Can Oleocanthal-Rich Olive Oil Cure Alzheimer’s Disease?

Extra virgin olive oil is widely studied for its effects on cognitive function and perhaps the prevention or delay of the onset of Alzheimer’s. EVOO is considered a superfood by many, like cardiologist Dr. Stephen Sinatra, certified in nutrition and anti-ageing medicine. If extra virgin olive oil is the “secret sauce” in the Mediterranean Diet, it now appears that oleocanthal is the secret ingredient of the secret sauce.

Ancient texts by Hippocrates and Dioscorides referred to the medicinal qualities of olive oil made from early harvest green olives. It’s the olive oil that has a peppery sensation on the back of the throat seconds after swallowing. Ironically, it is this type of olive oil with health-promoting phenolic compounds, particularly high in oleocanthal, that is sometimes pronounced defective by itinerant “experts”.

The olive oil industry has become a bit like the pedigree dog industry. Breeding for style and trends often loses the qualities of temperament and intelligence that made the breed great in the first place. Cultivating for flavours and aromas, alone, can lead to subjective judging. Add to that, the nefarious practices of adulteration (puppy farms) and the result is a health conscious public bewildered to the point where they throw up their hands and reach for the coconut oil!

When I tell people back in Canada that I am involved in olive oil, testing for the phenolic compounds, oleocanthal and oleacein, which are the two most widely researched at present, the ubiquitous response is, “What oil can I buy here?” I honestly can’t tell them, even though I know there are really fantastic high polyphenol extra virgin olive oils on the market. Until now, they just don’t declare it. And, North American taste buds have been trained with mild and fruity rather than pungent and robust — characteristics of the high phenolic content. It comes down to what you are looking for.

I remember a few short years ago standing in front of the wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling shelves packed with beautifully designed olive oil bottles and finally making a choice based on price (high) and award stickers (bling). “It’s got to be good,” was my rationale to myself. I have learned a great deal since then.

What I advise purchasers to do is go where the store has trained staff in olive oils. Ask to taste a selection. Ask questions. See if the oil has the bitterness on the tongue signifying oleacein, a powerful antioxidant, or a peppery sensation on the back of the throat, signifying oleocanthal known for its extraordinary anti-inflammatory benefits. Ask about the phenolic content and ask about oleocanthal. See if they know anything about it. If they do not know, better to shop somewhere else. Choose one that is early harvest from green olives. The real producers know their business and are proud to declare the quality of their oils, including the phenolic content by reliable analysis such as the NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) method of measurement.

If you are choosing extra virgin olive oil for its health benefits, then it is important to be diligent and informed. Otherwise you may be spending a lot of money on styled-for-show pink poodles.

Why are we left to rely on high price and bling as markers when there is so much science?

When the latest Alzheimer’s study from a reputable institution is published referring to oleocanthal-rich extra virgin olive oil as a “medical food”, we can become a lot wiser about our own purchasing for health criteria. Quality extra virgin olive oil has long been considered a superfood. Now, if it has a high concentration of the phenolic compound oleocanthal it may soon graduate to be considered therapeutic in treating certain conditions.

EVOO (rich with oleocanthal) consumption as a medical food combined with donepezil offers an effective therapeutic approach by enhancing the non-cholinergic mechanisms of donepezil and by providing additional mechanisms to attenuate Aβ related pathology in AD patients. Yazan S. Batarseh, Amal Kaddoumi, Department of Basic Pharmaceutical Sciences, School of Pharmacy, University of Louisiana at Monroe,

What I particularly value in this quote is the clarity that rather than the either/or of natural versus allopathic, we have a natural food that is considered therapeutic and also found to enhance the efficacy of a pharmaceutical. Win-Win.

The high phenolic EVOO used in this recent Alzheimer’s study was “The Governor” provided by brothers Spyros and George Dafnis, Corfu, Greece. The Governor olive oil was the first EVOO to win a gold medal at the Olympia Health and Nutrition Awards for the highest concentration of oleocanthal as of that date.

What exactly is a medical food?

Medical foods are foods that are specially formulated and intended for the dietary management of a disease that has distinctive nutritional needs that cannot be met by normal diet alone. Gayle Nicholas Scott, PharmD, Assistant Professor, Eastern Virginia Medical School, Norfolk, Virginia

Once approved by FDA, medical foods can be labelled as “therapeutic” or “for the treatment of” medical conditions such as Alzheimer’s. Supplements, functional foods or nutraceuticals, on the other hand, cannot make claims to prevent or treat a disease, but may suggest “supports memory function” or “may help to alleviate symptoms” as an example.

Under a formal description medical foods are formulations that are a “hybrid of prescription drugs and dietary supplements” created to treat a specific ailment and usually under a physician’s supervision.

Extra virgin olive oil is a naturally occurring food, long known for its health benefits for prevention of cardiovascular disease. More recently, research has revealed that it is the polyphenol content of extra virgin olive oil that offers significant health-protective and health-enhancing benefits.

The health benefits of olive oil are 99 percent related to the presence of the phenolic compounds, not the oil itself.Nasir Malik, Research Plant Physiologist, U.S.D.A.

Since chronic inflammation is the underlying cause of many of today’s diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Type II Diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and others, oleocanthal is measuring up to this latest mention as a medical food. This breakthrough study lays the path for increased funding for human trials. There are many studies including the first clinical trial in humans to “evaluate the effects of different kinds of olive oil on amnesic patients diagnosed with Mild Cognitive Impairment, which leads to Alzheimer’s”. This two year study is a collaboration with Alzheimer Hellas, Thessaloniki University, and Athens University with Yanni’s Olive Grove, Chalkidiki, Greece providing the olive oil.

An ounce of prevention… or a tablespoon or two.

Extra virgin olive oil, rich in oleocanthal may or may not be a panacea; much has still to be proven. But in the meantime, there is enough research and growing body of evidence to the many health benefits of a Plant Based Olive Oil (PBOO) Diet such as nutritionist and researcher, Dr. Mary Flynn recommends as refined from the typical Mediterranean Diet to include a high polyphenol EVOO in your daily health regimen. And now, oleocanthal is shining rather brightly in medical research as that special ingredient in the secret sauce.

Coming back to this aspect of medical food, the most important thing to bear in mind is that extra virgin olive oil is a food with many synergistic health-enhancing properties including its phenolic content. For best effect it should be taken daily and on an empty stomach. Under normal circumstances there are no known contraindications.

However, if consumed for therapeutic purposes and/or if on prescription medication, then this medicinal calibre of oleocanthal-rich high phenolic olive oil must be added to a daily regimen under the supervision of a doctor or health professional. Like ibuprofen, oleocanthal is a blood thinner and may conflict with some pharmaceuticals. We have heard of cases where medication has been reduced, but this needs to be carefully monitored so as not to cause any complications.

Here is a recent interview with Athan Gadanidis and Dr. Prokopios Magiatis on the lastest research into high phenolic olive oil.

The future looks bright for oleocanthal and Greek olive oil since over 80% of the olive tree varieties in Greece and Cyprus produce extra virgin olive oil with oleocanthal as the dominant phenolic compound. Look for Extra Virgin Olive Oils tested and certified by NMR, Nuclear Magnetic Resonance which is the most accurate measurement of the full phenolic profile of an olive oil.*

Now that the secret ingredient to the secret sauce of the health-promoting Mediterranean Diet is no secret anymore, you can ask your favourite specialty or health food shop for olive oil, certified high in polyphenols — in particular oleocanthal — with confidence that you are getting the best of breed.

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