Italians, Greeks and Romans are known to live long and healthy lives. You may assume that it’s just because of their proximity to the sea or the year-around nice weather, but in fact, many researchers believe the longevity of these people can be attributed to their ultra-healthy Mediterranean diet.
And what’s a key component in their diet? Olive oil. Throughout these Mediterranean countries, the olive tree is a native crop, thus an essential part of their cultural cuisine
Of course, one of the uses of the tree’s fruit is olive oil. Also known as Olea europaea L., this tree belongs to the Oleaceae family, which also includes jasmine, forsythia, and lilacs. The fruit of the tree is cultivated mainly for making olive oil. There are two different types of olive oil that are distinguished by the processing method involved: refined olive oil, virgin olive oil. Each type differs also in nutrient content. (Always buy olive oil labeled “extra-virgin”.)
Far superior to other types of cooking oil including soybean and vegetable oils, olive oil is especially high in monounsaturated fat, also known as a healthy fat. Additionally, olive oil provides a wide range of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients including: Vitamin E, Vitamin K, Potassium, Calcium, Iron, and phytosterols. This nutrient-rich cooking oil is also commonly used in personal care and beauty regimens due to its exceptional nutritional value.
Here are just five of the many incredible olive oil health benefits:
1. Heart Health
Recognized as one of the most heart healthy oils, olive oil contains large amounts of monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs).(1) These include the essential fatty acids linoleic (omega-6) and linolenic acid (omega-3) along with monounsaturated fats, well-known to promote cardiovascular health by supporting balanced cholesterol levels.1,2
Olive oil also contains a specific type of antioxidant known as polyphenols, able to reduce the risk of developing heart disease caused by oxidation along the artery walls.3,4
Some studies have shown that olive oil was able to reduce blood pressure in hypertensive subjects, further reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.5
2. Weight Management.
The polyphenol antioxidants found in olive oil are known to support weight management.
The essential antioxidant component of olive oil has been scientifically shown to improve insulin sensitivity in overweight male subjects. By improving sensitivity to this important weight-loss hormone (insulin) the body gets the message from the brain to store less fat, thus supporting weight loss efforts.6
Olive oil has been shown to further support weight management in clinical trials by improving the bioactivity of thyroid hormone and increasing metabolism due to the active chemical compound it contains known as, oleanolic acid.7,8
3. Great-Looking Skin.
The compound ursolic acid found in olive oil is a powerful anti-inflammatory agent known to offer many benefits to the skin. As it is able to inhibit the cellular inflammatory process, it may help to reduce premature aging caused by inflammation of the skin.9
Olive oil is a cooking oil that is also very popular in beauty regimens (it was one of Sophia Loren’s secret anti-aging tips: slathering olive oil on her face before bed) due to its high content of essential fatty acids and the natural antimicrobial phyto-chemicals known as oleanolic acid and ursolic acids. When applied topically, the antibacterial effects of these compounds may help ease bacterial-related skin problems like acne.10
Further, olive oil provides anti-bacterial, anti-viral, and anti-parasitic properties due to the content of these phyto-chemicals to promote skin health when applied topically. 10
Phenol antioxidants of olive oil have been shown to offer UV protection to the skin. As a free radical scavenger, olive oil may help to reduce UVB-induced skin damage that can cause premature aging.11
The combined antibacterial properties of oleanolic acid and ursolic acids, extend beyond the skin to protect the entire body from the attack of bacterial pathogens including S. pneumonia, Staphylococcus aureus, Bacillus subtilis, B. cereus, Enterococcus faecalis, E. faecium, and Pseudomonas aeruginosa.12-15
Further, clinical studies have confirmed the benefits of olive oil phyto-chemicals on the functions of a healthy immune system.16
5. Better Brain Function.
The consumption of olive oil may help to protect brain cells from oxidative damage. Studies have shown that the neuroprotective effects of olive oil polyphenols benefited those with age-related cognitive decline.17,18
Further, the consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) including EPA and DHA (eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid) from olive oil play a crucial role in brain function, important for memory and performance.
Numerous epidemiological studies have shown the neruoprotective effects of omega-3 essential fatty acids on cognition and memory over time.19,20
Subjects with low omega-3 levels have been associated with fewer impairments including dyslexia, ADHD, and cognitive decline.21,22
Lastly, one study showed that people with a higher intake of dietary omega-3 essential fatty acids had bigger, and more functional brains. 23
The Mediterranean diet dates back to the Middle Ages, and includes minimally processed bread, wine and olive oil as symbols of rural culture and tradition. The discovery of the incredible olive oil health benefits associated with the Mediterranean diet lead researchers to study olive oil more in depth. What scientists revealed was that olive oil was in fact an ancient superfood with many incredible health benefits when consumed, and when applied topically to the skin. For these five benefits, and many more – try adding olive oil to your menu!
