How Olive Oil Benefits Health – A True Mediterranean Gold
April 26, 2019
We’ve all heard by now about “heart healthy” cooking and the Mediterranean diet craze. One ancient product is a staple holding the two together: Here’s how Olive Oil benefits health.
Olive oil, a liquid of gold, has been extracted from the humble olive for over 8,000 years! It is the liquid fat released from the olive fruit by pressing, and is renown for its impressive uses and health benefits.
Today, it is an integral part of culture and cuisine throughout the Mediterranean and the Middle East.
In this article, we try to answer the common question of “why is olive oil healthy?”. Oftentimes we hear of superfoods and their miracles, and the truth sometimes gets stretched a little.
However, not all foods are created equal, and for some, there is no denying their merit of virtue. The olive is one such example, and its oil just as much…
Olea Europaea in The Modern World (A History)
Humans have been consuming olives since the Neolithic era, and today that has only increased. The Olive is the fruit of the Olive Tree, which originated in Anatolia (modern day Turkey) and since then its cultivation has spread throughout the Mediterranean Basin, through the Middle-East, and to Europe and North Africa.
The Latin name of this evergreen tree is known as Olea Europaea, and this includes more than 1,800 individual cultivars! These include black and green olive types – both of which are used today in the production of olive oil.
Currently, the largest cultivators of the olive are Spain, Italy, and Greece, followed by multiple North African countries and others such as Turkey. The largest consumers – in order – are Greece, Spain, and Italy. When it comes to olive oil production, Spain by far leads the way at 75% of all olive oil in the World!
Italy is the second largest producer and the third largest consumer of olive oil in the world, and even then they still consume over 11l per capita annually! It’s no wonder they’re famous for they’re longevity, alongside their active and social and largely whole-foods diet.
Fun Fact: By the way, the country of San Marino, historically an independent state of what is now “unified Italy”, with which the culture shares many aspects, consumes the most olive oil per capita, at 24l per capita based on 2021 study results by Juan Vilar.
Cultures and Cuisines
Throughout Mediterranea, olive oil historically has held key significance in tradition, medicine, health, and religion – and it still does. In fact, in many languages, the words “olive” and “oil” ultimately stem from the same word due to their significance in relation!
It has been used for lamp fuel, mechanical purposes (in the form of Lampante Olive Oil, which is inedible), cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, medicine, and cooking. It is the prior two that we will discuss here.
For its medicinal purposes, it is recommended to use Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO), as it contains beneficial polyphenols, and refining may reduce levels of multiple beneficial components. This kind shouldn’t be heated, but refined is still healthy and may be used for cooking.
We’ll discuss the big benefits, and then dive into the different types available.
Olive Oil and Heart Health
One of the many ways in which olive oil effectively benefits our health is through its multitude of effects on the heart.
Lessens Hypertension and Boosts Blood Flow
This effect was demonstrated in a well-known study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Sufferers of high blood pressure consumed about 4 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil daily, replacing other kinds of fats in their diet. After half a year, their medicine dosages nearly halved. During the time, they all consumed a very similar diet.
Other studies have also suggested anti-hypertensive properties of olive oil consumption.
The reason for this is due to the antioxidants and monounsaturated fatty acids such as omega-9 oleic acid found in olive oil.
Antioxidants protect the arteries from damage caused by “free radicals”, which are harmful unpaired electrons that travel the bloodstream and interact with cells in the body, damaging our cells and DNA.
In the arteries, free radicals oxidate cholesterol (particularly LDL cholesterol), which may cause hardening and narrowing as cholesterol deposits build up: This is “atherosclerosis”. As the process goes on, inflammation is created, the body sends more cholesterol and nutrients to “fight” the detected damage, and the plaques continue to build, and eventually rupture, scar, and harden further… By improving cholesterol profiles as described below, and fighting inflammatory free radicals, olive oil can be a useful preventative measure, especially in place of unhealthy fats like seed oils (^).
Furthermore, olive oil’s phenolic compounds and the metabolites they produce in our bodies can actually help to dilate blood vessels. How?
Well, the key is how these metabolites interact with nitric oxide regulation. Nitric oxide can be produced by epithelial tissues in the heart, blood vessels, and organs, and this helps to relax vascular muscles and dilate vessels, therefore increasing blood flow (^). Olive oil can significantly increase nitric oxide production and prevent its degradation (^)(^).
