The Olive – A Very Personal Medicine

I was once oblivious to the significance of the olive. As a child it was a color – a pastel shade of green – as a student it was that salty, fleshy garnish to an oft consumed frozen pizza. More recently, however, I have come to understand how this humble fruit has oiled the wheels of civilisation for Millennia. My conversion to an “Oleophile” was swift and unexpected – one inspired by the serendipitous meeting of independent passions. The first was a love for the olive tree – something that emerged after visiting the rugged beauty of the North Peloponnes in Greece. It is said that the olive tree often takes on the character of the place they inhabit. In France they are pampered, in Tuscany they are pruned into classic shapes – but on the Peloponnes they loom like ageless mythical creatures, rugged and raw like the land that nourishes them. This is where the fascination began.


At about the same time, back in the early days of Molecular Health, I began to familiarize myself with the work of Hippocrates, the father of western medicine. Not only was Hippocrates the first to truly emphasize the patient as the most important determinant of response to therapy – the essence of personalized medicine – he also provided a philosophy that is so simple, yet so important in a modern world so consumed by the quest for a quick dollar. “Let thy food be thy medicine and thy medicine be thy food”, he proclaimed more than 2,500 years ago. As someone working with the complexity of cancer, I was struck by the logic and simplicity of Hippocrates tenet. But I also felt uncomfortable – the sudden realization of the thrash I had consumed over the course of my life gave me cause for self-reflection, if not concern.

The Sanctuary of Asclepius

Then came my visit to the Sanctuary of Asclepius, in Epidaurus, Greece. Asclepius, the god of Healing, had many sanctuaries erected in his honor. The sanctuary at Epidaurus is arguably the most important due to the variety of treatments it offered within its grounds. The first thing that struck me was the “modernity” of their medical practice – most of the surgical instruments designed by these ancient physicians haven’t changed in form or utility throughout the millennia. However, other aspects had for the most part been lost along the path to modern day medicine. The ancient Greeks, for example, recognized the importance of both loggos (i.e. the science) and mythos (i.e. the human spirit). While today we have mastered the loggos of medical science, there remains little time for the human aspect of mythos. Doctors simply don’t have the time. But perhaps the most important revelation was an inscription I read on the walls of one of the temples. It described a treatment for inflammation and pain – olive oil made from the wild olive infused with the juice of ground fennel. Olive oil as a treatment for inflammation and pain? Fascinating, but a bit too heavy on the mythos, I thought. That is until I came across a Nature paper from 2005 that provided the loggos for this practice.

Loggos meets mythos

While attending a meeting on molecular gastronomy in Sicily back in 2005, a scientist by the name of Dr. Gary Beauchamp, from the Monell Chemical Senses Center, announced an amazing observation. Beauchamp had identified a phenolic compound (decarboxymethyl ligstroside aglycone) that is unique to olive oil. “I had considerable experience swallowing and being stung in the throat by ibuprofen from previous studies on its sensory properties. So when I tasted newly-pressed olive oil, I was startled to notice that the throat sensations were virtually identical.” Renaming the compound to “oleocanthal” oleo=olive, canth=sting, al=aldehyde, Beauchamp later published his findings in Nature (Beauchamp et al. Nature 437, 45–46 (01 September 2005)). The abstract reads as follows “Newly pressed extra-virgin olive oil contains oleocanthal — a compound whose pungency induces a strong stinging sensation in the throat, not unlike that caused by solutions of the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug ibuprofen. We show here that this similar perception seems to be 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. Although structurally dissimilar, both these molecules inhibit the same cyclooxygenase enzymes in the prostaglandin-biosynthesis pathway”.

Eureka! Those ancient Greeks knew precisely what they were doing and I pondered that their evidence base and therapeutic strategies were optimized over generations of real world observation – as opposed to our modern approach of clinical trials – “evidence I can believe in”, I thought to myself.

A grove on the Gulf.

These experiences are in retrospect the serendipitous ingredients of what ultimately fueled a passion for all things olive. From the mythos of the olive tree to the loggos of the scientific facts, I set myself the goal of producing the highest quality of oleocanthal-rich extra virgin olive oil possible (at least for an Irishman). With no time to waste, I found the perfect olive grove, directly overlooking the spectacular Gulf of Corinth. While the trees were majestic they were less than healthy, so my first task was to nurture them back to health – a kind of win-win agreement between man and tree. Two years of regular watering combined with copious quantities of quality sheep shit were just what the doctor ordered. With the trees again blossoming, I abruptly stopped the watering, just in time for summer. It turns out that higher quantities of oleocanthal are produced when the olive tree is stressed (e.g. by heat and/or lack of water). This also means that olives harvested earlier in the season (i.e. Oct-Nov) have significantly higher levels of oleocanthal than those harvested later, when stress has subsided (i.e. Jan-Feb).

The First Harvest

So off we set on Nov.17th, 2017 to fulfill the dream of gold – liquid gold! Six determined souls armed with harvesting devices and an ample supply of Tsipouro (think Greek grappa) and food, spent some memorable days releasing these oval balls of phyto-pharmaceuticals from their >100 year old mothers. The crescendo came at the end of day one. Fifteen sacks of freshly harvested olives were raced to the mill – a place where the aroma of freshly cut artichoke and grass (the legal kind) permeates the air. With sacks unloaded and emptied into the mouth of the mill, we waited excitedly – passing the time sipping Tsipouro with some local farmers. Two hours (and several Tsipouro’s) later, she was born. Our very first early harvest, extra virgin olive oil. It was not the simple liquid gold I initially hoped for, but something much more beautiful. An almost fluorescent green gold – a mythos in color! And what of the loggos? Well, I am proud to report that chemical analysis revealed the goal was “in the bag” – 0.3% acidity and high levels of polyphenolic compounds – simply perfect! Beginner’s luck it may be, but one thing is for sure – this is my kind of personalized medicine!

“Wine is how we would like life to be, but oil is how life is: fruity, pungent, with a hint of complex bitterness – extra virginity’s elusive triad.” Tom Mueller – Extravirginity, the sublime and scandalous world of olive oil.

This post was originally published in The Journal of Precision Medicine. To view the original article, simply click here.

If you are interested in viewing some videos from the harvest, check this link over on our OLIFE youtube channel

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