• June 2012

Understanding the Olive Oil and Ibuprofen Connection

We know that the body uses the healthy fats in olive oil to produce natural anti-inflam-matory agents, and that can help reduce the severity of both arthritis and asthma.

The reason is that normal cell membranes are more fluid, and better able to move healthy nutrients into the cells and move waste products out.

So here’s the question: Will olive oil become the new great anti-inflammatory drug?

That’s the research being conducted at the Monell Chemical Sciences Center in Philadelphia. There, biologists Dr. Gary Beauchamp, Dr. Paul Breslin, and their team identified a compound in olive oil called oleocanthal that has anti-inflammatory action. Studies revealed that this compound can act like ibuprofen and other anti-inflammatory medications.

Previous studies had found that anti-inflammatory drugs like aspirin and ibuprofen appear to have long-term health benefits, including reduction in the risk of some forms of heart disease and cancer. Then, Beauchamp’s study suggested that suggested that the oleocanthal in pungent olive oils might be one of the things that make traditional Mediterranean diets so healthful.

Following is a Q&A between medical researcher and author, Dr. Esther Sternberg, and Dr. Beauchamp. We think you’ll find it to be great food for thought.

Dr. Esther Sternberg: Your research regarding the use of olive oil as a painkiller like ibuprofen is fascinating. Tell us how you came to make this discovery.

Dr. Gary Beauchamp: About 13 years ago, I was working on a project with a British company that was trying to make its ibuprofen drug taste better. In fact, ibuprofen stings when it goes down your throat. So our job was to investigate why, and what might be done.

Around that time I was on a tasting retreat in Sicily with other scientists, food specialists, and chefs—something we call a molecular gastronomy meeting. One of the participants had us do an olive oil tasting, which was a grand affair like a wine tasting.

Then, as the olive oil was poured into glasses, and we tasted it, I had one of those “ah ha!” moments. The olive oil burned the back of my throat—just the same way that ibuprofen does. So I brought back samples of this particular oilve oil, and with my research team began analyzing freshly pressed extra-virgin olive oil.

Dr. Esther Sternberg: What did you discover?

Dr. Gary Beauchamp: We found a compound that suppresses the prostaglandin system, the same pain pathway as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agents, such as ibuprofen.

Although its chemical structure is quite different from the anti-inflammatory compounds in non-steroidal drugs, olive oil’s anti-inflammatory component, which I called “oleocanthal,” has a similar effect. A 50-gram dose (about 4 tablespoons) of extra-virgin olive oil supplies enough oleocanthal to produce an effect equivalent to that of about 10 percent of the ibuprofen dose recommended for adult pain relief.

Dr. Esther Sternberg: Will this amount cure a headache?

Dr. Gary Beauchamp: No. And most people may not have the room in their diet for the calories and fat contained in 4 tablespoons of olive oil. But what we found suggested that daily consumption of olive oil may prevent inflammation and confer some of the benefits of long-term ibuprofen use.

Dr. Esther Sternberg: But I’m guessing it won’t have the increased risk of intestinal bleeding and damage to the kidneys that long-term use of non-steroidal drugs like ibuprofen also carries?

Dr. Gary Beauchamp: That’s exactly right. What’s also significant is that inflammation plays a key role in a variety of chronic diseases. Some of the health-related effects of the Mediterranean diet may be due to the activity of oleocanthal from premium olive oils.

Dr. Esther Sternberg: Do all brands of olive oil contain oleocanthal?

Dr. Gary Beauchamp: Not all do. And also, concentrations will vary depending on a range of factors, including the variety of olive and the age of the olives at pressing.

Dr. Esther Sternberg: What is the best way to check your olive oil for oleocanthal content?

Dr. Gary Beauchamp: Aside from testing its chemical properties, you can sip the oil and see how strongly it stings the back of the throat. If it stings a little, or a lot, you’ll be able to determine the concentration of the oleocanthal.

Dr. Esther Sternberg: The autoimmune disease rheumatoid arthritis affects more than 2 million people in the United States alone. Do you think that eating olive oil daily can combat this disease?

Dr. Gary Beauchamp: It may, but we don’t have enough research to tell us. Plus, you probably couldn’t get enough of the compound in your diet daily to use olive oil as a drug. That said, eating a Mediterranean diet, including healthy amounts of olive oil and fats rich in omegas 3 and 6, appears to be beneficial.

Dr. Esther Sternberg: So your advice is to rid your diet of the typical American fats, including animal fats, hydrogenated fats, and vegetable oils like corn oil, and stick with olive oil?

Dr. Gary Beauchamp: Definitely. Substituting olive oil for these other fats is the idea, but be sure that the olive oil you choose contains oleocanthal, which is a tyrosol ester whose chemical structure is related to oleuropein, which is also found in olive oil.

About Dr. Gary Beauchamp

Dr. Beauchamp has been director and president of the Monell Chemical Senses Center since 1990. A graduate of Carleton College in 1965 with a bachelor’s degree in biology, he received his PhD in biopsychology in 1971 from The Pritzker School of Medicine of the University of Chicago. He joined the newly established Monell Center as a postdoctoral fellow in 1971, was appointed to the faculty in 1973, and attained the rank of Member in 1981.

Dr. Beauchamp maintains an active research program at Monell, exploring varied topics related to taste, olfaction, and chemesthesis. Trained as a psychobiologist, his research has contributed to advancements in the fields of developmental psychology, physiological psychology, and perception; he also has made important contributions to the fields of genetics, developmental biology, immunobiology, ethology, and molecular biology.

A leading experts on chemosensory science, Dr. Beauchamp serves as a scientific advisor to numerous governmental and private organizations, including the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and Institute of Medicine.

In 2009–2010 Dr. Beauchamp served on the Institute of Medicine Committee on Strategies to Reduce Sodium Intake in the United States.

For more information visit www.monell.org.

Photo of olive oil and ibuprofen (above) by Jon Perlmutter.

Photo of Dr. Gary Beauchamp by Peter Olson.