The Mediterranean diet, which is abundant in antioxidants, is associated with a relatively low incidence of coronary heart disease. Olive oil and olives, which contain the antioxidants hydroxytyrosol, oleuropein, and tyrosol, are important components of this diet. In this study, the effects of oxidative stress on the nitric oxide radical (NO(*))-mediated relaxation of rat aorta and the protection by these antioxidants were determined. Cumene hydroperoxide (CHP) was used to mimic oxidative stress induced by lipid hydroperoxides, which is mediated by the formation of hydroxyl radicals (OH(*)). CHP (300 microM) impaired the NO(*)-mediated relaxation of rat aorta by the acetylcholine receptor agonist carbachol (P < 0.05). This was due to a reduction in NO(*) production. A diminished NO(*)-mediated relaxation disturbs the vascular tone and leads to a rise in blood pressure, which is a well-established risk factor for coronary heart disease. Hydroxytyrosol (10 microM) efficiently protected the aorta against the CHP-induced impairment of the NO(*)-mediated relaxation (P < 0.05). Oleuropein, tyrosol, and homovanillic alcohol, a major metabolite of hydroxytyrosol, did not show protection. Moreover, hydroxytyrosol was found to be a potent OH(*) scavenger, which can be attributed to its catechol moiety. Because of its amphiphilic characteristics (octanol-water partitioning coefficient = 1.1), hydroxytyrosol will readily cross membranes and provide protection in the cytosol and membranes, including the water-lipid interface. The present study provides a molecular basis for the contribution of hydroxytyrosol to the benefits of the Mediterranean diet.