©2017 Greg Tilford
Virtually any credible herbalist will tell you, “there are no silver bullets; no panaceas.” This is absolutely true— nothing cures everything, and there is not a single herb, drug or medical treatment that will help every individual, every time. There is however a few herbs that reach closer to being a “fix-all” than most others, their medicinal values just waiting to be discovered. At the top of my list of discoveries is the humble but very powerful olive leaf (Olea europaea); an herb that can quite literally transform a non-believer of botanical medicine into a devout follower.
For thousands of years humankind has realized the remarkable values of olive trees. Their delicious and nourishing fruit, the sacred and curative oil contained within the pits, and perhaps most important of all, the strength and resiliency of the trees themselves. Compared to most other types trees and neighboring flora, olive trees are remarkably resistant to drought, blight and marauding insects — so much so that olive trees are often seen flourishing amongst a virtual boneyard of weaker neighbors. It’s no wonder that early healers picked up this plant and began to use it in pursuit of their own wellness. Holistic herbalists, like myself and our ancestors, know that a medicinal plant isn’t merely a botanical resource from which certain chemistries can be extracted and exploited, but an integral part of a much grander design. One which includes and requires participation of all who feed upon the fruit of a tree, or rest in the shade of its branches. Watch the birds as they feed upon berries to ultimately plant seeds for future generations. Observe the deer as they feed upon foliage while at the same aerating the soil with their hooves, and scattering droppings to build rich compost. Check out the bacteria and fungi that transform fallen fruit and leaves into food for other plants. Herbalism isn’t about replacing pharmaceutical drugs with natural alternatives, it’s about an awareness that all life is connected and that we must not just consume, but participate in the natural systems of our living planet.
Humans of course, are difficult students. After all we are relatively new to all of this— we’ve only been around for a couple million years. Plus, we are endowed with an amazing, super developed brain that, as part of its uniqueness, has forced us away from the instinctive behaviors of animals. We don’t fit here, unless of course we learn to.
Olive leaf brings the lessons to us. By all accounts, early healers saw the natural resilience of Olea europaea as an indication of its medicinal capacity, and began using it for sore throat, infections of the skin and many other ailments.
Perhaps the first formal medical review of the plant came in 1854, when fellow named Daniel Hanbury reported to a Pharmaceutical Journal that olive leaf had demonstrated an ability to cure severe cases of fever and malaria. Hanbury published a simple formula: “Boil a handful of the leaves in a quart of water down to half of its original volume. Then administer the liquid in the amount of a wineglass every three or four hours until the fever is cured.” In his article Hanbury reported that he had discovered the herb in 1843, when he used it to successfully treat sick Britons who were returning from Her Majesty’s tropical colonies. Olive leaf soon became well known as a very effective febrifuge remedy, and was seen as much more effective than quinine in treatment of malaria. In 1962 Italian researchers recorded that one of several active components of olive leaf, oleuropein, could reduce blood pressure in both humans and animals, and it was soon established that oleuropein is strongly antibacterial and antifungal as well; two traits that help explain it’s remarkable resistance against various plant-killing pathogens.
By the mid 1900’s multiple studies had been published about the amazing healing capabilities of olive leaf, and in 1969, Upjohn; a major pharmaceutical manufacturer, went to work at develop what they envisioned to be a powerful antiviral, antibacterial and antifungal drug. To accomplish this they focused their studies on what was already regarded as the most active component of olive leaf, oleuropein, along with calcium elenolate, another compound that showed strong activity against various viruses, bacteria and pathogenic fungi. The findings of Upjohn’s in vitro (test tube) studies were astounding. Virtually every microbe that was inoculated in their studies was killed by even the weakest extracts of the herb. Olive leaf was shown to be effective against dozens of pathogenic microbes, ranging from rabies, HIV, influenza and even polio, to several of the most drug resistant strains of bacteria and fungi. Best of all, olive leaf and its derivatives exhibited almost no risk of toxicity. But despite Upjohn’s amazing findings, their plans of developing a new super drug were ruined when they learned that oleuropein and elenolate didn’t work so well when used in vivo (inside a living body) unless the rest of the plant’s chemistry remained as part of the formula. It turned out that like all herbs, the “entourage effect” of multiple chemical components, including among others, caffeic acid, verbascoside, luteolin 7-O-glucoside, rutin, apigenin 7-O-glucoside, luteolin 4’-O-glucoside, maslinic acid, hydroxutyrosol and oleocantha all contribute to the wonders of this amazing botanical. Hence the old herbalist’s saying, ”The whole plant is greater than the sum of its parts.” Knowing that it would be virtually impossible to develop a patentable drug from a whole plant that lives in easy access to billions of people worldwide, Upjohn abandoned their studies, leaving their amazing findings to herbalists like me, who will always regard olive leaf extract as my number one “go to” in virtually any case of viral, bacterial or fungal infection. Unlike conventional pharmaceuticals, olive leaf extract is virtually harmless. And unlike many conventional antibiotics which are quickly becoming useless against deadly forms of drug-resistant bacteria, olive leaf offers a complex mix of antimicrobial compounds that even the most stubborn bacteria will have a very difficult time finding a foothold against.