Can Extra Virgin Olive Oil Help Us Fight COVID-19?

By Lisa Radinovsky

(Original article in Greek Liquid Gold)

Picture: WIOO

We know we should eat nutritious foods to stay well, especially during the coronavirus pandemic. Many also realize extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) offers numerous health benefits, so it can play a vital role in a healthy diet. While no food has been proven to prevent or treat COVID-19, some evidence suggests EVOO could help us combat the novel coronavirus.


The Mediterranean Diet Can Help Us Avoid Serious Illness


If we can resist most of the food cravings that urge us to turn to unhealthy comfort foods during the stress of the pandemic, as Dr. Giovanna Muscogiuri et al. remind us in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, and follow a healthy, balanced eating plan rich in minerals, antioxidants, and vitamins, we are more likely to remain healthy.


Muscogiuri and her colleagues point out that this is true for two reasons: a healthy diet helps us avoid the chronic diseases that put us at higher risk for severe responses to the coronavirus, and nutrients such as the antioxidants in fruits, vegetables, and other foods can boost our immune system. A good place to find the nutrients we need is the Mediterranean diet, which is recommended as “a healthy nutritional pattern to be followed in quarantine. Key ingredients of Mediterranean cuisine include olive oil, fresh fruits and vegetables, protein-rich legumes, fish, and whole grains with moderate amounts of wine and red meat.”


Dr. Simon Poole, a medical doctor and writer who has worked on extra virgin olive oil and the Mediterranean diet with various international organizations, told Greek Liquid Gold “people with COVID have a much higher risk of becoming severely ill if they have obesity, diabetes, or cardiovascular disease. But the Mediterranean diet and extra virgin olive oil help prevent these diseases in the first place. And the effects of dietary changes can be quite quick. It takes only weeks for changes to make a difference. For example, a prediabetic state can be reversed by diet in a matter of weeks, and inflammatory markers in the blood can come down with a single dose of the olive oil and tomato sauce known as sofrito in Spain.”


The Mediterranean Diet with EVOO: Anti-Inflammatory = Anti-COVID


The Mediterranean diet is also endorsed by Dr. Ioannis Zabetakis and his coauthors in a recent review article in the journal Nutrients, “COVID-19: The Inflammation Link and the Role of Nutrition in Potential Mitigation.” In this article, the Mediterranean diet is valued not only for its antioxidants, but also because it is considered “synonymous with anti-inflammatory properties” beneficial for the immune system. Zabetakis et al. highlight the diet’s anti-inflammatory effects because an excessive inflammatory response appears to be a big part of the problem for serious cases of COVID-19: people with systemic inflammation (including those with diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity) are at far greater risk of serious illness and death from the novel coronavirus.


Without a cure or treatment for the disease, Zabetakis and his colleagues hope “nutrients with anti-inflammatory, antithrombotic, and antioxidant properties may prevent or attenuate the inflammatory and vascular manifestations associated with COVID-19.” Although Zabetakis et al. do not explicitly say so, this might imply that extra virgin olive oil could be helpful, since EVOO--the type of olive oil containing the most healthy components--is known to be a rich source of anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compounds.


Extra Virgin Olive Oil: Anti-inflammatory, Antioxidant Health Defender


The value of extra virgin olive oil was emphasized by Dr. Prokopios Magiatis of the University of Athens and the World Olive Center for Health when he introduced the Aristoleo Awards for high phenolic extra virgin olive oils—those with especially high concentrations of the natural, healthy phenolic compounds referred to in the EU Health Claim for olive oil. Magiatis asserted that “olive oil, and especially high phenolic olive oil, is a food that can help our health during this difficult situation that we face all around the world.” The World Olive Center for Health’s Olympia Health & Nutrition Awards announcement, which recognized 450 of the highest phenolic extra virgin olive oils in the world, also affirmed “the nutritional value of high phenolic olive oil as a means of protecting human health and as a means of strengthening the defenses of the human body against a big number of diseases.”


