Olive Oil, COX inhibition & Ayurveda ….

Ever wonder what is up with that stinging sensation in the back of your throat after ingesting olive oil??  Many olive oil connoisseurs have long considered the immediate tickle in the back of the throat a mark of high quality olive oil.

The concept that the taste of foods (or any plant) correlates to its chemical properties has been long considered in Ayurvedic medicine.  For thousands of years Ayurvedic doctors have correlated Rasa (‘taste’, though more accurately defined as the entire subjective experience of eating) to pharmacologic activity of plants.  Now, modern research backs them up.

It has been known since first reported by Beauchamp et al (2005), that both ibuprofin and a compound found in olive oil, oleocanthal, though not bearing much resemblance structurally, block cyclooxygenase (COX) enzymes.

Image: Chemical and Engineering News; 9.5.2005, V. 83, NUMBER 36 P. 15 (http://pubs.acs.org/cen/)

COX enzymes are largely responsible for inflammation and pain through conversion of arachidonic acid into inflammatory cycloendoperoxides:

Image: Medscape for Medical Students, "Biology of Prostaglandins and the COX Pathway"

(And just for fun, my scribbles-from-first-year, and memorized-many-times-over, figure from Marks Basic Medical Biochemistry:)

Image: Marks Basic Medical Biochemistry, 3rd Edition.

The role of COX enzymes in promoting inflammation in the body, and inhibition of the COX pathway by oleocanthal can help us to understand some of the benefits of consuming olive oil.

Recalling the above reference to Ayurveda, one may recognize that liquid ibuprofen and olive oil both produce a similar stinging sensation in the back of the throat. (I’ve never taken liquid ibuprofen – have any of you experienced this??)  This observation was recently explained at the molecular level by Gary K. Beauchamp and his colleagues.  They state that the COX-inhibiting compounds in ibuprofen and olive oil selectively activate a very specific sensory protein called ‘transient receptor potential cation channel A1 (TRPA1)’ which is located in the back of the throat.

Thus, it seems that the 5,000 year old Ayurvedic concept ‘Rasa’ may have hinted toward important benefits of the consumption of olive oil throughout one’s lifetime: reduced overall inflammation and risk of heart disease.  (Its like taking an NSAID a day … without the side effects of gastric bleeding.)

And some final thoughts on olive oil in general.  For starters, don’t heat it.  It becomes a carcinogen once exposed to high heat.  Store olive oil in a cool, dark place. The fats and phytonutrients in olive oil, and also the taste, can slowly degrade over time, so it’s good practice to use it within a year once opened.  And last but not least – appreciate the burning sensation in the back of your throat!  I’ve recently learned to.  Beauchamp stated ‘that the irritation is thought to be a hallmark of premium olive oils, and in taste tests, people raised in Mediterranean cultures do not mind the sting, on average, as much as Americans do.  It’s possible that people unconsciously come to equate the sensation with nutritional or health benefits, which lessens olive oil’s sting, so to speak.’

Let me know how it goes ….. happy Friday!  (Sort of, I know I personally will be sitting in board review class literally all weekend.  Sigh.)


Beauchamp GK, Keast RS, Morel D, Lin J, Pika J, Han Q, et al. Breslin phytochemistry: ibuprofen-like activity in extra-virgin olive oil.  Nature 2005;437:45–6.

Joshi K, Hankey A, Patwardhan B. Traditional Phytochemistry: Identification of Drug by ‘Taste.’   eCAM 2006;4(2)145–148.

Chemical and Engineering News,  “Olive Oil Compound Acts Like Ibuprofen”  http://pubs.acs.org/cen/news/83/i36/8336notw8.html.   9/5/2005 V 83, Number 36 P. 15.  

Chemical and Engineering News, “Behind Olive Oil’s Bite.”  www.cen-online.org.  March 21, 2011.  

Medscape for Medical Students:  “http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/448279_2”

Marks Basic Medical Biochemistry 3rd Edition.  Page 676.  Lippincott, 2009.