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13 Benefits Of Olive Oil For Your Health, Skin, And Hair

Benefits Of Olive Oil

Olive oil, especially the extra-virgin grade, is one of the healthiest cooking oils. It is rich in monounsaturated fats (MUFAs) and antioxidants, which together reduce oxidation of cells, balance cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of strokes, manage diabetes, reduce pain and inflammation in arthritis, and may even prevent Alzheimer's and several types of cancer.

Among all plant-based cooking oils, olive oil has the highest amount of monounsaturated fats (MUFAs). Extra-virgin olive oil derived from the first pressing of olives also has several beneficial polyphenolic antioxidants in addition to vitamin E.

For those of us who want to make a switch to healthy eating, the first change we make in the diet is substituting other vegetable oils with olive oil. Even the FDA claims that there is some evidence that taking 2 tablespoons of olive oil daily, substituting equal amount of saturated fats and keeping the total calorie intake constant, can improve your heart health.1

About 2 tablespoons of olive oil (27 g) will yield you:

  • 239 Calories
  • 19.69 g monounsaturated fats, of which oleic acid is 19.243 g
  • 2.8 g polyunsaturated fats
  • 3.7 g saturated fats
  • 3.87 mg vitamin E (25% of your daily requirement)
  • 16.3 mcg vitamin K (18% of a woman’s requirement and 13% of a man’s)2
  • Antioxidants like oleuropein, hydroxytyrosol, oleocanthal, and squalene

But heart health is not the only benefit. Here’s a look at the many benefits you can get out of consuming olive oil. Do remember of all the types of olive oil for cooking, extra-virgin and virgin olive oil offer all of the following health benefits.

1. Reduces Cell Damage And Oxidative Stress

Olive oil can reduce cell damage caused by free radicals. Free radicals are reactive molecules generated by external toxins as well as metabolic processes inside our body. These oxidize the fatty acid layers in the cell membranes and damage the DNA inside, leading to chronic diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and even cancer in the long term. When our innate antioxidants cannot fight these free radicals, the body comes under oxidative stress.

It has been found that the fatty acids you eat influence the type of cell membranes you would have. For instance, if you consume olive oil, your cell membranes would have more oleic acid, and if you consume sunflower oil, your cell membranes would have more linoleic acid. Monounsaturated fatty acids, like oleic acid in olive oil, are less vulnerable to oxidative damage by free radicals than polyunsaturated fats since the former have fewer points of oxidation (that is, double bonds) in its structure. While saturated fats are the least vulnerable to oxidation, they reduce the permeability of cell membranes, creating other health problems.3

So when you include olive oil in your diet, your cell membranes can resist oxidation longer. And you get added protection if you consume extra-virgin or virgin olive oil, since these types contain antioxidant polyphenols which are highly beneficial in fighting free radicals.4 5

2. Manages Cholesterol Levels

A high total cholesterol level, with more LDL cholesterols and triglycerides and fewer HDLs,  puts you at increased risk of cardiovascular diseases. Excess LDLs tend to get oxidized and deposit in your blood vessels, creating plaques and leading to atherosclerosis, a major risk factor of strokes. HDLs or the so-called “good” cholesterols help flush out excess LDLs. So lowering LDL level and/or increasing HDLs is a standard practice for treatment.

Olive oil can help manage your cholesterol levels in multiple ways. Monounsaturated fats like oleic acid are known to reduce LDL levels and maintain or raise HDL levels.6 Add to that the antioxidant benefits of the polyphenols in extra-virgin olive oil.

Following a Mediterranean diet can certainly help your cholesterol levels, and the effect may be more pronounced when you add extra-virgin olive oil to your list of foods. A small-scale study on 25 people given a Mediterranean diet showed that when extra-virgin olive oil was added to the diet, it could lower the post-meal LDL levels as well as the oxidation of LDLs more than when no olive oil was added or when corn oil was added.7 That said, olive oil is not as powerful in reducing the LDL, total cholesterol, and triglyceride levels as some other plant oils. However, it does increase the HDL levels significantly. What’s more important is that it protects these HDLs from oxidation, making them more efficient in flushing out LDLs. Modern research holds that it is not the number of HDLs in the body but their efficiency that determines your heart health.8 9

Another point to consider is that abnormal lipid levels also indicate inflammation in the body. The antioxidant polyphenols in extra-virgin olive oil can help tackle the root cause of inflammation as well.

