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It’s widely known that olive oil has many health benefits, but only recently have scientists learned that important therapeutic attributes of olive oil are mediated by the endocannabinoid system.

Mauro Maccarone, a scientist at the University of Teramo, Italy, was aware of reports in the scientific literature that identified the cannabinoid receptor known as “CB-1” as a protein molecule able to control tumor growth in colon cancer. He set out to investigate whether olive oil conferred an anti-cancer effect by influencing CB-1 receptor expression.

Maccarone measured the expression of the CB-1 receptor in colon cancer cells and compared this to CB-1 receptor expression in normal cells in the human colon.

“We found that CB-1 is less expressed in cancer cells because it is more methylated at the promoter level. The gene is there, but it is not expressed,” Maccarone told Project CBD during a poster session at the 2014 International Cannabinoid Research Society conference.

Catalyzed by specific enzymes, the process known as methylation is involved in regulating gene expression and protein function. A “promoter” is a region of DNA that initiates transcription of a particular gene. It’s where DNA is turned into RNA.

In normal cells, the promoter region is not highly methylated and the gene is expressed. But in cancer cells, the promoter region is highly methylated and the gene is silenced. More methylation of the gene means less CB-1 expression and weaker endocannabinoid tone.

Aberrant methylation appears to be a precipitating factor in the development of cancer. But methylation doesn’t just happen on it’s own. If a gene is inappropriately methylated, then some process in the body is causing this to happen. Psychological trauma and high level activation of the body’s stress system, especially in early childhood, are known to trigger abnormal methylation that changes DNA and disables genes. So, too, in animals. There have been studies that show differences in maternal care during the first six days of a rat’s life result in different methylation patterns in promoter regions, thereby influencing gene expression. Poor diet and exposure to environmental toxins can also skew gene expression.

Maccarone hypothesized that olive oil might counter some of the adverse effects of methylation.

“We found that olive oil, in particular the phenolic components of olive oil, can reactivate CB-1 expression. By adding olive oil to an animal’s diet, we can restore a normal CB-1 receptor level that will protect cells against cancer,” Maccarone explained.

“This is very interesting and very promising because it suggests that the normal daily impact of the right amount of olive oil could be protective and could give you a better chance of a healthy life.”

Martin A. Lee is the director of Project CBD. He’s authored and edited several books, including Smoke SignalsAcid Dreams, and The Essential Guide to CBD. © Copyright, Project CBD. May not be reprinted without permission.

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