Olive Oil: A Natural Painkiller?

A Natural Painkiller?
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Could a traditional food have pain- and inflammation-reducing effects similar to over the counter pain medicine like ibuprofen?

Scientists from Italy, Spain, the U.S. and Australia have discovered that extra virgin olive oil can provide significant health benefits, including the ability to help reduce pain and inflammation.

This robust, flavorful oil is an example of the food as medicine concept, that foods can have a powerful impact on health.

A Mythical, Sacred Oil

From ancient Greece to the Holy Land, olive oil has been treasured. Celebrated as sacred in Greek mythology, the olive branch symbolized peace in Hellenic culture. Evidence of this ancient oil was discovered in 1901 at the "Room of the Olive Press" at Knossos on the island of Crete in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. From there olives were pressed into oil over 4,500 years ago and the olive oil was exported to North Africa and mainland Greece.

Cultivation of olive trees spread around the Mediterranean where olive oil flourished along with many early civilizations. The bible speaks of olive oil, and it has been used by Christianity and Judaism as a holy anointing oil.

Today, the major producers of olive oil are Spain, Italy, Greece, Tunisia, Turkey, Morocco and Syria.

But the growing popularity of olive oil can be seen in the spread of cultivation around the world to countries such as the U.S., Chile, and South Africa. Australia has become an energetic olive oil producer and exporter, and has just announced a record crop.

During travels with my family from the south of France to Tuscany to Greece I have witnessed the special beauty of the olive tree and tasted its fruit. Able to withstand heat, sun and survive on only a little moisture, the hardy olive tree became an icon of the Mediterranean region. Freezing temperatures, however, can harm the trees and the crop.

Eating Healthy With Olive Oil

Extra virgin olive oil can contribute nutritional support in the fight against such health problems as arthritis, cardiovascular disease, high cholesterol, and in pain management.

A research study from Spain has shown that higher olive oil consumption is associated with leaner body weight, an important factor in prevention of chronic conditions.

Another study from the universities of Navarra and Las Palmas de Gran Canaria in Spain looked at how diets including olive oil might offer protection against depression: Bad Fats Linked to Depression

Natural Painkiller Discovered in Olive Oil

Recent research has identified the antioxidant called oleocanthal, which is only found in extra-virgin olive oil. Scientists at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, in Philadelphia, found that oleocanthal in olive oil has a potency strikingly similar to that of the drug ibuprofen in inhibiting the cyclooxygenase (Cox) enzyme that causes pain and inflammation. Their findings were published in the science magazine Nature.

Given the side effects of common pain relieving drugs, finding a nutritional way to reduce pain and inflammation could be a solution for people suffering from pain.

In another study Italian researchers explain that the characteristic pungent and bitter taste of virgin olive oil have been attributed to phenols in the oil that have potential antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, chemopreventive and anti-cancer benefits.

Research on Health Benefits of Olive Oil

At the meeting of the "International conference on the healthy effect of virgin olive oil" that took place in Spain in 2005, numerous benefits of virgin olive oil from the research were outlined. They looked at the consumption of olive oil from the perspective of issues such as cardiovascular health, cancer and longevity. With respect to anti-aging they noted: "The more recent studies consistently support that the Mediterranean diet, based in virgin olive oil, is compatible with a healthier ageing and increased longevity."

Consumption of olive oil has been associated with:

  • Reduction of total cholesterol and an increase in the high-density cholesterol (HDL-C), which has a protective effect on blood vessels.
  • Improved sensitivity of cells to insulin, which helps to prevent the Metabolic Syndrome. Preventing Metabolic Syndrome is important, because the syndrome increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity.
  • Decreased risk of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and Alzheimer's disease.

Potent Antioxidant Power of Olive Oil

Phenolic compounds are potent antioxidants found in virgin and extra-virgin olive oil. These compounds give unrefined olive oils their distinctive flavors and high degree of stability.

Studies indicate these compounds may be able to:

  • Turn off the activity of genes that produce the kind of inflammation that causes coronary heart disease.
  • Decrease production of inflammatory chemicals called thromboxanes and leukotrienes.
  • Decrease the production of the most damaging form of cholesterol, oxidized LDL cholesterol.
  • University of South Australia researchers note that compounds from the olive were found to be antimicrobial against various bacteria.

