I have to admit it – I’m a big olive oil fan. I like the taste. I like the fact that it’s rich in monounsaturated fat, a good-for-you fat that promotes better heart and bone health. So I drizzle olive oil on all of my salads.
I can understand why people have prized olive oil for its taste and have used it as a skin treatment for thousands of years. In ancient Egypt, even the wrappings on mummies incorporated olive oil.
Other ancient societies, including the Greeks, considered olives to be symbols of peace, wisdom and strength. Research into the benefits of olive oil show that the taste buds and the sentiments of those ancient peoples were on to something.
In addition to its well-known heart benefits, we now know that extra-virgin olive oil – oil that has been extracted using only pressure (known as “cold pressing”) – contains a natural substance whose remarkable anti-cancer properties have created a stir among medical researchers.
Native American Grandmother’s
It’s called hydroxytyrosol.
Hydroxytyrosol is a member of a group of compounds called polyphenols – antioxidant chemicals found in a wide variety of plants. These phytonutrients are responsible for many of the unique health effects that make eating your vegetables just about the best dietary advice anyone’s ever come up with.
Making the body work better
Hydroxytyrosol generally works much of its health magic by doing three things –
- As an antioxidant, hydroxytyrosol keeps free radicals from damaging cells and wreaking havoc on cell membranes and mitochondria – the little power producers that energize cellular activities.
- As an enzyme regulator, hydroxytyrosol keeps the activity of enzymes in check that could otherwise cause organ damage.
- As an epigenetic factor, this olive oil compound can change the ways in which genes behave in cancer cells and, if necessary, hasten their death through apoptosis (programmed cellular suicide).
One of the unique things about hydroxytyrosol is its versatility in the body. Some people think it may be the most powerful antioxidant found in nature. The nutrient’s antioxidant power enables it to help skin cells resist cancer-causing oxidative damage from ultraviolet rays in sunlight.1
But let the same hydroxytyrosol enter a cancer cell and, in a complete about-face, this phenomenal phenol suddenly turns into a free radical itself — and becomes a cancer cell’s worst nightmare.
According to researchers in Singapore and China, who looked at this chemical’s effects on colon cancer cells, hydroxytyrosol sets off a cascade of oxidation damage to the mitochondria in cancer cells.
The scientists point out that cancer cells, because of their rapid, out-of-control growth, are almost always under a lot of oxidative stress. But they are uniquely equipped – usually – to fend off these oxidative threats. However, hydroxytyrosol tips the scales against them, adding just enough to their oxidative burden to send them into apoptosis – programmed cellular suicide.2
When connective tissue goes bad
As you get older, hydroxytyrosol has also been shown to protect the body against cellular changes that make you more prone to cancer.
In a study that investigated the cellular aging that increases the risk of breast cancer, researchers at the University of Iowa note that fibroblasts, cells that produce collagen (the structural material that supports connective tissue) become more susceptible to giving off harmful, inflammatory chemicals as they get older and reach the end of their life cycle.
The inflammatory chemicals given off by fibroblasts are bad news for cells in breast tissue. They can jumpstart the formation and reproduction of cancer cells. And senior citizen fibroblast cells give off eight times as much of these inflammatory molecules as young cells do.
But in lab tests, hydroxytyrosol was shown to put out the cancer fires started by this inflammatory behavior. Consequently, the researchers conclude that a “dietary approach” – meals including olive oil – can help the body resist cancer as you get older.3
Give your DNA extra protection
In addition, a study at the University of Jaen in Spain, shows that hydroxytyrosol can stand guard over the DNA in breast cells and lower the risk that mutations in genetic material will send them to the dark side – becoming cancerous and forming tumors.
In this test, the Spanish scientists found that hydroxytyrosol could act as what they call a “direct” antioxidant – intercepting free radicals and rendering them harmless – as well as performing duties as an “indirect” protector – stimulating cells to form more of their own antioxidant proteins.4
Besides that, the researchers note that another study, a joint research project that involved the University of California and the Chinese Academy of Science, found that hydroxytyrosol can protect cells in the eye from oxidative damage caused by cigarette smoke.5
Zaps prostate cancer cells
When it comes to zapping prostate cancer, researchers have shown that hydroxytyrosol acts against the mitochondria in prostate cancer cells by dousing them in their own, destructive oxidative waste products.
When mitochondria produce the energy that keeps a cell functioning, they produce an oxidative substance called superoxide which a cancer cell continuously eliminates. But hydroxytyrosol interferes with this process, keeping the cancer cell from shedding the destructive superoxide.
And when the superoxide in a prostate cancer cell builds up to a level the cell can’t cope with, say researchers in China, the cell succumbs to an overdose of this self-produced toxin.6
Olive oil in your meals
To get the most benefit from the phenols in extra virgin olive oil, it’s best to use it straight out of the bottle on cold dishes like salads or vegetables. Heating can break down olive oil’s beneficial ingredients. As far as that goes, heating just about any kind of oil to the smoke point is a bad idea.
You can still cook with olive oil, but remember that heating extra virgin oil above about 320 degrees can lead to smoking. Virgin olive oil, on the other hand, won’t smoke until it goes above about 420 degrees. But virgin oil doesn’t have as many phenols as extra virgin.
Many folks like to use extra-virgin olive oil on their bread instead of butter. If you like the taste, it provides more health benefits than other spreads.
And don’t forget how much olive oil can improve heart health – a study by researchers in Spain involving older people demonstrated that those who consumed the most olive oil lived longer and had less heart disease. And those who used extra-virgin olive oil had the lowest risk of cardiovascular problems.7
Last issue’s article talked about a different topic altogether, a breakthrough technology that may make it easy to detect cancer. If you missed the news, you can read it now just below.