From the Desk of The Nutty Nutritionist

Coconut Oil: Yay or Nay?

In Trends, Wellness on February 26, 2012 at 2:16 PM

A friend of my mine recently asked my opinion regarding a new research study’s results indicating the usefulness of coconut oil in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.  She asked me to watch a very provocative and convincing video (CBN News) that depicted how one man’s Alzheimer’s symptoms dramically improved as a result of including large portions of coconut oil in his diet.  Hmmm…  Well, first off, I can say that one patient’s success does not mean it will work for others.  Secondly, the study design was not the gold-standard “double-blind, placebo controlled” trial with a large enough sample size that is essential to validate a proposed treatment.  However, such positive results are intriguing, and I can completely understand the curiosity.  Is it possible to have such an easy dietary answer for the treatment Alzheimer’s disease?  It would be nice if that were the case.  However, a disease as complicated and unpredictable as Alzheimer’s, much like many forms of cancer and autoimmune illnesses, will unfortunately never have an easy cure.  There are way too many unknowns as to why the disease develops and how it progresses for it to be that simple.  For the purpose of this blog however, my friend wanted to know whether I thought there was any validity to incorporating coconut oil in her diet to help prevent Alzheimer’s disease, as she has a strong family history and is concerned about developing it herself someday.  A valid question indeed.

First off, there is a lot of hype surrounding coconut oil right now in the media, as it has been touted as a cure for many ailments and health food store personnel have been pushing it like crazy.  Just stop right there.  No one food is a cure for ANYTHING.  I promise you that.  However, there are many so-called  “miracle elixirs” or “miracle foods” that crafty salespeople are convincing millions of people to buy.   Don’t fall sucker to such scams—they are simply taking your money and getting rich off your ignorance and willingness to believe anything.  Also, let it be known that doctors and dietitians are not your enemies.  Health professionals are not “keeping secrets in order to keep you sick”, like many fanatical websites proclaim.  Your doctor is deliberately keeping you sick to stay in business? Are you kidding me?? 

Outside of the preventable diseases related to us being inactive and overweight,  such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes,  I have no sensible explanation as to why so many other diseases, such as many forms of cancer and Alzheimer’s, are running rampant right now.  Is it our food supply?  Environmental toxins?  The fact that we are simply living longer?  It is hard to make any concrete assumptions right now.  All we can honestly do to stay as healthy as possible is make smarter food choices, get regular exercise, undergo routine preventative testing (mammogram, Pap smear, colonoscopy, prostate and breast exams, etc…), get adequate sleep, reduce stress as much as possible, and laugh more often.  (Laughter has and always will be the best medicine!)  Yes, living a long healthy life does require good genetics as well, but there are many factors under our control that can make our lives better and healthier, regardless of what health challenges happen to come our way.

So, back to the coconut oil question:  should we be including more coconut oil in our diets as a means of preventing Alzheimer’s disease?  Coconut oil is extracted from the white meat of a mature coconut.  This is not to be confused with coconut water, which comes from an immature green coconut and has a completely different nutrient composition.  (I am a big fan of coconut water and you can check the archives for more details regarding this nutritious hydration beverage.)  Coconut oil is solid at room temperature and has the highest saturated fat content of all the different food oils—saturated fat is known to raise cholesterol levels and health professionals have suggested cutting back on saturated fats in order to prevent heart disease for many, many years.  However, in recent years, the specific fatty acid composition of coconut oil has been studied extensively, and due to the large proportion of lauric acid, is believed to raise the good HDL cholesterol, and not so much the bad LDL cholesterol.  So, this is why the exclusion of coconut oil from a heart healthy-diet is being reconsidered.

I must point out that there are two forms of coconut oil in our food supply: fractionated coconut oil, in which easy to digest medium chain triglycerides (MCT’s) have been selectively removed (this includes the heart healthy lauric acid mentioned above); and partially hydrogenated coconut oil (containing artery-clogging trans fats) which is commonly found in processed foods such as non-dairy creamer and microwave or movie theater popcorn.  Should you decide to include coconut oil in your diet by the end of this article, you want it to be the fractionated coconut oil, not the hydrogenated form.

The reason coconut oil is of interest in Alzheimer’s disease (AD) research is because of it being a rich source of medium chained triglycerides, or MCT’s.   For many years, diets high in MCT oils (and low in carbohydrates) have proved useful in treating childhood epilepsy (seizures) due to its tendency to induce ketogenesis.  This so-called “ketogenic diet” changes the brain’s energy source from sugar (glucose) to fat (ketones), which decreases frequency of seizures as a result of the altered brain chemistry.  Research has shown that glucose metabolism by the brain is impaired in AD, so would the substitution of ketones also alter the development of plaque and neural tangles characteristic of Alzheimer’s? That is the big question at the moment.  There are a variety of clinical research trials underway seeking to discover how a ketogenic diet can modify the development or progression of a number of neurological diseases, to include Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.  A powdered form of MCT oil, called caprylidene, was approved as a “medical food” by the FDA in 2009, under the brand name Axona, but it is unclear how effective it really is at preventing or improving AD sympotoms at this point.  AD develops for an unknown and variable amount of time before symptoms become fully apparent, so that makes it challenging to know when treatment should begin with MCT’s.  Again, back to our prevention question….

It is known that cardiovascular disease risk factors, such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, and smoking, are likely to increase the onset and progression of Alzheimer’s disease–excess amyloid plaque buildup in the brain is analagous to atherogenic plaque buildup in veins and arteries.  Therefore, it makes sense for everyone to follow a heart-healthy lifestyle, manage blood sugar, and avoid tobacco in order to decrease risk of heart attack, stroke, AND Alzheimer’s.  So my professional opinion is this:  Go ahead and include some fractionated (or virgin) coconut oil in your diet if you please, but still avoid the hydrogenated form, and keep a watchful eye on your cholesterol to make sure the addition of coconut oil is not raising unhealthy LDL levels.  Coconut oil will not do anything on its own, so be sure to also exercise regularly, engage in challenging mental activities, and follow a heart healthy diet to get maximum benefit.  Refer to my previous blog post for more ideas on adopting a heart-healthy lifestyle.

Any more questions?  Feel free to ask.

Live Well!  Think Well!



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