3. Lowers Blood Pressure

Both the Mediterranean diet, which is known to cause fewer incidences of high blood pressure, and the DASH diet devised to fight hypertension include olive oil as a necessary dietary fat. An analysis of studies done till date suggests that having 2 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil with a phenol content of at least 161 mg/kg – which can be considered low – can lower systolic blood pressure in 3 weeks across age groups. A high-phenolic olive oil, with phenol content over 300 mg/kg, may also reduce diastolic blood pressure.10 11

4. Prevents Cardiovascular Diseases

In one study, having a high amount of olive oil for a long time reduced the risk of stroke in the elderly by 41%.

A natural corollary to the benefits of olive oil mentioned above is its effect in preventing cardiovascular diseases like atherosclerosis, heart attack, or strokes. Contrary to the commonly held belief that cutting out fats altogether can help your heart, have extra-virgin olive oil and a handful of nuts.

In a study that tested the effects of a Mediterranean diet rich in extra-virgin olive oil, a Mediterranean diet rich in nuts, and a regular low-fat diet on 7000+ participants, the olive oil and nut diets showed a significantly reduced risk of heart disease, diabetes, and stroke.12 Another study found that a high level of olive oil consumption could lower the risk of stoke among the elderly by 41%.13 This is because the antioxidants in extra-virgin olive oil reduce inflammation and lower the risk of atherosclerosis as well as palpitations and heart failure.

A new line of research also suggests that polyphenols in extra-virgin olive oil reduce the iron stores in the body. Iron has been associated with atherosclerosis in the carotid artery as well as with an increased risk for ischemic strokes.14 Remember that the heart-protecting benefits of olive oil can be found in varieties that have a high polyphenol content.15

5. Manages Diabetes

Choose extra-virgin olive oil or olive leaf extract to manage your diabetes. Table olives with a low sodium content can also help.

Extra-virgin olive oil is one of the few fats diabetics are encouraged to eat, of course in moderation. Besides the monounsaturated fats that reduce oxidation in the body, olive oil also has oleocanthal, which has been found to increase insulin secretion and regulate the production of amylin, another hormone involved in glucose metabolism. Excess amylin forms clumps and inhibits the function of glucose-managing hormones like insulin and glucagon.16

Oleuropein and hydroxytyrosol are the two other helpful polyphenols which help in keeping the glucose levels normal either by increasing insulin sensitivity and helping in the uptake of glucose by the peripheral tissues or by delaying the breakdown and absorption of carbs.17 Extra-virgin olive oil can also help control glucose spikes in people with type 1 diabetes as well as post-meal glucose spikes in healthy adults.18 19 In fact, extra-virgin olive oil may be more effective in lowering glucose than fish oil or polyunsaturated-fat rich oils, which justifies its use in diabetes management.20

6. Treats Arthritis

The typical Mediterranean diet of fresh vegetables, nuts, and olive oil has long been considered protective against inflammatory conditions like arthritis. A recent study has found that oleocanthal, the compound that gives a peppery pungency to the extra-virgin oil, can inhibit inflammation in multiple ways and help manage pain in rheumatoid arthritis as effectively as ibuprofen. About 3.5 tablespoons of the oil is equal to a standard dose of 200 mg ibuprofen.21 Alongside oleocanthal, oleuropein and hydroxytyrosol may also manage rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and inflammatory bowel disease.22 23 Even for patients of osteoarthritis, olive oil is a good news whether applied topically or consumed orally. It can not only reduce the inflammation and pain but also slow down the degradation of cartilage.24

7. May Fight Nerve Damage

Olive oil can help with any kind of inflammatory disease, including those of the brain and nerves. Chronic inflammation can lead to nerve degeneration and subsequent dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. Moreover, toxic deposits of certain proteins inside and around the nerve cells worsen inflammation as the body tries to counter the damage. Oleocanthal, a compound found in extra-virgin olive oil, has the capacity to prevent plaque formation and even remove some of them. However, these effects have not been tested in human clinical trials yet.25

8. Protects The Digestive Tract

Studies indicate that olive oil has antimicrobial properties as well. It can protect your digestive tract from H. pylori bacteria, the main cause of gastric ulcers, which sometimes lead to gastric cancer. The antioxidants in olive oil can also accelerate the secretion of bile and pancreatic hormones to ease digestion and protect the digestive system.26 It also helps in the easy passage of stool, thus relieving constipation.