Note: These beneficial effects are especially demonstrated by EVOO, as opposed to refined oils. We’ll talk more about the different types out there shortly.
So, a triple combo of anti-inflammatory, blood-flow-promoting, and cholesterol-balancing properties make olive oil a heart-boosting ingredient well worth getting into your daily diet!
Olive oil’s antioxidants and fats (including oleic acid) have been demonstrated to reduce LDL levels the aforementioned LDL oxidation, whilst increasing HDL cholesterol levels.
This is good news for us because – as more research is showing – a high-fat diet doesn’t necessarily lead to poor health.
Rather, the emphasis should be placed on using the right fats for cooking, a variety of nutrient-dense sources of fat, and portion control.
Cholesterol is very important for health, allowing our brains and hearts to function healthily. Regarding “healthy” or “unhealthy” levels, the following is a basic summary.
HDL stands for ‘High Density Lipoprotein’, and this type of cholesterol helps to remove harmful ‘Low Density Lipoprotein’ (LDL) accumulation, transport fat-soluble vitamins throughout the body, boost circulation through the arteries, and protect the arteries from atherosclerosis.
Too much LDL – especially of large partical size – increases the risk factors of cardiovascular illness. We require small amounts of LDL, and benefit largely from increased HDL.
See the pattern here? It’s the HDL:LDL ratio that counts, and olive oil may just help to tip that in our favour and prevent heart disease AND metabolic dysfunction!
Furthermore, olive oil may strengthen arteries and blood vessel (endothelial) cell walls to boost heart health even further!
The second way we will discuss on how olive oil benefits health is it’s amazing anti-inflammatory potency.
Inflammation is associated with all known illnesses, and active ingredients such as polyphenols in olive oil are potent for reducing inflammation.
Well over 30 different polyphenols have been identified in Extra Virgin Olive Oil, but the one which is known most for its anti-inflammatory effects is Oleocanthal. Many studies have concluded on its positive effects on health.
Oleacanthal – Discovered by American biologist Dr. Beauchamp
This respected biologist had noticed a familiar “burning sensation” in his throat after consuming olive oil, finding it similar to that of liquid ibuprofen.
He wanted to explore why this strange coincidence was…
As it turns out, Oleocanthal has very similar anti-inflammatory effects to that of the NSAID drug ibuprofen, but without the same strength per amount, or the harmful side effects that NSAID’s have been known to cause.
On average, to achieve the effects of a single 200 mg tablet of ibuprofen, one should have about 3½ tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil. This is data extracted from The Arthritis Foundation.
Here is a list of a few positive effects this may have on health:
Oleocanthal has not only been shown to reduce the pain caused by arthritis, but it lowers inflammation in the cartilage and surrounding cells, which decreases the degenerative effects of both rheumatoid and osteoarthritis.
Prevents Neurological Degeneration
By reducing free radicals and plaques in the brain, Oleocanthal may significantly prevent and reduce the development of Neurodegenerative illnesses such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Oleocanthal has also been shown to induce cancer cell apoptosis (cell death) and inhibit cancer cell growth.
It doesn’t have the same effects on healthy cells. This was demonstrated in one study using Oleocanthal-rich olive oil when testing cancer cells in a lab.
Excitingly, similar effects were shown in rodents as well. Some of the specific types of cancers positively tested so far include colon, breast, ovarian, skin, and more.
Management of Type-2 Diabetes
When we discuss how olive oil benefits health, its potential to combat diabetes is often a surprising, yet very real, benefit.
In multiple studies, it has been shown that olive oil may reduce insulin resistance, reduce blood sugar levels, and improve blood lipid levels. After meals rich in olive oil, it has been demonstrated that blood glucose levels were lower in people that those who ate the same meal without olive oil. This is in part due to the effects of olive oil’s antioxidants and anti-inflammation.
Aids in Digestion
An important stage of digestion takes part in the stomach and intestines: where enzymes, peptides, and compounds such as gastric acid are released.
When someone eats too much too quickly, especially if the foods are high in protein or fat, a lot of gastric acid will be released. In large amounts this leads to acid reflux and results in heartburn, which over time may lead to serious health complications and damage the oesophagus.
Fortunately, consuming olive oil may ease the symptoms of and prevent acid reflux.
Also, by stimulating the production of peptides, foods can be more easily broken down and nutrients more easily absorbed.
Olive oil itself does not require much enzyme production to be digested, which potentially may ease the load of work on the pancreas too. Overall, this of course promotes a healthy digestive system.
