Have a headache? No aspirin or ibuprofen handy? Try some olive oil - actually, freshly pressed extra-virgin olive oil would be best, according to a group of chemists, who've discovered that it contains a compound that mimics the pain-relieving action of ibuprofen.

A tasting experience at a molecular gastronomy meeting in Sicily led University of Pennsylvania biologist Gary Beauchamp to analyse freshly pressed extra-virgin olive oil, in which he found a chemical that acted like ibuprofen.

He and his team named their discovery oleocanthal and found that, although it has a different chemistry, it has an effect similar to that of the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory compound in the commercial pain-killer, they wrote in the science journal Nature.

The importance of the finding lies in the fact that scientists believe to an increasing extent that inflammation plays an important part in a variety of chronic diseases like stroke, heart disease, and breast and lung cancer.

 

Pain-relieving powers

The compound found in ibuprofen, called oleocanthal, blocks the same pain pathway as ibuprofen, a member of the nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, Paul Breslin from the Monell Chemical Senses Centre in Philadelphia and colleagues report in the journal Nature this week.

"Our findings raise the possibility that long-term consumption of oleocanthal may help to protect against some diseases by virtue of its ibuprofen-like COX-inhibiting activity"

Monell Chemical Senses Centre,
Philadelphia, USA

According to Breslin and colleagues, oleocanthal in newly pressed extra-virgin olive oil and ibuprofen (in solution) both produce a strong stinging sensation in the throat, an indicator of a "shared pharmacological activity, with oleocanthal acting as a natural anti-inflammatory compound that has a potency and profile strikingly similar to that of ibuprofen."

In tests conducted on different premium olive oils, the chemists found a strong positive link between levels of oleocanthal and its intensity as a throat irritant.


Similar results were achieved in tests of a synthetic version of oleocanthal they created, confirming that this compound is in fact the active ingredient in olive oil.

According to the chemists, oleocanthal, like ibuprofen, inhibits so-called COX enzymes in a dose-dependent fashion - the higher the dose the greater the inhibition.

Protection against diseases


By their calculations, a 50g daily dose of olive oil is equal to about 10% of the ibuprofen dose recommended for pain relief in an adult.

So, while it won't cure a headache, regular consumption of olive oil might have some of the long-term health benefits of ibuprofen, researchers say.

A 50g daily dosage of olive oil
equals up to 10% ibuprofen use

The identification of an ibuprofen-like oleocanthal in olive oil also provides a possible explanation for the well known health benefits of an olive oil-rich Mediterranean diet.

"Our findings raise the possibility that long-term consumption of oleocanthal may help to protect against some diseases by virtue of its ibuprofen-like COX-inhibiting activity," Breslin and colleagues wrote.

For example, it's well known that aspirin, another COX blocker, protects the heart. Ibuprofen reduces the risk of developing some cancers and also prevents blood platelets from clumping together, which can block arteries.

Ibuprofen has also been shown to reduce levels of an Alzheimer's disease-related protein in mice.