And olive oil is just the beginning of anti-inflammatory foods. Learn more about fighting pain and inflammation in my article: Natural Anti- Inflammatory Foods and Supplements That Help Arthritis

Enjoying Olive Oil

The research studies focus on the benefits of extra-virgin olive oil, so this is what I always buy. I look for organic oil that has been grown without pesticides. Freshness counts, so I like shop where they sell a lot of oil, such as a big health food store. Store it in a cool place.

The amount of olive oil associated with protection against inflammation is only two teaspoons a day, which is easy to achieve. A sprinkle of olive oil makes a simple salad dressing, and a little oil can be used for dipping bread, instead of butter. Olive oil can also be used in baking.

Here is a popular tangy and sweet recipe from my book The Fat Resistance Diet, an anti-inflammatory dietary program.

Pomegranate Lime Dressing

Pomegranate juice is an outstanding source of flavonoids which help to reduce inflammation.

1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
Juice of 1/2 lime
1 tablespoon unsweetened pomegranate juice

In a jar, shake together the extra virgin olive oil, lime juice, and pomegranate juice. Serves 1.

Get more free recipes at fatresistancediet.com

Now I'd like to hear from you:

Do you use olive oil?

What is your favorite type of olive oil, and from which country?

Where do you shop for it?

Have you noticed any benefits from olive oil?

Please let me know your thoughts by posting a comment below.

Best Health,

Leo Galland, MD

Important: Celebrate Healthy Eating with your friends and family by forwarding this article to them, and sharing on Facebook.

Leo Galland, MD is a board-certified internist, author and internationally recognized leader in integrated medicine. Dr. Galland is the founder of Pill Advised, a web application for learning about medications, supplements and food. Sign up for FREE to discover how your medications and vitamins interact. Watch his videos on YouTube and join the Pill Advised Facebook page.

References and Further Reading:

The Annual of the British School at Athens, Coverage: 1894-2007 (Vols. 1-102)

Olive Oil: From Tree to Table, Peggy Knickerbocker and Laurie Smith, Chronicle Books; 2nd edition (October 1997)

Nature. 2005 Sep 1;437(7055):45-6. "Phytochemistry: ibuprofen-like activity in extra-virgin olive oil."Beauchamp GK, Keast RS, Morel D, Lin J, Pika J, Han Q, Lee CH, Smith AB, Breslin PA.
Monell Chemical Senses Center, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104, USA.

Inflammopharmacology. 2009 Apr;17(2):76-84. "Phenolic compounds in olive oil: antioxidant, health and organoleptic activities according to their chemical structure." Servili M, Esposto S, Fabiani R, Urbani S, Taticchi A, Mariucci F, Selvaggini R, Montedoro GF.
Dipartimento di Scienze Economico-estimative e degli Alimenti, Sezione di Tecnologie e Biotecnologie degli Alimenti, Università degli Studi di Perugia, Via S. Costanzo, 06126 Perugia, Italy.

Eur J Clin Invest. 2005 Jul;35(7):421-4."International conference on the healthy effect of virgin olive oil."Perez-Jimenez F, Alvarez de Cienfuegos G, Badimon L, Barja G, Battino M, Blanco A, Bonanome A, Colomer R, Corella-Piquer D, Covas I, Chamorro-Quiros J, Escrich E, Gaforio JJ, Garcia Luna PP, Hidalgo L, Kafatos A, Kris-Etherton PM, Lairon D, Lamuela-Raventos R, Lopez-Miranda J, Lopez-Segura F, Martinez-Gonzalez MA, Mata P, Mataix J, Ordovas J, Osada J, Pacheco-Reyes R, Perucho M, Pineda-Priego M, Quiles JL, Ramirez-Tortosa MC, Ruiz-Gutierrez V, Sanchez-Rovira P, Solfrizzi V, Soriguer-Escofet F, de la Torre-Fornell R, Trichopoulos A, Villalba-Montoro JM, Villar-Ortiz JR, Visioli F.
Lipid and Atherosclerosis Unit, Reina Sofia University Hospital, Cordoba, Spain.

