While tasting extra-virgin olive oils in Sicily, Gary Beauchamp, PhD, director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, noticed a ticklish, peppery sensation in the back of his throat. It was nearly identical to the “sting” he’d felt when swallowing a liquid form of NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen and aspirin, during previous sensory studies. Beauchamp detected a connection between the olive oil and inflammation.
Further studies revealed that a compound in the oil, called oleocanthal, prevents the production of pro-inflammatory COX-1 and COX-2 enzymes – the same way ibuprofen works.
“By inhibiting these enzymes, inflammation and the increase in pain sensitivity associated with them is dampened,” says Paul Breslin, PhD, co-author of the 2011 study. Researchers found the intensity of the “throaty bite” in oil is directly related to the amount of oleocanthal it contains. “Virgin olive oils from Tuscany, or other regions that have the same variety of olives, have the highest oleocanthal levels,” says Breslin.
A study published in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry in 2015 looked specifically at the benefits of oleocanthal for rheumatoid arthritis. Researchers found that this compound had a significant impact not only on chronic inflammation but also on acute inflammatory processes.
More Than Inflammation
Extra-virgin olive oil has benefits beyond stemming inflammation. Several studies have shown benefits for heart health, bone loss and neurological diseases (affecting the brain, spine, muscles and connecting nerves). A study published in Molecules in 2014 discussed the effect of a component of the oil, called hydroxytyrosol, which had a protective effect on the neurological system. In an animal study published in the peer-reviewed journal, PLOSOne in 2014, researchers showed that when virgin olive oil was combined with vitamin D, it protected against bone loss. Another study, led by Dr. Francisco Perez-Jimenez of the University of Cordoba, Spain in 2005 showed that a compound found in the oil, called polyphenol, promoted heart health.
Getting The Full Benefits of Virgin Olive Oil
Researchers say that about 3 1/2 Tbsp. of the oil is equal to a 200-mg tablet of ibuprofen. Ibuprofen is widely used to help control pain and inflammation. But serious side effects can occur if it’s used for more than 10 days. Virgin olive oil may lessen how much you need to take, but talk to your doctor before changing your medication regimen.
Be aware that 3 1/2 Tbsp. of the oil has more than 400 calories. So, it’s a good idea to use in moderation so that excess calories don’t lead to weight gain.
Do not heat olive oil to high temperatures (about 410 degrees), because this kills some of the beneficial properties. At lower temperatures, you can sauté vegetables (300 degrees) or fry breaded items (340 degrees), and reap the benefits of switching out butter for olive oil. You can also use it at room temperature in salad dressings, as a dip for bread, or for tossing pasta or veggies.
Protect the oil’s healthful properties by keeping it in a cool, dark cupboard or pantry, but you can store in the fridge too. Don’t keep next to the stove. At the grocery store, choose the dark bottles and one that at the back of the shelf – it’s been shielded from the fluorescent light.