There is growing awareness that coconut oil has a number of attributes which make it a very valuable nutrient. The contents of the individual fatty acids present in coconut oil are shown in Table 1.
Table 1. Typical Composition of Coconut oil
Source: Reference (1)
As these fatty acids are all saturated, this has meant that people have been advised to avoid coconut oil on the ground that they would increase total cholesterol (TC) and therefore raise the risk of developing heart disease. This opinion has now been totally discredited (2,3,4), although I accept that it continues to underpin those aspects of public health policy which relate the prevention of heart disease.
However if we consider the evidence which deals specifically with coconut oil and the individual fatty acids then a very different picture emerges.
Those fatty acids which contain up to 12 Carbon atoms are referred to as the short and medium chain length fatty acids. Because they do not need to be emulsified they are rapidly absorbed into the blood stream from the small intestine and therefore are readily available for utilisation by the various organs in the body. They are especially valuable because they boost the immune system. They also have anti-microbial, anti-viral and anti-tumour properties.
The lauric acid (C12) is converted into monolaurin in the body. This substance has anti-viral, anti-microbial, anti-protozoal and anti-fungal properties. It acts by disrupting the lipid membranes in organisms such as fungi, bacteria and viruses thereby destroying them. These characteristics are particularly valuable at the present time because the effectiveness of many antibiotics has been reduced due to the increase in resistance. Coconut oil is therefore especially important in this context because lauric acid makes up about 50% of it.
So what actually happens in people who have a high intake of coconut oil? Because it has a very high content of saturated fats (SFA) we would expect that heart disease would be prevalent if the “Cholesterol theory” had any validity. In fact the opposite is the case. In a study conducted in South Pacific Islands, which commenced in the 1960s, it was found that the population was very healthy and relatively free from heart disease and obesity. At that time up to 60% of the dietary energy was supplied by the coconut oil. The authors of the report concluded that:
“Vascular disease is uncommon in both populations and there is no evidence of the high saturated fat intake having a harmful effect in these populations” (5).
The incidence of heart disease is very low in countries where there is a high consumption of coconut products. For example in Sri Lanka coconut oil is the primary fat used in the diet, yet traditionally the death rate from heart disease has been one of the lowest in the world. However in recent years as the coconut oil has been replaced by the so-called “healthy” polyunsaturated (PUFA) oils and margarines the death rate due to heart disease has actually increased. The same dietary trends have also been observed in India with similar results. As a consequence it is now being recommended that consumers should reverse these changes and replace the vegetable oils with coconut oil (6).
Because diabetes stimulates the secretion of insulin in order to prevent the blood sugar increasing to toxic levels, diabetics invariable show symptoms of “insulin resistance”. This is caused by the continual exposure of the body organs to excessive insulin which ultimately results in an inability to respond to the insulin, which is the insulin resistance. An investigation conducted in Australia discovered that a diet which is rich in coconut oil effectively protected against the development of insulin resistance (7).
Alzheimer’s Disease (AD)
Although there is no detailed scientific investigation on the effect of coconut oil in alleviating AD, there are numerous case histories where individuals have been successful. Here are a few examples:
- Perhaps the best known is the work of Dr Mary Newport who has documented her experience with her husband (8). At the time her 58 year old husband, a qualified accountant had been suffering with progressive dementia for 5 years. During this period he had been on various drugs which had not prevented his condition from deteriorating. Mary decided to delve into the scientific literature and concluded that the cause of the disease was probably due to an impairment of the brain to glucose utilization caused by insulin resistance. Therefore if the brain could be supplied with an alternative form of nutrition, namely ketone bodies then her husband might be capable of some regression. This could be achieved by a diet which was rich in fatty acids of medium chain length (MCTs). So she decided to use coconut oil as the source. He was given about 35 gms with every meal. Prior to this he could not remember the season or even the month or day of the week. Tests had indicated that he was leaning more towards severe rather than moderate AD. Once he had been on the coconut oil he was able to remember the exact date. After 60 days he was able to concentrate on a specific task and take it to completion whereas before he as easily distracted and rarely accomplished anything.
- Bruce Fleet was able to speak in clear sentences 3 or 4 hours after a couple of tablespoons of coconut oil. Very quickly he was able to take responsibility for tasks that had become impossible for him to complete. Although his doctor recommended a cognitive test he was amazed at his obvious improvement (9).
- Carina Lora-Zamorano had reached the point where simple routine household tasks were becoming extremely difficult and frustrating. On 2 occasions she had got lost while out driving in her car. She would often repeat herself within a very short time. Her husband discovered the potential benefits of coconut oil and immediately arranged for her to take it regularly. There was an immediate improvement in her ability to cope with normal living. To quote from the case history written by her husband:
- “She no longer feels that she cannot participate in a conversation. She no longer struggles to find the words she wants to use to express herself. She is alive again. She sees a future for us. She participates in our planning and enjoys getting out to dinner, lunch or whatever we choose to do” (10).
These are just a small selection but there is no question that the results are impressive. Mary Newport has pushed hard for a proper evaluation to be conducted and eventually finance has been made available and a major investigation has been started.
There is certainly convincing evidence that coconut oil is a very valuable nutrient which has a number of important attributes. Although it is has been vilified in the past because of the high proportion fatty acids that are saturated, these criticisms do not stand up to rigorous examination. The genuine possibility that it can help to overcome AD has got huge potential. In view of the fact that the pharmaceutical industry has been singularly unsuccessful in developing an effective drug places even more emphasis on adopting a totally different approach.