a vital lifeline to slowing cognitive decline and aging gracefully.
3. Sprinkles of Za’atar
A staple in the Levantine kitchen, za’atar is a traditional, dare we say even magical, spice blend typically crafted of wild thyme, oregano, sumac and toasted sesame.
Research confirms that za’atar herbs offer significant health-enhancing properties, since sumac, thyme, and oregano are full of flavonoids, organic compounds that are important dietary sources of antioxidants that can protect cells from damage.
Particularly, carvacrol, a chemical compound found in thyme and oregano, has been found in a recent study to positively affect levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine — which regulates in the brain’s rewards system — and serotonin, which is supports optimal learning and healthy mood. Additionally the compound has been proven to alleviate symptoms of dementia in Alzheimer’s.
In a recent post in The Salt, NPR’s food blog, the author recounts folk tradition from certain parts of the Middle East that suggests that za’atar has brain-boosting properties. So much so that Syrian children are often encouraged to sprinkle the spice blend on meals before exams.
4. Spoonfuls of Honey
Ah, honey, another elixir of the gods. The golden, naturally sweet indulgence long praised by our ancestors, from ancient Sumeria and into the modern age, for its nutritional, therapeutic, and cosmetic applications.
Raw honey, which contains naturally anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, and anti-histamine qualities, also possesses nootropic or cognition enhancing effects, such improved memory. Research suggests that the polyphenol constituents of honey can counter oxidative stress, restore cellular antioxidant defenses, and support cognitive function.
In a randomized, placebo controlled, double blind, 5 year pilot study conducted in Iraqi research hospitals at the University of Babylon, researchers successfully utilized honey as a preventative therapy against dementia and cognitive decline.
And yet another reason to indulge in honey, the sweetest, most magical of natural medicines.
Another rich source of polyunsaturated fat and long chain omega-3 fatty acids, walnuts have long been celebrated for their positive impact on cardiovascular health. A recent study from the University of California, Los Angeles, posits that adults who consistently eat walnuts can improve their cognitive function. In fact, researchers concluded that adults who consumed walnuts consistently demonstrated greater cognitive function than those who did not, regardless of age, gender or ethnicity.
I might also offer the qualitative observation that walnuts even look like brains, which gives us energetic clues about their healing properties.
Above all, our ancestors knew, and modern science continues to confirm, that in addition to a diet nutrient-rich plant-based diet, factors that contribute to aging gracefully with vitality include a healthy active lifestyle with nourishing connection to our communities and spiritual practices.
To Your Health!