Hippocrates, the father of medicine, dubbed olive oil “the great therapeutic.” The ancient Greek physician identified more than 60 medicinal uses for olive oil.
Fortunately, after two and a half millennia, modern science is beginning to catch up. Many clinical studies, including the large-scale PREDIMED trials to evaluate the effects of the Mediterranean diet, have demonstrated olive oil’s role in chronic disease prevention and other areas.
A delicious component of a nutritious diet, olive oil and its consumption may also be considered preventive healthcare – with topical therapeutic uses, too. But how do you know which one is the best olive oil?
Important note: In order to reap the health benefits of olive oil, it is crucial that you procure extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), the only form of olive oil that retains its natural phenols (antioxidants) and other active compounds. (EVOO is minimally processed, whereas other oil grades, such as virgin, “pure,” or “light,” have been industrially refined and the healthful phenols destroyed.)
The Science of Olive Oil
EVOO contains more than 30 phenols, which have anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, and antioxidant properties. The best-known of these phenolic compounds is oleocanthal, which acts in a manner similar to the pain reliever ibuprofen. (The name oleocanthal has very direct roots: oleo is the Greek term for “olive”; canth means “sting”; and al signifies the aldehyde chemical group.) The “sting” refers to a prickly sensation in the back of the throat, a signifier of high phenolic levels in EVOO.
The bioactive power of these precious phenols begins to degrade within six months after olive oil is pressed. The fresher the oil, the greater its therapeutic potential.
The other main bioactive components of EVOO are monounsaturated fatty acids, or MUFAs. MUFAs exert beneficial effects on metabolism, namely cholesterol and glucose (blood sugar) levels, and can also help reduce inflammation.
Medical professionals recommend selecting EVOO from the most recent olive harvest as a strategy for obtaining the highest-quality, highest-phenolic oil. (Here is a source – the only one we know of – that procures independently lab certified EVOO according to the global harvest schedule.)
10 Proven Health Benefits of Extra Virgin Olive Oil:
- Benefits maternal and infant health
EVOO in a breastfeeding mother’s diet helps maintain high levels in breast milk of vitamin E, 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. In contrast to ointments such as lanolin, EVOO does not need to be wiped off before nursing.
- 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 group of 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). In another study, which evaluated people at risk for diabetes, two tablespoons per day of EVOO, along with fiber, reduced fasting and 2-hour glucose (blood sugar) to normal, non-diabetic levels.
- May protect against breast cancer
A recently published, long-term PREDIMED study suggests that a Mediterranean diet enriched with EVOO (1 liter a week for participants and their families) helps protect against breast cancer. Olive oil consumption is also inversely related to breast density: women who consume greater amounts of olive oil are less likely to have high breast density, a risk factor for breast cancer.
- 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 3 tablespoons of EVOO per day) lost more weight than women on a low-fat diet. In addition, women in the study overwhelmingly chose to continue with the olive oil diet for 6 months of follow-up after the initial 8-week study.
- Can reduce the risk of heart disease
Two tablespoons of EVOO per day 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 get older. Rising obesity levels in the US and around the world have lowered the average age of onset of heart disease risk factors such as atherosclerosis (“hardening of the arteries”), which can start as early as childhood.
- Can reduce high blood pressure and the need for antihypertensive medication
In a year-long study of people with high blood pressure, people who consumed olive oil lowered their blood pressure significantly compared to those who consumed sunflower oil (which contains polyunsaturated fatty acids, or PUFAs). 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.
- 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.
- Reduces inflammation
Multiple compounds in EVOO have anti-inflammatory properties—MUFAs as well as phenols. Many medical conditions can be traced to chronic inflammation, in particular autoimmune diseases, in which the immune system attacks and damages the body’s own tissues.
- Helps relieve rheumatoid arthritis pain
The anti-inflammatory properties of EVOO have been shown to alleviate the pain of rheumatoid arthritis (RA), an autoimmune disease affecting the joints. A diet high in EVOO may even lower the risk for developing RA.
- Can help protect cognitive abilities
A recent PREDIMED study found that older people who ate a Mediterranean diet supplemented with EVOO experienced better brain power compared to participants on a low-fat diet. Participants in the study were given about 1 liter of olive oil a week.
Another bonus benefit (even though it’s not medical): Olive oil is also celebrated for making hair soft and shiny, whether as a leave-in conditioner or shampooed out after a warm oil wrap. 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 phenolic content—and can offer greater health benefits.
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