It has been well documented that olive oil is believed to be one of the health-promoting components of the Mediterranean Diet. Aside from being a source of heart healthy monounsaturated fatty acids, olive oil, especially extra virgin olive oil, is a rich source of polyphenols, which have been shown in many studies to have protective effects on health. Polyphenols are compounds naturally found in fruits, vegetables, and spices that have been associated with reduced risk and management of various diseases by interacting with various kinds of receptors, membranes, and enzymes and modulating different signal cascades that play a role in the development of these conditions.
One of the most-studied polyphenols in extra virgin olive oil is oleocanthal. Oleocanthal has been noted for its anti-inflammatory properties. It’s even been shown to have some characteristics in common with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug ibuprofen. Because inflammation is a major part of the pathology of joint degenerative disease such as arthritis, researchers are interested in whether supplementation with oleocanthal or consuming extra virgin olive oil may be an appropriate intervention for risk reduction or management of symptoms. Additionally, this compound of interest is being looked at as a potential alternative to NSAIDs, as these medications do address pain in the short term but without actually reversing the condition and they also come with side effects.
Much of the research looking at arthritis and oleocanthal, specifically, has so far been in animals and in test tubes. More human research is needed, but researchers are optimistic that, because of anti-inflammatory effects of oleocanthal in regard to other health issues, research on arthritis.
Oleocanthal and Olive Oil for Arthritis: In Vitro Studies
Test tube studies have targeted the pathway through which degenerative joint conditions develop and progress. In arthritis, specifically, pro-inflammatory cytokines stimulate nitric oxide (NO) production], up-regulate the synthesis of cartilage degrading enzymes, and increase prostaglandin PGE2 production—all factors that contribute to joint-degenerative disease.
Multiple lab studies (like this one and this one) have shown that introducing oleocanthal disrupts this process. Oleocanthal was also found to be associated with a decrease in inflammation and in levels of arthritis biomarkers. Based on studies in macrophages, oleocanthal may have similar effects to NSAIDS like ibuprofen without the detrimental effects of those medications. This suggests that oleocanthal and olive oil for arthritis could be a potential intervention.
While focusing on oleocanthal in isolation from the olive oil it is found it does pose some limitations, the results of these in vitro studies validates that this compound has pharmacological properties that may make extra virgin olive oil an appropriate therapeutic agent to explore in further studies.
Oleocanthal and Olive Oil for Arthritis: Animal Studies
A small study in mice showed promising results of oleocanthal supplementation fighting inflammation and oxidative stress associated with effects of disease. In this study, male mice were fed a preventive oleocanthal-enrchrched diet for six weeks before induction of arthritis (achieved by injecting the mice with collagen). 43 days after the first shot, the mice were sacrificed, blood samples were recollected to compare to baseline, and their tails and paws were also histological and biochemically processed. Oleocanthal supplementation was shown to prevent arthritis-related bone, joint, and cartilage damage. Biomarkers of oxidative damage were also lower in the mice given oleocanthal supplementation. This study shows
Human Studies on Oleocanthal
While more research is needed in humans specifically looking at oleocanthal supplementation and arthritis, there are numerous studies where oleocanthal and olive oil have been associated with decreased inflammation, improvement in brain function, and decreased risk of inflammatory health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and obesity, among others.
In vitro studies and studies in animals looking at the effects of oleocanthal for arthritis and degenerative joint conditions have been promising. However, more research—especially research in humans—is needed to confirm and to make more nuanced recommendations for the use of oleocanthal and olive oil as an intervention for arthritis.
That said, research has consistently shown a wide variety of benefits to consuming a Mediterranean-style diet rich in extra virgin olive oil and other polyphenol-rich foods like fruits and vegetables, so there are lots of reasons to make them a regular part of your diet.