Olive Oil: Potential Health Benefits Uncovered

Olives at the "Heart" of a Heart-Healthy Diet

A wealth of research on the Mediterranean-style diet indicates that it has great potential to fight against many chronic diseases of aging. Individuals in the Mediterranean area who eat this traditional diet have a very low incidence of cardiovascular disease and high life-expectancy rates.

Olive oil is a key component of this diet, and researchers are delving into the chemical make-up of this oil to unravel just how it may give rise to a long and healthy life.

The fatty acids found in olive oil - called mono-unsaturated fats - are regarded as responsible for much of its heart benefits. Olive oil is abundant in beneficial oleic acid, and reduced in significantly less healthy saturated fats.

But researchers are finding that it's not just the fatty acid composition of this oil that's healthful. Other components may be just as important. And not just for the heart, but for colon and bone protection too.

Olive Polyphenols: Heart Health & Beyond

Along with its less artery-clogging fatty acids, olive oil contains antioxidants such as vitamin E and poly-phenols - plant compounds with potent antioxidant properties. These chemicals are produced in the fruit and leaves of the olive tree, where they afford protection against environmental stresses.

Some of the polyphenols particular to olive oil such as oleuropein are being intensely investigated. Early findings indicate that oleuropein and other phenols may work synergistically with the fats from olive oil to protect arteries, bones and colon cells.

Researchers have found that olive oil polyphenols promote the antioxidant capacity of blood and assist the inner lining of small blood vessels in volunteers become more responsive to sudden changes in blood flow (1,2).

Inadequate vessel responsiveness is considered an early warning sign of cardiovascular disease. High doses of olive leaf extract with oleuropein are reported to protect against ischemia in animals and reduced blood pressure in humans (3,4) - effects that might help explain olive oil's apparent heart benefits.

Colon Cell Protection

Though restricted, some population-health studies have pointed to olive oil as protective against colon cancer. As with heart disease, the possible anti-cancer effects of olive oil have been attributed to the high levels of monounsaturated fats. But, newer research is focusing on the role that the polyphenols may play (5).

For instance, researchers in Ireland report that olive oil polyphenols added to cultured colon cancer cells protected the cells from DNA damage(6). This lab study, that must be confirmed in animals and humans, also found that the polyphenols interrupts the invasive activity of the cancer cells.

Anti-inflammatory Effects May Benefit Bones

Inspired by studies suggesting that people eating a traditional Mediterranean diet are less likely to have osteoporosis, French investigators have begun to explore the effects of olive oil polyphenols on bone.

In 1 study, elevated levels of isolated oleuropein ceased bone loss in an animal model that mimics menopausal osteoporosis(7). Inflammation plays a role in bone loss, and oleuropein has anti-inflammatory as well as antioxidant action. This is exciting and promising work.

Go For the "Extra Virgin"

We all know now that olive oil is greater than just oleic acid. But to reap its potential benefits, choose extra virgin olive oil. Refined olive oils loose much of their poly-phenol content during processing, while cold pressed virgin oils retain these health-promoting chemicals.