Public Health Nutr. 2009 Sep;12(9A):1607-17. "Mediterranean diet and metabolic syndrome: the evidence."Babio N, Bulló M, Salas-Salvadó J. Human Nutrition Unit, Department of Biochemistry and Biotechnology, Hospital Universitari de Sant Joan de Reus, IISPV, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Rovira i Virgili University, Spain.

J Nutr Biochem. 2002 Nov;13(11):636-644."Major phenolic compounds in olive oil: metabolism and health effects." Tuck KL, Hayball PJ.
Centre for Pharmaceutical Research, School of Pharmaceutical, Molecular and Biomedical Sciences, University of South Australia, 5000, Adelaide, Australia

BMC Genomics. 2010 Apr 20;11:253. "Gene expression changes in mononuclear cells in patients with metabolic syndrome after acute intake of phenol-rich virgin olive oil." Camargo A, Ruano J, Fernandez JM, Parnell LD, Jimenez A, Santos-Gonzalez M, Marin C, Perez-Martinez P, Uceda M, Lopez-Miranda J, Perez-Jimenez F.
IMIBIC (Instituto Maimonides de Investigacion Biomedica de Cordoba), Reina Sofia University Hospital, University of Cordoba, Spain.

J Nutr. 2008 Jun;138(6):1074-8. "An extra-virgin olive oil rich in polyphenolic compounds has antioxidant effects in OF1 mice."Oliveras-López MJ, Berná G, Carneiro EM, López-García de la Serrana H, Martín F, López MC.
Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry Engineering, Andalusian Center of Molecular Biology and Regenerative Medicine, CIBERDEM, University of Pablo de Olavide of Seville, 41092 Seville, Spain.

Nutr Metab Cardiovasc Dis. 2005 Feb;15(1):13-23. "Effect of unsaturated fat intake from Mediterranean diet on rat liver mRNA expression profile: selective modulation of genes involved in lipid metabolism." Eletto D, Leone A, Bifulco M, Tecce MF.
Dipartimento di Scienze Farmaceutiche, Università di Salerno, Via Ponte Don Melillo, I-84084 Fisciano (SA), Italy.

Atherosclerosis. 2007 Jan;190(1):181-6. Epub 2006 Feb 20. "Postprandial anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects of extra virgin olive oil." Bogani P, Galli C, Villa M, Visioli F.
Department of Pharmacological Sciences, University of Milan, Via Balzaretti 9, 20133 Milan, Italy.

J Am Coll Nutr. 2008 Apr;27(2):314-20. "Changes in LDL fatty acid composition as a response to olive oil treatment are inversely related to lipid oxidative damage: The EUROLIVE study." Cicero AF, Nascetti S, López-Sabater MC, Elosua R, Salonen JT, Nyyssönen K, Poulsen HE, Zunft HJ, Kiesewetter H, de la Torre K, Covas MI, Kaikkonen J, Mursu J, Koenbick C, Bäumler H, Gaddi AV; EUROLIVE Study Group.
GC Descovich Atherosclerosis and Metabolic Disease Research Unit, Internal Medicine, Aging and Kidney Diseases Dept., University of Bologna, Via Massarenti, 9, 40138 Bologna, Italy.

J Am Coll Nutr. 2007 Oct;26(5):434-44. "A MUFA-rich diet improves posprandial glucose, lipid and GLP-1 responses in insulin-resistant subjects." Paniagua JA, de la Sacristana AG, Sánchez E, Romero I, Vidal-Puig A, Berral FJ, Escribano A, Moyano MJ, Peréz-Martinez P, López-Miranda J, Pérez-Jiménez F.
Lipids and Atherosclerosis Research Unit, University Hospital Reina Sofía, Córdoba, Spain.

Full Text: "Diet and Inflammation" Leo Galland, MD, Nutr Clin Pract December 7, 2010 vol. 25 no. 6 634-640

Power Healing: Use the New Integrated Medicine to Cure Yourself. Leo Galland, 384 pages, Random House, (June 1, 1998)

Recipe by Jonathan Galland from The Fat Resistance Diet © 2005 Leo Galland, M.D., Reprinted by permission of the author.

This information is provided for general educational purposes only and is not intended to constitute (i) medical advice or counseling, (ii) the practice of medicine or the provision of health care diagnosis or treatment, (iii) or the creation of a physician--patient relationship. If you have or suspect that you have a medical problem, contact your doctor promptly.

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