Olive Oil’s Anti-Inflammatory Effects
A substance found in extra-virgin olive oil has anti-inflammatory effects similar to those of ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil), reports a study in Nature (2005; 437:45–6). The presence of anti-inflammatory activity in olive oil might help explain why its use has been linked to heart disease prevention and improvements in people with arthritis.
Oleocanthol, the substance isolated from extra-virgin olive oil, inhibited two enzymes involved in the process of inflammation (COX-1 and COX-2) but had no effect on a third inflammation-inducing enzyme (lipoxygenase). This pattern of activity is identical to that of ibuprofen. It is interesting that, while oleocanthol and ibuprofen do not have similar chemical structures, both of these compounds cause a strong stinging sensation in the throat.
It has long been suspected that olive oil inhibits inflammation. In a study of patients with rheumatoid arthritis, supplementing with about 4 teaspoons per day of olive oil for 12 weeks reduced pain and morning stiffness and improved laboratory measures of disease activity. Eating a Mediterranean diet, which is high in olive oil, has also been found to improve symptoms and reduce inflammation in people with rheumatoid arthritis. In another study, the combination of extra-virgin olive oil and fish oil was more effective than fish oil alone in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis.
Eating a Mediterranean diet also appears to reduce the risk of developing heart disease. Part of this protective effect may be due to other components of the Mediterranean diet, such as vegetables, fruits, and legumes. In addition, the high concentration of mono-unsaturated fatty acids in olive oil may be beneficial for the heart, as these compounds inhibit the heart-damaging oxidation of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol.
Inflammation also plays a key role in the development of hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis); also, anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin are known to help prevent heart disease. Inhibition of inflammation may, therefore, be another mechanism by which olive oil helps prevent heart disease. Moreover, unlike aspirin and other anti-inflammatory drugs, olive oil does not damage the stomach or promote the development of peptic ulcers.
It is not known whether oleocanthol is removed when extra-virgin olive oil is refined. However, several other compounds with potent antioxidant activity are almost entirely lost in the refining of olive oil; also, refined olive oil is less effective than extra-virgin olive oil as an inhibitor of LDL oxidation. Consequently, people wishing to obtain the maximum health benefits from olive oil should use the extra-virgin form.
An expert in nutritional therapies, Chief Medical Editor Alan R. Gaby is a former professor at Bastyr University of Natural Health Sciences, where he served as the Endowed Professor of Nutrition. He is past-president of the American Holistic Medical Association and gave expert testimony to the White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine on the cost-effectiveness of nutritional supplements. Dr. Gaby has conducted nutritional seminars for physicians and has collected over 30,000 scientific papers related to the field of nutritional and natural medicine. In addition to editing and contributing to The Natural Pharmacy (Three Rivers Press, 1999), and the A–Z Guide to Drug-Herb-Vitamin Interactions (Three Rivers Press, 1999), Dr. Gaby has authored Preventing and Reversing Osteoporosis (Prima Lifestyles, 1995) and B6: The Natural Healer (Keats, 1987) and coauthored The Patient's Book of Natural Healing (Prima, 1999).
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