The health benefits of coconut oil

One of the hottest products in health food stores today is organic coconut oil. Once maligned because it is largely composed of saturated fat, what consumers have come to understand is that the saturated fats from coconut oil are different than the ones found in animal products. Specifically, they are shorter in length and utilized by the body in beneficial ways.

Coconut oil contains what are referred to as short- and medium-chain triglycerides, while the saturated fats in animal products are long-chain triglycerides. Being shorter in length, short- and medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) are handled by the body differently and are preferentially sent to the liver to be burned as energy. One analogy is that they act like kindling to help stoke the fire of metabolism. The reason being is that these fats actually promote weight loss by increasing the burning of calories (thermogenesis) and improve insulin sensitivity. Plus, some research suggests that they lower cholesterol as well. The benefits of coconut oil are many, but let’s focus on just three key areas: antimicrobial effects, weight loss promotion, and increasing brain energy metabolism.

Coconut Oil vs. MCT Oil

Coconut oil contains about 65 percent MCTs, which contain 6 to 12 carbons in their chain and include caproic acid (C6), caprylic acid (C8), capric acid (C10) and lauric acid (C12). A more concentrated source is MCT oil, which is usually derived from coconut oil or palm oil and provides 100 percent MCTs. So, which is better? Some argue that pure MCT oils are superior because of improved absorption and action. Others claim that altering the concentration of the MCTs leads to better results. Those favoring coconut oil argue that a fractionation process that can include hexane and other toxic solvents produces MCTs. What is the truth? Both MCT and coconut oil have support in the medical literature and can be viewed almost interchangeably. That said, it is hard not to trust nature.

A natural antimicrobial

Approximately 50 percent of the total fatty acids and most of the MCTs in coconut oil are in the form of lauric acid. The only other abundant source of this health-promoting fat in nature is human breast milk. In the body, lauric acid is converted into a highly beneficial compound called monolaurin. Another fat in coconut oil, capric acid is converted in the body to monocaprin. These compounds have demonstrated significant antiviral, antibacterial, and antiprotozoal effects that destroy wide variety of disease causing organisms. Obviously, that is a very beneficial action within breast milk, but it may also be of benefit via coconut oil as well.

A protective membrane composed of lipids (fats) envelopes many viruses, bacteria and protozoa (parasites). Current research indicates that monolaurin and monocaprin destroy these pathogens by dissolving the lipids in the fatty envelope surrounding them. They basically disintegrate the organism’s protective shield causing them to be easily destroyed by the immune system. Other recent studies suggest that monolaurin also kills bacteria by interfering with signal transduction, thus disrupting the bacteria’s ability to interact with the cells it is trying to infect. In addition, lauric acid has been shown to interfere with virus assembly and maturation.

The antiviral properties of the medium chain fatty acids abundant in coconut have been found to be so potent that they are now being investigated as a treatment for AIDS patients. Studies recently conducted in the Philippines have demonstrated that coconut oil does indeed reduce viral load in AIDS patients. In these studies, AIDS patients consumed 20 to 25 grams of lauric acid per day. Approximately 12 grams of lauric acid are provided in 2 tablespoons of coconut oil, 3 tablespoons of creamed coconut, one-half cup of canned whole coconut milk, or one-half cup of dried coconut meat.

Studies have demonstrated that monolaurin eliminates lipid-coated viruses such as Cytomegalovirus, Herpes simplex virus-1 HIV, Hemophilus influenzae, measles, Vesicular stomatitis virus, and Visna virus. Pathogenic bacteria inactivated by monoluarin include Listeria monocytogenes, Staphylococcus aureus, Streptococcus agalactiae, Staphylococcus epidermidis Groups A, F & G, Group B gram positive Streptococcus and Helicobacter pylori. Not only does monolaurin inactive these bacteria, unlike antibiotic drugs, the bacteria appear to be unable to develop resistance to coconut’s natural antimicrobials.

Lauric acid and its derivative monolaurin also kill or inactivate a number of fungi, yeast and protozoa including several species of ringworm, Candida albicans, and Giardia lamblia. In study, researchers obtained clinical specimens of Candida species infections from 52 patients. Results showed that all Candida species were 100 percent susceptible to the coconut oil an effect equal to the antifungal drug fluconazole.

Weight loss

Coconut oil promotes weight loss. One study in which coconut oil was used as part of a high-fat diet, researchers found the coconut oil-enriched diet produced a significant decrease in fat stores. In another study, when genetically obese mice were given a diet high in either safflower oil or coconut oil and their number of fat cells was measured, those on given coconut oil were found to have produced far fewer fat cells than those given safflower oil.