9. Can Treat Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease

A diet rich in saturated fats and trans fats can lead to fat deposition in the liver and cause non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), which can subsequently lead to liver failure. While patients of NAFLD are typically put on a low-fat diet, olive oil was seen to help. A study found that incorporating 20 g olive oil every day in a low-calorie diet of NAFLD patients reduced fat mass, triglycerides, and fatty liver grade more than an equal amount of sunflower oil did. However, sunflower oil could bring down the levels of certain liver enzymes more efficiently.27 It might be better to try a combination of these oils to tackle the condition.

10. Reduces The Risk Of Cancer

Extra-virgin olive oil could be your weapon against cancer. The lower rates of oxidation, cell damage, and DNA damage, along with lower inflammation can all prevent cancer to a certain extent. While human intervention studies are lacking, a meta-analysis of studies on isolated cells and animals has found that a higher intake of olive oil consumption is linked to a 36% lower risk of breast cancer and 30% lower risk of a cancer of the digestive system.28 Oleuropein in olive leaf and fruit is reported to act as a toxic agent to breast cancer cells. It promotes the programmed death (or apoptosis) of cancerous cells and eliminates them, thus preventing the progression and spread of cancer.29 Oleuropein is the bitter element in your extra-virgin olive oil. So if your extra-virgin olive oil is bitter, it offers significant protection against cancer. You may also choose olive leaf extract as adjuvant therapy after consulting your doctor.

11. Aids Weight Loss

A major component of the Mediterranean diet, extra-virgin olive oil could help you shed those extra pounds. In one study, obese women on a calorie-restricted normal-fat diet (about 2090 kJ, and 32% energy from fat) were given 25 ml of soybean oil or extra-virgin olive oil at breakfast for 9 weeks. The olive oil group had 80% more fat loss than the soybean oil group.30 In another study on breast cancer survivors, a plant-based diet with olive oil had a more pronounced effect on weight loss than a standard low-fat diet. Moreover, most women chose the olive oil diet for the 6 months of follow-up, indicating the greater acceptability of olive oil in the diet.31

12. Prevents And Treats Depression

High intake of monounsaturated fats like in olive oil has shown to prevent age-related cognitive decline. And in lab studies, the administration of olive oil daily has shown to increase nerve signal transmission through the cerebral cortex. This, in turn, is responsible for increased brain function. It has been suggested that olive oil can be effectively used as a nutritive treatment for depression, especially when the individual exhibits low levels of dopamine, a hormone that gives us a sense of motivation and reward.32 33 34

13. Improves Skin And Hair Health

Olive oil has been used not just as a major dietary component in areas where olives grow in abundance but also for cosmetic benefits. If you use the extra-virgin variety on your skin, the vitamin E and polyphenols in it can fight free radicals and prevent age spots and wrinkles. However, olive oil is heavy, and oleic acid is not suitable for people with oily skin types. It works well for dry skin types though. Which is why it can be used to relieve atopic dermatitis or eczema flare-ups.35 Olive oil can also protect against UVB rays. In a study, mice treated with olive oil after exposure to UVB radiation showed fewer tumors compared to mice that had not been treated with any olive oil. It can also help heal wounds. That said, don’t use olive oil exclusively on your skin for a long period of time. It can disrupt the skin barrier function.36 37

There haven’t been studies on the effect of olive oil on hair. However, given the healthy monounsaturated fats in it as well as the antioxidant polyphenols, extra-virgin olive oil can have multiple benefits for your hair. By fighting oxidative damage to the hair follicles, it can prevent premature graying and hair fall. It can also protect against sun damage and retain the natural moisture in your tresses, staving off dryness and breakage. In a similar way, olive oil can keep your skin moist, and the squalene in it may help prevent wrinkles and protect against UV damage.

Use Extra-Virgin And Virgin Olive Oil To Get The Maximum Benefits

You’ll get the maximum health benefits of olive oil from extra-virgin and virgin olive oil because these retain the antioxidants. Contrary to popular opinion, you can even use extra-virgin and virgin olive oil for cooking. They are not just heat-stable, they also enrich food. Stick to 2 tablespoons a day, or ask your doctor for a therapeutic dose if you are looking to remedy a specific condition.

Olive oil becomes rancid easily when exposed to heat, light, and air, so store it in a tightly sealed bottle in a cool, dark space.

Remember that no one food can ever be your savior if you don’t have an overall balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle. So olive oil alone or in excessive quantities cannot solve all your health problems. Other elements of the “Mediterranean diet” play a role too. Fresh vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and  lean meats, as well as regular exercise as advised by your doctor all come together to keep you fighting fit.

References   [ + ]

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Disclaimer: The content is purely informative and educational in nature and should not be construed as medical advice. Please use the content only in consultation with an appropriate certified medical or healthcare professional.