In Defense of Coconut Oil

by Marcia Dettloff, OD on July 13, 2015

I recently heard a very interesting lecture by Bruce Fife, C.N., N.D on the health benefits of coconut oil. Here are my notes on his lecture along with some additional information.

Coconut oil has gotten a bad rap the past 30 years. Nutritionists have shunned it because it is a saturated fat. However studies have long shown the health benefits of coconut oil and more recent studies have shown that saturated fats are not as evil as previously thought.

Coconut oil is one the few natural sources of lauric acid, a medium chain fatty acid (fat). Breast milk is another. It has many unique properties not found in the long chain fatty acids that make up most of the fat in our diet. Studies have shown that it improves absorption of nutrients; has antibacterial, antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties; helps weight loss; decreases insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome; prevents seizures; and reduces the symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease in some patients.

For those of you that just want to know what to do:

  • Use 1-3 tablespoons of coconut oil a day for general health benefits.
  • Look for cold-pressed virgin oils. Tropical Traditions, Nutiva, and Vitacost are high quality brands. Super heating and chemical extraction methods are much less expensive ways to extract oils but they change the chemical structure of the oil, negating many of the nutritional benefits of the oil.
  • Coconut oil tolerates much higher temperatures than olive oil so cook with coconut oil instead and save the (cold-pressed extra virgin) olive oil for salad dressings, drizzling over cooked vegetables, etc.
  • Coconut oil is a solid at 75 degrees and a liquid at 76 degrees so it can replace butter and shortening in baking recipes.
  • When I don’t want the coconut flavor, I use Tropical Traditions Expeller-Pressed Coconut Oil. Some of the benefits are lost in the processing but it has no flavor and it still contains high amounts of lauric acid, the medium chain fatty acid that is unique to coconut oil and provides most of the benefits.
  • Avoid liquid coconut oil. While it sounds like a great option for use in salad dressings and other cold items, the beneficial lauric acid has been removed to make it a liquid.
  • Coconut milk in a can does contain coconut oil but coconut milk in the refrigerated section and coconut water do not.
  • Palm kernel oil has properties very similar to coconut oil but palm oil is totally different.
  • Coconut Oil FAQs by Mary T Newport explains the different coconut oil products.  Recipes and tips for including coconut oil in your diet can be found on the last page.

Read on if you want more detail about the benefits of coconut oil.

Maximizes the Absorption of Nutrients

  • Eating a meal with fat slows down the emptying of stomach so the food bathes in digestive enzymes and stomach acids longer. That increases the absorption of the nutrients in the food. This is especially true for fat soluble nutrients like Vitamins A, D, E, K, lycopene, lutein, and others. It also improves the absorption of the water soluble B vitamins, minerals like Ca and Mg, and amino acids in proteins.
  • Tests comparing meals with many different oils have shown that coconut oil provides the most absorption of nutrients, followed by olive oil.
  • Absorption is much higher in meals with coconut oil than soybean oil, corn oil or no oil.

Heart Disease

  • The Cholesterol Ratio (Total Cholesterol/HDL) is a better indication of heart disease risk than Total Cholesterol and coconut oil improves the ratio (better than any other fat) by increasing HDL cholesterol.
  • Rates of heart disease are lowest in areas where coconut oil use is highest.
  • When those areas cut back on the use of coconut oil out of concern about saturated fat, heart attack rates went up.

Diabetes

  • Coconut oil helps to stabilize blood sugar by slowing the absorption of sugars
  • Coconut oil improves insulin production and insulin sensitivity
  • 90 % of diabetics are insulin resistant. Since insulin is what transfers the glucose in the blood into the cells, the glucose builds up in the blood while the cells starve.  Ketones are another fuel source that can enter the cells without insulin. The liver can convert fats to ketones, but it only does that when the blood sugar is low so that doesn’t help a diabetic.  However coconut oil converts to ketones any time, providing a high energy fuel to the cells even when the blood sugar is high.

Alzheimer’s Disease
One theory is that Alzheimer’s Disease is diabetes of the brain. While most cells can get energy from glucose, fatty acids or ketones, brain cells can only use glucose or ketones. Since most fatty acids are only converted to ketones when blood sugar levels are low, the brain cells starve in patients with insulin resistance in the brain. Based on this theory, the ketones provided by coconut oil can protect the brain cells.

He gave an example of Steve Newport, a patient that was rejected from a clinical trial for Alzheimer’s Disease because his disease was too advanced. His wife, Mary Newport, MD, found the patent application for the drug and discovered that the active ingredient was a medium chain fatty acid. She calculated the trial dose to be the equivalent of 2 1/2 T of coconut oil and started giving it to her husband. He showed significant improvements in symptoms and test s of cognitive function starting from day 1 and continued to improve. She set up the website coconutketones.com with information and did an unofficial Tedx Talk that describes their journey.

That is just one anecdotal report but a clinical trial using medium chain fatty acids did show a significant and sustained improvement in Alzheimer’s patients without the APOE e4 gene (which is 60-65% of Alzheimer’s patients). http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19664276

Other Neurological Diseases
Ketogenic diets (low carb/high fat diets that produce ketones) have been used to treat epilepsy and other neurological problems since the time of Hippocrates. Unfortunately, most people cannot stay on the diet for very long. The hope for coconut oil is that it can turn any diet into a ketogenic diet. There are currently studies using coconut oil/medium chain fatty acids in the treatment of Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease, ALS, Multiple Sclerosis, epilepsy and wound healing.

Benefits of ketones on brain health

  • Provide a high potency alternative fuel to brain cells
  • Increase blood flow to brain which increases oxygen to the brain
  • Trigger brain-derived neurotrophic factors that decrease inflammation and regulate brain cell growth, repair and function.
  • Provide lipid building blocks for new cells and repair of damaged brain tissue

Cancer ?
Cancer cells require excess glucose, they can NOT use ketones and, when oxygen levels are high, they produce oxygen free radicals that damage their cells. Meanwhile normal cells CAN use ketones and are not harmed by high oxygen levels. Studies in mice combining a low carbohydrate ketogenic diet with hyperbaric oxygen have shown destruction of the cancer cells without damaging the normal cells. Here’s a Tedx Talk about it by Dr. Dominic D’Agostino of the University of South Florida College of Medicine.

For Therapeutic Effect
Take up to 5 tablespoons, split throughout the day, starting out gradually to avoid diarrhea and other GI side effects. There are also products such as Axona and Fuel For Thought that concentrate the medium chain fatty acids found in coconut oil, providing the critical components without the extra fat and calories from the other components found in coconut oil.

Other links:

Edited 10/11/15 to put practical tips at the beginning of the article.

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