These days, the word is getting out beyond scientific journals in other ways, as well: many health professionals are drawing nonscientists’ attention to extra virgin olive oil’s health benefits in the mainstream media and on popular websites. For example, the “9 Ways to Boost Your Body's Natural Defenses” on EcoWatch include olive oil. On such sites, EVOO’s benefits are explained in straightforward terms: “Olive oil, which is highly anti-inflammatory, is linked to a decreased risk of chronic diseases like heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Plus, its anti-inflammatory properties may help your body fight off harmful disease-causing bacteria and viruses.” While “chronic inflammation can suppress your immune system,” healthy fats such as olive oil “may naturally combat illnesses.”


Extra Virgin Olive Oil: Potential Antiviral Activity


In addition to its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant components, extra virgin olive oil is known to contain compounds with antiviral properties, although their ability to work against the novel coronavirus has not yet been documented. For example, a patent claims that oleuropein, one of the main phenolic compounds in EVOO, has potent antiviral activities against several types of viruses. In a separate study, oleuropein also “showed significant antiviral activities” against respiratory syncytial virus and para-influenza type 3 virus. Other research has also discussed the antiviral effect of another phenol in EVOO, hydroxytyrosol, on the influenza virus.


Poole reminds Greek Liquid Gold readers that the potential antiviral activities of extra virgin olive oil should not be overemphasized at this point: “there is a difference between demonstrating antiviral properties in the laboratory (in vitro), as opposed to real life. These results are really interesting and quite exciting, but scientists don’t know for sure how applicable this is to real-life experience. More experiments need to be done on that.” We should not count on EVOO to act as a strong antiviral agent in our bodies, but we can hope it will, and there are plenty of other reasons to eat it.


Extra Virgin Olive Oil: Abundance of Benefits


Here is another reason to use EVOO: while some anti-inflammatory agents suppress the immune system in a way that can make it difficult for the body to fight off viruses and bacteria, that is not true of olive oil, according to a 2010 abstract of a Spanish review article. Rather, olive oil “may exert beneficial effects on the human health and especially on [the] immune system, because it contributes to the reduction of typical inflammatory activity observed in patients suffering from autoimmune disorders, but without exacerbating the susceptibility to pathogen agents.” This might lead us to believe that extra virgin olive oil is the perfect anti-inflammatory food for the coronavirus era.


A more recent scientific review explored “the potential therapeutic effects of hydroxytyrosol,” a natural antioxidant phenolic compound found in olive leaves and olive oil that “has anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor, antiviral, antibacterial and antifungal properties” as well as being “neuro- and cardio-protective.” With hydroxytyrosol “currently the most actively investigated natural phenol,” the review’s abstract continues, “the evidence presented in this review suggests that hydroxytyrosol has great pharmacological potential.” With extra virgin olive oil including this and other components that offer an abundance of likely benefits, many cooks consider it a natural choice for cooking and finishing foods during a pandemic.


Summary


Extra virgin olive oil is a valuable component of a healthy diet and lifestyle that can help keep our immune system strong and reduce the inflammation and oxidative stress that lead to a variety of diseases. Studies have shown that EVOO helps prevent diabetes and cardiovascular disease, as well as other diseases and conditions that increase individuals’ risk for serious cases of COVID-19. While additional research is required before benefits against coronavirus infection can be ensured, Zabetakis et al.’s “primary conclusion is that it is vitally important to maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle during the pandemic,” especially “for the vulnerable in our society,” in order to maintain healthy immune systems. At the very least, extra virgin olive oil is a flavorful, nutritious cooking and finishing oil central to a thoroughly tested diet with ancient origins and modern praise, the Mediterranean diet. In addition to its long list of other health benefits, EVOO’s anti-inflammatory contribution and antiviral potential are added bonuses.

About the author: Lisa Radinovsky (USA / Greece) is the founder of Greek Liquid Gold, an English-language website devoted to Greek olive oil news. See that site for recipes with olive oil, photos from Greece, and olive oil news and information.

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