3 Sandhya Khurana, Krishnan Venkataraman. Polyphenols: Benefits to the Cardiovascular System in Health and in Aging. Nutrients. 2013 Oct; 5(10): 3779–3827.
4 Protective effect of olive oil and its phenolic compounds against low density lipoprotein oxidation.
5 Gimeno E, de la Torre-Carbot K. Changes in the phenolic content of low density lipoprotein after olive oil consumption in men. A randomized crossover controlled trial. Br J Nutr. 2007 Dec;98(6):1243-50. Epub 2007 Jul 9.
6 de Bock M1, Derraik JG. Olive (Olea europaea L.) leaf polyphenols improve insulin sensitivity in middle-aged overweight men: a randomized, placebo-controlled, crossover trial. PLoS One. 2013;8(3):e57622. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0057622. Epub 2013 Mar 13.
7 Baxter JD, Webb P Metabolism: bile acids heat things up. Nature. (2006)
8 Al-Qarawi AA, Al-Damegh MA, ElMougy SA Effect of freeze dried extract of Olea europaea on the pituitary-thyroid axis in rats. Phytother Res. (2002)
9 Lee CW, Park NH. Study of skin anti-ageing and anti-inflammatory effects of dihydroquercetin, natural triterpenoids, and their synthetic derivatives. Bioorg Khim. 2012 May-Jun;38(3):374-81.
10 Ancora C, Roma C, Vettor M. Evaluation of cosmetic efficacy of oleoeuropein. Symposium on the New Frontiers of Dermo-cosmetology: Efficacy, Stability and Safety; Rome, Italy. November 4–6; 2004.
11 Kimura Y, Sumiyoshi M. Olive leaf extract and its main component oleuropein prevent chronic ultraviolet B radiation-induced skin damage and carcinogenesis in hairless mice. J Nutr. 2009;139:2079–2086.
12 G. M. Woldemichael, S. G. Franzblau, F. Zhang, Y. Wang, and B. N. Timmermann, “Inhibitory effect of sterols from Ruprechtia triflora and diterpenes from Calceolaria pinnifolia on the growth of Mycobacterium tuberculosis,” Planta Medica, vol. 69, no. 7, pp. 628–631, 2003.
13 K. Horiuchi, S. Shiota, T. Hatano, T. Yoshida, T. Kuroda, and T. Tsuchiya, “Antimicrobial activity of oleanolic acid from Salvia officinalis and related compounds on vancomycin-resistant enterococci (VRE),” Biological & Pharmaceutical Bulletin, vol. 30, no. 6, pp. 1147–1149, 2007.
14 S. Fontanay, M. Grare, J. Mayer, C. Finance, and R. E. Duval, “Ursolic, oleanolic and betulinic acids: antibacterial spectra and selectivity indexes,” Journal of Ethnopharmacology, vol. 120, no. 2, pp. 272–276, 2008.
15 W. R. Cunha, G. X. de Matos, M. G. M. Souza et al., “Evaluation of the antibacterial activity of the methylene chloride extract of Miconia ligustroides, isolated triterpene acids, and ursolic acid derivatives,” Pharmaceutical Biology, vol. 48, no. 2, pp. 166–169, 2010.
16 J.-L. Ríos. Effects of triterpenes on the immune system. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, vol. 128, no. 1, pp. 1–14, 2010.
17 Bernd Moosmann, Christian Behl. The antioxidant neuroprotective effects of estrogens and phenolic compounds are independent from their estrogenic properties. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1999 Aug 3; 96(16):
18 Syed Haris Omar. Oleuropein in Olive and its Pharmacological Effects. Sci Pharm. 2010 Apr-Jun; 78(2): 133–154. 2010 Apr 23.
19 Cole GM, Ma QL, Frautschy SA. Omega-3 fatty acids and dementia. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2009 Aug-Sep;81(2-3):213-21.
20 Fotuhi M, Mohassel P, Yaffe K. Fish consumption, long-chain omega-3 fatty acids and risk of cognitive decline or Alzheimer disease: a complex association. Nat Clin Pract Neurol. 2009 Mar;5(3):140-52.
21 Laasonen M, Hokkanen L, Leppamaki S, Tani P, Erkkila AT. Project DyAdd: Fatty acids and cognition in adults with dyslexia, ADHD, or both. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. 2009 Jul;81(1):79-88.
22 Sumich A, Matsudaira T, Gow RV, et al. Resting state electroencephalographic correlates with red cell long-chain fatty acids, memory performance and age in adolescent boys with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Neuropharmacology. 2009 Dec;57(7-8):708-14.
23 Conklin SM, Gianaros PJ, Brown SM, et al. Long-chain omega-3 fatty acid intake is associated positively with corticolimbic gray matter volume in healthy adults. Neurosci Lett. 2007 Jun 29;421(3):209-12.