The people of the Mediterranean region have long known about the super powers of extra virgin olive oil (EVOO). The Greek philosopher Hippocrates, the “Father of Modern Medicine,” prescribed EVOO to treat over 60 different health conditions.
In recent years, scientists have identified the compounds responsible for these incredible healing powers: phenolic compounds. These tiny aromatic compounds exist naturally in dozens of foods, and EVOO has some of the highest levels. I did some research and identified seven evidence-based health benefits of EVOO. Read on to learn more about this superfood!
Inflammation is the key culprit in virtually all chronic diseases. It’s like a rich cabernet — a little bit is good for you, but too much can cause all sorts of problems. The inflammatory response is a protective mechanism of the immune system designed to “bring the troops” to an area of infection or damage. When your immune system detects a problem, it releases alarm hormones into the blood. In response, immune cells and plasma fluid rush to the site to destroy invaders and repair damage.
The problem is that often times, the inflammatory response happens inappropriately — either in the wrong place, or with too much force. In these instances, inflammation can cause inappropriate swelling, pain and joint immobility. When inflammation occurs chronically (over an extended period of time) it can cause heart disease, stroke, neurodegenerative disease, joint pain and gastrointestinal problems.
The anti-inflammatory capacity of EVOO is well documented. It contains more than 30 phenolic compounds that have been shown to prevent and reverse the effects of inflammation. Oleocanthal is one such compound. Researchers have demonstrated that it behaves much like a natural NSAID (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug), blocking a key part of the inflammatory response. The researchers reported that daily dosing of oleocanthal may help prevent chronic inflammatory disease.
Microbes are the microscopic critters that live in, on, and around our bodies. Each of us lives harmoniously with billions of them, but occasionally a microbe comes along that is unwilling to play nicely with others. These “infectious” microbes threaten our health and well-being.
Antimicrobial agents target and eliminate infectious microbes, ideally leaving healthy cells unharmed. Researchers have shown that EVOO acts as an antimicrobial agent in plasma. Polyphenols in the oil defend the body by helping to identify and eliminate invaders.
Recently, researchers in NYC were able to show that the phenolic compound oleocanthal induced cancer cell death in as little as 30 minutes. In the study, several types of cancer were grown in petri dishes. Oleocanthal was then added, and in every cancer-type examined, the cells broke down and died.
Ready for more great news? While all of the cancer cells in the dish died, the healthy cells surrounding them were unharmed. If this type of targeted destruction can be duplicated in human subjects, it would be the holy grail of cancer research.
Obesity is a big risk factor for diabetes, heart disease and joint damage. Extra virgin olive oil has been shown to help prevent and treat obesity in humans. The phenolics in the oil influence the expression of genes related to obesity. Specifically, these compounds reduce the size of fat cells and slows their production. This causes the body to store less fat, which in turn decreases obesity.
5. Neurological Health
Scientists believe that Alzheimer’s disease occurs in the brain when amyloid-beta plaques form amongst the neurons and cause breakdown of brain tissue. This and other degenerative neurological diseases destroy millions of lives every year.
Researchers have shown that phenolic compounds in EVOO have the ability to remove amyloid-beta proteins from brain tissue, thus preventing plaques from forming. These results indicate that consuming EVOO regularly may reduce your chance of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
6. Joint Health
Virtually all chronic joint pain is caused by inflammation. Rheumatoid Arthritis is a systemic inflammatory disease characterized by ongoing inflammation and breakdown of joint cartilage. This painful disease affects millions of people and there is no curative treatment, only symptom management.
As I explained above, EVOO has anti-inflammatory effects in the body. Researchers have shown that daily use of EVOO reduces joint inflammation, which significantly decreases symptoms of arthritis. By reducing swelling in the joints, virgin olive oil decreases pain and improves mobility.
7. Cardiovascular Health
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the USA, claiming 610,000 lives each year. EVOO is widely considered to be “heart healthy”, and for good reason! When taken daily, it has been shown to:
- Reduce levels of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol in the blood
- Reduce inflammation of the heart and vessels
- Decrease blood pressure
- Prevent the development of atherosclerosis
Atherosclerosis is a disease process characterized by the build-up of plaque on the inside of blood vessels. The plaque obstructs blood flow and hardens vessels. It’s the primary cause of heart attack, stroke, and heart failure.
Oxidative stress, or the assault of “free radicals,” is a key contributor to the development of atherosclerosis. Free radicals damage vessel walls, triggering inflammation which results in further damage.
Extra virgin olive oil has been shown to reduce oxidative stress and improve blood vessel function. It acts as a potent antioxidant, protecting healthy tissue by eliminating dangerous free radicals.
Are all olive oils the same?
Short answer: No.
Long answer: Definitely not.
There are dozens of factors that affect the quality of olive oils, including the type of olive grown, the age of the tree, geographical location, weather conditions, time of harvest, processing and storage.
The health benefits attributed to EVOO are largely caused by the presence of phenolic compounds in the oil. The levels of these compounds differ markedly between oils. Always purchase from a reputable brand, and look for the words “high-phenolic” and “early harvest.” These oils have higher levels of beneficial compounds.
How do I incorporate olive oil into my diet?
Due to its relatively low smoke point, extra virgin olive oil is best used raw. Cooking these oils at high temperatures not only ruins the flavor, but also causes the beneficial components to break down.
The recommendation I see most often is two tablespoons of EVOO daily. This can be taken however you like. One option is to drink it like a shot, or mixed with a little water. I can tell you from experience that this can be somewhat unpleasant. The texture and taste are not made for shots! There are also pre-filled pill capsules available commercially, which are probably more tolerable.
The second option is to incorporate olive oil into your daily dietary intake. Here are some methods that I use to get my daily dose of EVOO:
- Drizzle over a fresh salad
- Drizzle over pasta or vegetables just after cooking
- Pour into a small bowel and dip breads
- Drizzle over cooked rice or toast
- Mix in with cooked mashed potatoes — add a little minced garlic for a decadent treat!
No matter how you eat it, I hope that you consider adding this food-medicine to your daily health regimen. From long-term total-body health promotion, to the targeted treatment of specific diseases, the tremendous power of extra virgin olive oil cannot be overstated. The more we study EVOO, and the phenols within it, the more incredible it appears to be. I’m excited to see what further research will show us, and to see how my own health will benefit from this powerful superfood.
About the author
Ben Clements is a registered nurse who writes articles and web copy for brands that are motivated to stand out in the health and wellness industry. Clements has more than three years of healthcare experience and has worked in both the hospital and home settings, providing hands on nursing care, education and health-coaching to patients. He continues to work part-time in acute care but has taken a step back to focus on writing.Visit his website or view his LinkedIn profile.
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