As mentioned earlier on in this article, Italians consume a fair amount of olive oil, and as one of the world’s longest living nations, it is no surprise. This also applies to the famous Greek Ikarians, San Marino people, and Spain.
Of course, the high life expectancy comes down to so much more than just olive oil consumption, including their overall diet, lifestyle, social well-being, exercise, genetic, and epigenetic factors.
However, it is convincing that olive oil consumption has a part to play here. Not only does it prevent and combat illness and disease, its antioxidants might quite literally prevent ageing by protecting our cells from damage (caused by oxidation and free radicals).
I couldn’t not mention it when writing our ‘Healthiest Foods for Longevity’ list!
Olive Oil Could Boost Longevity by Increasing Sirtuin Activation (Longevity-promoting Genes)
Now we’re really getting into the fun stuff! I’ll summarise the main science points into take-aways so you can easily understand how olive oil could help to boost your lifespan…
Just bear with me: There’s a more detailed explanation followed by a “here’s-what-it-comes-down-to” explanation.
- All life is made up of DNA, which is the building block of our genes, and consists of proteins. These proteins are made of amino acids.
- Every cell in our body contains mitochondria (“the powerhouse of the cell”), which are ancient hitch-hikers with their own DNA that live in our cells and control how we produce energy. Over time, these produce energy and divide, but by-products of this process can also damage mitochondrial DNA, which, alongside mitochondrial damage from environmental factors like pollutants, chemicals, toxic metals, and alcohol, lead to their dysfunction (^)(^).
- When mitochondria become too dysfunctional, our cells will not produce energy, and essentially become “senescent” / inactive. This is natural, and is a strong theory underlying why we age and cells “die” as we get older (^).
- So, more mitochondria with better function means more cellular energy production and efficiency, essentially increasing the total output your cells can provide you over time, meaning theoretically a longer life before your mitochondria and cells become too insufficient to support life as they divide more and more through the years.
- Now, us humans (well, not just us) have proteins encoded by genes called “Sirtuins”, which – when activated – increase the production of more mitochondria. We have seven of these sirtuin genes (“SIRT-1” to “SIRT-7”), and the name actually comes from the fun term “silent mating type information regulation 2”.
- This process of making more mitochondria is called “mitochondrial biogenesis”. Therefore, if we can learn how to increase sirtuin activation, we can increase mitochondrial biogenesis, and theoretically lifespan (and health-span).
- This mitochondrial biogenesis also “clears up” and essentially renews the cell’s energy system, protecting your mitochondria and cells from cascades of damage over time.
- In this case, olive oil contains oleic acid – a monounsaturated fatty (MUFA) acid that activates the sirtuins ‘SIRT-1’ and ‘SIRT-3’ (^)(^). The prior increases levels of a protein called PGC1-α, which in turn increases mitochondrial biogenesis (^)(^) .
- SIRT-1 also has been studied and demonstrated to play vital roles in offsetting age-related diseases, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and neurological degeneration (^).
- Therefore, olive oil, by providing a very rich source of oleic acid, could literally help to switch on your “anti-ageing” genes. Pretty cool, right?
My “here’s-what-it-comes-down-to” explanation:
Basically, what this all means is olive oil has some cool fats in it that combat cellular and mitochondrial ageing and can improve overall metabolic health. Remember, poor metabolic health is the underlying function of chronic diseases like obesity, type-2 diabetes, and neurodegenerative illnesses like Alzheimer’s.
It does this by activating genes called sirtuins, which help to replenish your cells with healthier mitochondria (which produce energy for every cell in the body) and counteract damage caused to them over time.
So, as long as you’re not overdoing it on the calories, get some good-quality olive oil in your system!
Bonus Science (Knowledge is power – especially health knowledge… Plus I’m enjoying writing this):
On top of this, MUFA’s as a whole may increase SIRT-1 activation. Here’s how:
SIRT-1 and PGC1-α are also upregulated by the activity of an enzyme called ATGL, which breaks down stored fat (triglycerides) to produce energy in the body. This linked study refers to these interactions as a “ATGL-MUFA-SIRT1 axis”, and also performed tests using olive oil to demonstrate the beneficial effects. When ATGL uses MUFA’s as stored energy, this correlates with an increase in a protein called PLIN5, which directly regulates your body’s ability to essentially use stored fat as energy, and also which directs the MUFA’s to bind with and activate your SIRT-1 genes. Relating to the brief explanation above, we can see how this benefits mitochondrial functioning and overall metabolic health.
