Tianou Zhang, Kinesiology Ph.D., studies olive oil’s anti-inflammatory effect on heart health

Don’t be fooled by the bottles of olive oil sitting around in the School of Kinesiology’s Laboratory of Physiological Hygiene and Exercise Science (LPHES). The graduate students are not making salads or stir fry during late-night research sessions. Instead, Kinesiology doctoral candidate Tianou Zhang is working to discover if compounds found in olive oil have the potential to prevent chronic diseases, such as atherosclerosis.

Zhang, whose emphasis is exercise physiology, is interested in the health benefits of phytochemicals, or plant compounds, relating to physical activity and cardiovascular disease. Phytochemicals have long been known to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Zhang’s adviser, Dr. Li Li Ji, director of LPHES, has been involved in a number of studies on the relationship between phytochemicals and exercise or diseases, and Zhang’s first research study as a doctoral student was exploring anti-inflammatory and immune cells’ regulatory effects of oats consumption on muscle damage in humans after downhill running. Oat, the type used in oatmeal cereal, has strong anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties due to its specific phytochemical, Avenanthramides. Zhang’s current study looks at how different levels of Oleocanthal, a specific compound present in extra-virgin olive oil, can affect the progression of atherosclerosis, the buildup of plaque in arteries which can cause cardiovascular disease.

“Oleocanthal has very strong anti-inflammatory properties,” says Zhang. Consuming 50 grams of cold pressed extra-virgin olive oil, which is less than 4 tablespoons, has been shown to have 1/10 the anti-inflammatory effects as a daily adult ibuprofen dose of 400 mg. In fact, says Zhang, “there has been evidence that Oleocanthal can relieve inflammation from arthritis,” which is a leading cause of disability in the United States.

Consuming 50 grams of cold pressed extra-virgin olive oil, which is less than 4 tablespoons, has been shown to have 1/10 the anti-inflammatory effects as a daily adult ibuprofen dose of 400 mg.

 

Zhang, who was awarded a Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship by the University last year, takes his olive oil study one step further by looking at the nutritional effects of olive oil in combination with exercise. He induced atherosclerosis in five groups of rats by feeding them a diet that included cholesterol and cholic acid. He then fed each group different extra-virgin olive oils containing high or low Oleocanthal, and exercised them on a treadmill for one hour a day, five days a week, for twelve weeks. Zhang is now studying samples of tissues, organs and blood to determine the effects of nutrition and exercise in each group. “We are hoping to find out if Oleocanthal present in olive oil, together with exercise training, can affect atherosclerosis, and if the compound may slow the development of atherosclerosis as well as improve endothelial functions through pathways that reduce inflammation,” says Zhang.

Zhang’s study has some parallels to the scientific community’s current interest in the positive effects of the Mediterranean Diet. The traditional diet, prevalent in countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, emphasizes eating primarily plant-based foods, fish and poultry, limiting red meat, and replacing butter with healthy fats such as olive oil. The diet has been associated with a lower level of LDL cholesterol — the “bad” cholesterol that’s more likely to build up plaque deposits in arteries. Studies have shown that this diet is associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular mortality as well as overall mortality.

“I’m really interested in interdisciplinary research on nutrition and exercise,” says Zhang. “I believe there is great potential in phytochemicals that can be applied to the field of sport and exercise science.” For example, he believes that compounds found in some plants, such as ginseng and the Goji berry, can be incorporated into foods such as energy bars and sport drinks to aid faster recovery from exercise-induced inflammation and fatigue.

Zhang has expanded his work both inside and outside the University. He is involved in the University Entrepreneurship Internship program and is working with Kerry, a taste and nutrition company, to develop a second generation of immune health products, Wellmune 2.0. He also competed in the Minnesota Cup, a startup competition sponsored by the Carlson School of Management. One of his future goals is to design and market products that can provide natural antioxidant or anti-inflammatory compounds to people who are active.

This summer, Zhang is evaluating the results of his studies on Avenanthramides and Oleocanthal for future publications. He believes his research could impact the state’s economy as well, since Minnesota is one of the top three producer of oats in the nation.

Zhang points out that the LPHES is doing innovative studies in areas that could profoundly affect individuals’ health and wellness. “We are the first lab that has studied the anti-inflammatory effect of oats as applied to sports and exercise science,” he says. “I feel our research has potential to make a positive impact on society.”

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