Hippocrates, the ancient Greek father of medicine, called olive oil “the great therapeutic,” and identified more than 60 medicinal uses for it.
After two and a half millennia, modern science is beginning to catch up. Many clinical studies have demonstrated the preventive health benefits of olive oil, including the large-scale PREDIMED nutritional study in Spain. Started in 2003, this ongoing trial has involved more than 7,000 people to date in its evaluation of the role of the Mediterranean diet, supplemented with olive oil or nuts, in the primary prevention of cardiovascular diseases. PREDIMED sub-studies also have focused on the prevention of diabetes, dementia, and breast cancer.
A delicious component of a nutritious diet, olive oil may be considered preventive health care, with topical therapeutic uses, too.
IMPORTANT NOTE: To reap the health benefits of olive oil, it is crucial that you consume extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), the only form of olive oil that retains its most valuable nutritional compounds. EVOO is minimally processed, whereas other oil grades, such as virgin, pure, or light, have been industrially refined and the nutrients destroyed.
The Science of Olive Oil
EVOO contains more than 30 compounds called phenols. Phenol is a broad scientific term that describes the chemical structure of many different healthful and unhealthful substances. But, in nutritional terms, phenols (sometimes called polyphenols) are prized for their disease-fighting properties. Scientists still are researching how phenols work in the body, but it is clear that they can help curb inflammation (swelling of blood vessels, organs, or other body tissue), and kill bacteria.
Oleocanthal, the best known of the phenols in EVOO, has a similar effect as the pain reliever ibuprofen. The name is derived from oleo, the Greek term for olive; canth, which means sting, and al, which is shorthand for its specific chemical structure. You can tell an EVOO has high phenol levels by the prickly sensation it causes when it’s gargled in the back of the throat.
The healthful properties of these precious phenols begin to degrade within six months after olive oil is pressed. The freshest oil has the greatest therapeutic potential.
The other main nutritional benefits of EVOO come from monounsaturated fatty acids, or MUFAs, which have beneficial effects on cholesterol and glucose (blood sugar) levels, and also can play a part in reducing inflammation. Unsaturated fats, such as olive oil, stay liquid at room temperature, as opposed to saturated fats (such as butter and lard), which are solid.
Medical professionals recommend selecting EVOO from the most recent olive harvest, in order to get the highest-quality, highest-phenol oil. (Here is the only source we know of that procures independently lab-certified EVOO, according to the global harvest schedule.)
10 Proven Health Benefits of Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1. CAN REDUCE THE RISK OF HEART DISEASE
Two tablespoons of EVOO daily can reduce your risk of heart disease by improving blood cholesterol levels: lowering LDL (bad) cholesterol and increasing HDL (good) cholesterol.
Heart disease can affect people of all ages, although the risk increases as you age. Rising obesity levels in the US and around the world have resulted in a lower average age for the onset of heart disease risk factors, such as atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), which can start in childhood.
2. CAN HELP PREVENT TYPE 2 DIABETES
Several studies have shown that EVOO, as part of the Mediterranean diet, can help prevent type 2 diabetes. In a PREDIMED study, the people who ate an olive oil rich Mediterranean diet reported 40% fewer cases of diabetes than the control group (who did not consume olive oil). Another study, which evaluated people at risk for diabetes, revealed that two tablespoons of EVOO daily, along with fiber, reduced fasting and two-hour blood sugar to normal, non-diabetic levels.
3. MAY PROTECT AGAINST BREAST CANCER
A recently published, long-term PREDIMED study (with a follow-up period of almost five years) suggests that a Mediterranean diet enriched with EVOO (one liter a week for participants and their families) helps protect against breast cancer. Women who consume greater amounts of olive oil also are less likely to have high breast density, a risk factor for breast cancer.
4. AIDED WEIGHT LOSS IN BREAST CANCER SURVIVORS
In a study of breast cancer survivors, women who ate a plant-based, olive oil enriched diet (including three tablespoons of EVOO daily) lost more weight than women on a low-fat diet. Women in the study also overwhelmingly chose to continue with the olive oil diet for six months of follow-up after the initial eight-week study.
5. CAN REDUCE HIGH BLOOD PRESSURE & THE NEED FOR ANTIHYPERTENSIVE MEDICATION
In a yearlong study of people with high blood pressure, people who consumed olive oil lowered their blood pressure significantly, compared to those who consumed sunflower oil. What’s more, a third of the people in the olive oil group experienced enough of a reduction in blood pressure that they were able to discontinue antihypertensive medication.
6. CAN REDUCE THE RISK OF BLOOD CLOTS
The monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs) in EVOO have been shown to reduce blood vessel inflammation and other factors that can lead to blood clots.
7. REDUCES INFLAMMATION
MUFAs as well as phenols in EVOO can help reduce inflammation. Many medical conditions can be traced to chronic inflammation, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and most cancers. Inflammation is the defining characteristic of many autoimmune diseases, in which the immune system attacks and damages the body’s own tissues.
Under healthy circumstances, inflammation (swelling) is the body’s natural, complex response to harmful stimulation or infection. In inflammatory diseases, however, such as those listed above, the inflammation is abnormal and ongoing, and can lead to destruction of healthy cells and tissue.
8. HELPS RELIEVE RHEUMATOID ARTHRITIS PAIN
The anti-inflammatory properties of EVOO have been shown to alleviate the pain of rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease affecting the joints. A diet high in EVOO may even lower the risk for developing RA.
9. CAN HELP PROTECT COGNITIVE ABILITIES
A recent PREDIMED study found that older people who ate a Mediterranean diet, supplemented with EVOO, experienced better brainpower compared to participants on a low-fat diet. Participants in the study were given approximately one liter of olive oil weekly.
10. BENEFITS MATERNAL AND INFANT HEALTH
EVOO in a breastfeeding mother’s diet helps maintain high vitamin E levels in breast milk, which is vital to an infant’s brain and nerve development. To help nursing mothers relieve nipple soreness, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and others recommend applying EVOO to the affected area. EVOO does not need to be wiped off before nursing, as do ointments such as lanolin.
AND ON THE BEAUTY FRONT
Olive oil, whether used as a leave-in conditioner or shampooed out after a warm oil wrap, also is celebrated for making hair soft and shiny. Generations of women (and men, too!) also swear by olive oil as a moisturizer, especially for hands, feet, and rough, dry elbows.
To experience these and other therapeutic effects of olive oil, remember to seek out certified extra virgin olive oil from the latest harvest. The freshest EVOO has a higher phenol content, and can offer greater health benefits.