Note: This could get super-super “sciencey” again and we could really dive into the nitty gritty details of how your genes and mitochondria influence ageing. But, I’m not a scientist and I’m not going to pretend to understand all of these studies in depth. And also you probably have other things to do… BUT, if you are interested in learning more about this, check out the studies linked and then get onto listening to Prof. David Sinclair, as a start*.
*(Quick YouTube Snippet, credit to the channel ‘Reverse Aging Revolution’).
A Small Note on Skin Health
If applied topically to the skin, olive oil has a multitude more benefits. It can improve skin health in ways such as supporting the fatty layers underneath the skin’s surface. One of the reasons for its benefits on skin health and immunity is its antimicrobial properties. It protects the body from invasive bacteria whilst supporting our healthy bacteria. And, since your skin is – quite literally – your largest organ, it’s well worth looking after (especially into old age when collagen breakdown is higher)!
Bonus: Get your hands on your own FREE recipe book:
"Oat-my-goodness! A Step-by-step Guide to Six Savoury and Sweet Oatmeal Recipe".
A Note on Olive Oil Types – What to Use and When!
In the modern market, there are multiple types of olive oil sold, and although some of them may be labelled as “Pure” or “100%”, that isn’t to say that they are what they seem. Different manufacturers and sellers may use terms that are slightly misleading. In order to ensure that when you are buying your olive oil you’re getting the kind that you intend to, always read the ingredients label fully.
Also, make sure to store olive oil properly as instructed away from light, heat, and oxygen (keep it sealed) as this will protect the precious fats and nutrients that are naturally present in the oil, and will also prevent any off flavour or aroma.
Pick oils that aren’t stored at the front in the light when you’re out shopping.
Storage and packing can significantly affect olive oil quality – the best containers are dark glass (which allow less light through), followed by stainless steel, cartons, and finally plastic PET. The darker the better.
- For medicinal purposes try to use Extra Virgin Olive Oil (cold-pressed, organic).
Cold-pressed EVOO is of the highest quality, especially if organic. This type is ideal medicinally. It is available in capsules, but if you do go for this option make sure that:
- A) The olive oil really is extracted carefully, (expeller-pressed isn’t necessarily good) – look for cold-pressing and mechanical means;
- B) The capsules themselves are made of material without negative side effects.
- For light-moderate heat cooking purposes, Extra Virgin Olive Oil also works.
(This type is less prone to oxidation), but use in cooking only if sautéing or baking, not for deep-frying.
Some people believe that extra virgin olive oil is more prone to oxidation due to the fats in it. However, whilst this might be true for other oil types, it is not of olive oil. It contains primarily monounsaturated fatty acids, which are much less prone to oxidation than polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) like those found in canola, sunflower, soy, and vegetable oils.
Additionally, it is rich in antioxidants which protect even the monounsaturated fats. Cooking with EVOO therefore creates a negligible amount of trans fats.
Unless you are deep-frying, or reusing the oil a lot, extra virgin works well.
Note: You will be destroying some of the beneficial phytonutrients by cooking, but that is to be expected.
- The next best thing for very high-heat cooking would be Pure Olive Oil.
… Which is a mixture or Virgin and Refined (such as Light) Olive Oils. This is due to its higher smoking point, but it is not as healthy as the virgin olive oils and the Refined Olive Oil lacks in anti-inflammatory properties, antioxidants, and nutrition when compared.
Most of the time, it is best to avoid refined olive oil, as it may contain chemicals and lacks flavour and health benefits.
Overall, it is very clear to see why olive oil is touted as a superfood, since it really is.
For thousands of years, its medicinal properties and health benefits have been well-known by those who consume it, and as such it has become an integral part of many cultures particularly across the Mediterranean Basin.
I hope you have learnt from this post about the benefits of olive oil and why everyone should consider including it as part of their (daily) diet.
Shout out: Share your favourite ways to use Olive Oil below!
I personally love olive oil, and have it almost every day! Let me know about your thoughts on olive oil and how you use it in your cooking… or cosmetics. 🙂
If you have any comments, suggestions, or questions I’d love to hear them in the comments!
Until the next one, stay healthy
Bonus: Get your hands on your own FREE recipe book:
"Oat-my-goodness! A Step-by-step Guide to Six Savoury and Sweet Oatmeal Recipe".