Reducing inflammation with olive oil

Liquid Gold

If health care were like the stock market, I’d be reporting to you that after a poor showing in a recent study, ibuprofen trading took a sharp dive. Meanwhile, olive oil was up several points as investors quickly reacted to news about the extra-virgin oil’s anti-inflammatory qualities.

And what do ibuprofen and olive oil have in common? More than you might imagine. But it’s what they DON’T have in common that’s far more significant.

Redrawing the safety profile

We’ll start with the bad news: Daily ibuprofen use may produce a dangerous level of blood loss in healthy people. And ibuprofen is considered the SAFEST of the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs!

A study conducted at Canada’s McMaster University Health Science Centre analyzed the results of two placebo-controlled trials. Nearly 70 healthy subjects were divided into two groups: One group received 800 mg of ibuprofen three times each day, and the other group took a placebo. For one week before the study, and during the four-week study period, blood loss was determined with radioactive analysis that identified red blood cells in stool samples.

The surprising result: Average overall blood loss among those in the ibuprofen group was more than three and a half times higher than the placebo group. And even more revealing: Blood loss in the ibuprofen group ranged from 1/5 of a cup to an entire cup in just four weeks.

A 2,400 mg daily dose of ibuprofen is considered quite high, especially when taken for an extended period. But a dose this size is not uncommon among arthritis patients and others who suffer chronic pain. In fact, because of ibuprofen’s reputation for safety, many patients take the drug along with other painkillers.

In the olive garden

Ibuprofen and extra-virgin olive oil have something in common; they both reduce inflammation.

A recent study from the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia demonstrated how four teaspoons of extra-virgin olive oil taken daily for 12 weeks reduced pain and morning stiffness among rheumatoid arthritis patients. In the journal Nature, the Monell team reports that the key to olive oil’s effectiveness is oleocanthoal.

Oleocanthol is a pungent compound that has been shown to inhibit two key inflammation triggers: COX-1 and COX-2 enzymes. In other words, oleocanthol and ibuprofen have the same beneficial effect on inflammation. But that’s where the similarity ends. Because while ibuprofen can prompt bleeding and gastrointestinal damage, olive oil does not. In fact, extra-virgin olive oil can be quite good for you.

A 2002 study from the University of Barcelona reported that virgin olive oil contains high levels of vitamin E and phenols. Phenols contain flavonoids – biologically active compounds that are remarkably high in antioxidants. The study concluded that virgin olive oil may inhibit the oxidation of LDL cholesterol, and might even do a little cancer fighting as well.

And in the e-Alert “Club Med” (11/24/04), I told you about a University of Athens Medical School study in which researchers assessed dietary data, blood pressure, physical activity and clinical variables on more than 20,000 subjects. The result: High intakes of olive oil, vegetables and fruits were significantly associated with lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure. And of these three factors, olive oil proved to have the most beneficial effect on blood pressure.

Writing about the Monell study in Healthnotes Newswire, Alan R. Gaby, M.D., notes that researchers don’t know if oleocanthol remains intact after the refining of extra-virgin olive oil. (“Extra-virgin” indicates that the oil is made from only freshly harvested olives.) Dr. Gaby adds: “Several other compounds with potent antioxidant activity are almost entirely lost in the refining of olive oil; also, refined olive oil is less effective than extra-virgin olive oil as an inhibitor of LDL oxidation.”

“High Doses of Ibuprofen Cause Significant GI Bleeding, Despite Safety Profile” EurekAlert, 11/1/05,
“Phytochemistry: Ibuprofen-Like Activity in Extra-Virgin Olive Oil” Nature, 9/1/05,
“Olive Oil’s Anti-Inflammatory Effects” Alan R. Gaby, M.D., Healthnotes Newswire, 10/20/05,