Here at Old Town Olive one of our goals is to promote the health benefits of olive oil. When you learn about all the ways olive oil promotes good health, you'll be eager to use it to enhance salads, pasta, fish and just about anything else.
The anti-inflammatory strength of olive oil rests on its polyphenols. These anti-inflammatory compounds include at least nine different categories of polyphenols and more than two dozen well-researched anti-inflammatory nutrients. Research has documented a wide variety of anti-inflammatory mechanisms used by olive oil polyphenols to lower our risk of inflammatory problems.
In heart patients, olive oil and its polyphenols have also been determined to lower blood levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a widely used blood measurement for assessing the likelihood of unwanted inflammation. They have also been found to reduce activity in a metabolic pathway called the arachidonic acid pathway, which is central for mobilizing inflammatory processes.
These anti-inflammatory benefits of extra virgin olive oil do not depend on large levels of intake. As little as 1-2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil per day have been shown to be associated with significant anti-inflammatory benefits.
One of the best ways to help avoid chronic and unwanted inflammation is to consume a diet that is rich in anti-inflammatory nutrients. Many foods contain valuable amounts of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds, but few foods are as rich in these compounds as extra virgin olive oil.
Olive oil has been shown to lower risk of lipid peroxidation (oxygen damage to fat) in our bloodstream. Many of the fat-containing molecules in our blood—including molecules like LDL—need to be protected from oxygen damage. Oxygen damage to molecules like LDL significantly increases our risk of numerous cardiovascular diseases, including atherosclerosis. Protection of the LDL molecules in our blood from oxygen damage is a major benefit provided by olive oil and its polyphenols.
One process we don't want to see in our blood vessels is too much clumping together of blood cells called platelets. Several of the polyphenols found in olive oil—including hydroxytyrosol, oleuropein and luteolin—appear to be especially helpful in keeping our blood platelets in check and avoiding problems of too much clumping (called platelet aggregation).
Recent research studies have shown that olive oil and its oleic acid may be important factors for lowering blood pressure. Researchers believe that the plentiful amount of oleic acid in olive oil gets absorbed into the body, finds its way into cell membranes, changes signaling patterns at a cell membrane level (specifically, altering G-protein associated cascades) and thereby lowers blood pressure.
However, olive oil—outstanding as it is in polyphenol protection of our cardiovascular system—needs to be integrated into an overall healthy diet in order to provide its expected benefits.
Benefits of olive oil for the digestive tract were first uncovered in research on diet and cancers of the digestive tract. Numerous studies found lower rates of digestive tract cancers—especially cancers of the upper digestive tract, including the stomach and small intestine—in populations that regularly consumed olive oil.
Numerous polyphenols in olive oil have been shown to slow the growth of unwanted bacteria, including bacteria commonly responsible for digestive tract infections, stomach ulcers and other unwanted digestive problems.
Improved cognitive function—especially among older adults—is a well-known feature of the Mediterranean Diet. In France, a recent study large-scale study on older adults has shown that visual memory and verbal fluency can be improved with what the researchers called "intensive use" of olive oil. In this case, "intensive use" meant regular use of olive oil not just for cooking, or as an ingredient in sauces and dressings, but in all of these circumstances.
Equally fascinating to us in the area of cognition has been recent research on olive oil intake and brain function. In laboratory animals with brain function that had been compromised by lack of oxygen, consumption of olive oil helped offset many different types of brain-related problems, including unbalanced water content, unbalanced nervous system activity, and too easy passage of molecules across the blood brain barrier. The ability to help protect our brain during times of imbalance may turn out to be one of the special health benefits offered by this unique culinary oil.
The polyphenols found in olive oil are a natural way for helping us lower our risk of certain cancer types. Many types of cancer only get initiated when cells are overwhelmed by oxidative stress (damage to cell structure and function by overly reactive oxygen-containing molecules) and by chronic excessive inflammation. Since the polyphenols in olive oil act both as antioxidants and anti-inflammatory molecules, they are perfectly suited for lowering our cells' risk of oxidative stress and chronic unwanted inflammation. Research studies have shown that as little as 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil per day can lower our risk of certain cancer types, including cancers of the breast, respiratory tract, upper digestive tract, and to a lesser extent, lower digestive tract (colorectal cancers).
These other ways olive oil helps include the improvement of cell membrane function in a way that lowers risk of cancer development and the altering gene expression in cells in a way that enhances their antioxidant defense system. A final important mechanism linking olive oil intake to decreased cancer risk involves protection of our DNA from unwanted oxidative stress, which means better cell function in wide variety of ways and provides a cell with decreased risk of cancer development.
There is also encouraging research on the potential for olive oil to help with control of certain cancers once they have already developed. For example, the ability of hydroxytyrosol (HT) in olive oil to trigger programmed cell death (apoptosis) in colon cancer cells. HT may be able to accomplish this anti-cancer effect by helping block the enzymatic activity of fatty acid synthetase (FAS). These cancer-controlling properties of olive oil and olive oil constituents are generally referred to as the "antiproliferative" properties of olive oil. We expect to see more future research in this area.