Coconut’s medium chain fats are easily absorbed and preferentially used as an energy source, their burning is thought to promote an increase in the body’s metabolic rate. The result—as long as calories in excess of the body’s needs are not consumed—is that more calories are burned, a situation that also encourages the burning of the long chain fatty acids found in other fats as well.

In one study, the thermogenic (fat-burning) effect of a high-calorie diet containing 40 percent fat as medium chain fatty acids was compared to one containing 40 percent fat as long chain fatty acids. The thermogenic effect of the medium chain fat diet was almost twice that of the long chain fat diet—120 calories versus 66 calories—leading the researchers to conclude that the excess energy provided by medium chain fats was not stored as fat, but burned. In a follow up study, medium chain fats given over a six-day period increased diet-induced thermogenesis by 50 percent.

In another study, when obese men consumed 30 ml (2 tablespoons) of virgin coconut oil per day for four weeks, they experienced a 2.86 cm decrease in their waist circumference. Women have also been shown to be responsive to the weight-loss effects of coconut oil.

In a randomized, double-blind, clinical trial with women aged 20 to 40 years, those who took 30 ml of coconut oil daily for 12 weeks, along with a balanced hypocaloric diet and walking exercise for 50 minutes per day, reduced their waist circumference by 1.4 cm and body mass index (BMI) by 0.5 kg/m2. Women who followed the same regime but took 30 ml of soybean oil daily instead of coconut oil, did not significantly reduce their waist circumference or BMI (body mass index). Coconut oil also raised HDL levels and lowered the ratio of bad to good cholesterol (LDL:HDL ratio).

Increases brain energy

Coconut oil initially became popular as a brain enhancer initially as a result of a viral an email chain letter that claimed it could cure Alzheimer’s disease (AD). The email letter promoted a YouTube video of Mary Newport, MD, author of Alzheimer’s Disease: What If There Were a Cure—The Story of Ketones. The video, as well as the book, told the story of how coconut oil helped her husband’s symptoms of AD. In fact, the improvement was dramatic.

Newport decided to try coconut oil because it is a rich source of a medium chain saturated fat known as caprylic acid. One MCT preparation composed of carpylic acid, Ketasyn, was used in a pilot study on AD patients and was found to improve memory in 47 percent of the subjects tested. That study was conducted in 2005. In 2014, a similar product, providing 20 g of caprylic triglycerides daily also showed some benefit, but only in those patients without the genetic marker for AD (i.e., the ApoE4 allele).

The mechanism suggested for any benefit with coconut oil and MCTs is that it increases energy production within brain cells. The primary energy source of the brain is glucose (blood sugar). In AD, there is a defect in the utilization of glucose—most often due to insulin resistance (Note: AD is often referred to as “diabetes of the brain). The back-up fuels for the brain are compounds known as ketone bodies. If there is very little carbohydrate in the diet, the liver breaks down the fat into ketone bodies like acetone, acetoacetic acid, and beta-hydroxybutyric acid.

The possibility of boosting brain energy with coconut oil, MCTs and other fats was the basis of Dave Asprey’s The Bulletproof Diet and his Bulletproof coffee recipe, both of which further popularized the use of coconut and MCT oil. Caffeine acts to elevate ketone availability to the brain thereby potentially enhancing the effects of MCTs as an energy source.

Here is the bottom line. Clinical studies have shown that raised ketone body levels can enhance memory and cognition. That is particularly true in some people with mild to moderate AD. So, it is possible that a “ketogenic diet” that is low in carbohydrate along with coconut oil or MCT intake might improve energy production in the brain and improve AD, as well as overall brain power, even in healthy individuals. And, that effect may be enhanced with caffeine.

Final comments

Here are some simple ways to use coconut oil. For example, it makes a delicious spread or dip. It can also replace butter in any recipe on a 1:1 basis in any baking recipe. Coconut oil can be used for sautéing and stir-frying, but it does have a lower smoke point compared to mono-unsaturated fat sources such as olive, macadamia nut, avocado and canola oil.

The “smoke point” is the temperature at which, when heated, an oil will begin to smoke. Unrefined coconut oil smokes in the range of 350 degrees Fahrenheit while extra virgin olive oil and avocado oil both are generally well above 400 degrees Fahrenheit. The bottom line with the use of coconut oil in cooking is to avoid high heat. VR



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