It would be pretty hard to miss the hype surrounding coconut oil over the last few years. The purported benefits of this trendy superfood include killing harmful pathogens, aiding weight loss, causing an increase in energy levels, reducing appetite, lowering blood cholesterol, moisturising the skin, healing damaged hair, working as an effective sunscreen and even boosting brain function. There have been various studies into the benefits of coconut oil and the evidence is certainly fascinating. However, in this article we are going to examine the effects of using coconut oil as a brain food and consider its efficacy in the fight against diseases.
What are the reported cognitive benefits of coconut oil?
After just one application, it is clear that coconut oil is an effective moisturiser, with the lack of chemicals adding to its appeal. However, when it comes to the reported brain benefits, it can be hard to work out just what a difference it makes. We’d also be forgiven for assuming that it would take more than a single dose before we started to see positive differences. But in fact, studies show that when it comes to treating patients with memory disorders (including Alzheimer’s) that cognitive performance starts to improve after just one 40ml dose of Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCTs). As MCTs are the main fat found in coconut oil, this research certainly implies that coconut oil may have some strong cognitive benefits.
What are MCTs?
The T stands for Triglycerides which are fatty acids, so the term can be translated as medium chain fatty acids. Medium chain fatty acids contain between 6 and 12 carbon atoms and are known for their health benefits.
- C6 is also known as Caproic Acid
- C8 is Caprylic Acid
- C10 is Capric Acid
- C12 is Lauric Acid
The first three of these are present in coconut milk in natural produce such as goat’s milk. Lauric Acid, however, is the main MCT found in coconut oil with 50% of coconut oil being made of Lauric Acid. All of the MCTs have health benefits, but it is Lauric Acid (C12) that is the most renowned. It has powerful antimicrobial properties and is used in drugs and food preservation.
Can coconut oil help against Alzheimer’s?
Although the study cited above seemed to indicate that just 40ml of MCT could improve cognitive function in patients with Alzheimer’s, only 20 people were involved in the study and that this was purified MCT oil rather than coconut oil. Without significant scientific evidence it’s risky to assume coconut oil will perform equally well. A clinical trial is currently being executed and the results are due to be released next summer.
The brain cells of patients with Alzheimer’s often have problems metabolising. It is thought that in these cases, coconut oil could act as an effective alternate energy source. This would only work if a strict ketogenic diet was implemented (where carbohydrates are limited and replaced by high levels of fat so the body uses the fats as a primary source of energy).
The Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease recently published a study where mouse cells were treated with coconut oil in a laboratory setting. Results showed that in this situation coconut oil could protect cortical neurons. Again, there is quite a chasm between this sort of evidence and proof that coconut oil could have a positive effect on the brains of living humans.
Dangers of using coconut oil in patients with Alzheimer’s
As with any serious medical condition, If a patient chose to experiment with coconut oil rather than tried and tested medical solutions, they could delay effective treatment. One of the most concerning aspects of using coconut oil in patients with Alzheimer’s is that coconut oil can result in an increase in a certain type of proteins called acetylcholinesterase. One of the main Alzheimer’s treatments is administering acetylcholinesterase inhibitors, meaning that coconut oil could actually aggravate the symptoms of Alzheimer’s.
Coconut oil has not been used extensively on patients with Alzheimer’s and so any long-term effects are unclear.
What other cognitive behaviour is coconut oil linked to?
Coconut oil may not be the miracle Alzheimer’s cure, but it doesn’t mean that there aren’t health benefits. Cultures that have a diet rich in coconut (the meat, oil and milk) have significantly lower cholesterol as well as fewer strokes and less heart disease. A study in Papua New Guinea reported a complete absence of stroke and ischaemic heart disease and noted that the dietary staples were fruit, fish, tubers and coconuts.
It would be naïve to assume that coconuts are completely behind the remarkable state of health of these people. It would be more realistic to assume that “a subsistence lifestyle, uninfluenced by western dietary habits” is the real power here and although daily consumption of coconut no doubt plays an important role, it cannot be the sole reason. The rest of their diet that is high in omega 3s (from fresh fish) and fibre, as well as low in sodium is a likely reason for their heart health.
Loose scientific backing suggesting that coconut oil may help those with symptoms of Alzheimer’s, dementia and memory loss has led to a general assumption that coconut oil has some sort of miracle brain-boosting properties. There is scant evidence to suggest this and the limited studies that have linked coconut oil to improved memory clearly indicate that this does not mean that coconut oil can prevent any brain diseases. The research only shows that coconut oil could potentially be used to help with some of the symptoms, although further research is certainly needed.
The fats in coconut oil
Coconut oil is very high in saturated fat, which means that it once had a very bad reputation. In the 1980s food companies stopped using tropical oils in products, replacing them with hydrogenated oils. Recent research shows It is trans fat (manufactured to resemble saturated fat) that is the real problem. According to sources such as the NHS, a diet that is high in trans fats such as those found in cakes and biscuits, can lead to raised cholesterol which can in turn lead to strokes, heart attack and heart disease.
Natural coconut oil is formed of 90% saturated fat (almost 30% more than butter), but coconut oil is high in MCTs which are easier to convert into energy than the long chain saturated fats found in meat and cheese making it a good choice for athletes. Investigations have been carried out to determine the effect on the less athletic of us:
In 2010 the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition carried out the most exhaustive study to date on the connection between saturated fat and cardiovascular disease. They concluded that “there is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of” coronary heart or vascular disease. A study that specifically deals with concluded that saturated fatty acids,” particularly in dairy products and coconut oil, can improve health.”
While this evidence may reassure us that coconut oil may not cause heart problems, we are still left pondering whether coconut oil is really effective when it comes to memory, brain boosting and tackling the symptoms of dementia.
Best ways to take coconut oil
Should you opt for virgin coconut oil or the refined variety? Organic or non-organic? Both virgin and refined coconut oil have the medium chain fatty acids that are linked to the health benefits of this superfood, so in theory you will see benefits with either. Research shows that coconuts and coconut oil are amongst the foods that show an absence or very low level of pesticides when examined, so sourcing organic varieties shouldn’t be a high priority.
Fans of coconut oil tend to add it to smoothies, use it to fry food with and in baking, add it to coffee and tea and mix it with yoghurt or cereals.
Reasons not to take coconut oil
We have covered:
- The lack of evidence regarding brain health and memory
- The paucity of studies on the long term effects
- False promises could cause patients to neglect effective medical treatment
- Coconut oil has been linked to an alarming rise in acetylcholinesterase
Is there anything else that we need to bear in mind when it comes to consuming coconut oil to help with brain function and cognitive development?
It contains around 130 calories per tablespoon. With no vitamins, minerals and little nutritional value, consuming this oil in an effort to improve your health could simply mean you put on weight and add to your daily intake of calories.
When it comes to boosting brain function and memory, then there is not enough evidence surrounding the use of coconut oil. A study into the effects of nutrients on brain function shows that exercise and sleep can have a positive effect on brain function, whereas overeating and obesity can have the opposite effect.
The same study also indicates that a decline in omega 3s over the past 100 years has potentially led to a rise in mental illness and brain-related issues, and that these oils have been replaced by saturated fatty acids, linoleic acid and trans fatty acids. Flaxseed and walnut oil are both high in omega 3s but contain substantially lower levels of saturated fat than coconut oil.
When it comes to brain health, there are alternatives out there that have been proven to be effective. Coconut oil may have considerable health benefits but there is not enough evidence for it to be used to improve cognitive function or memory.
Due to the high calories and high levels of saturated fat, excessive consumption of coconut oil should be avoided. However, it could be used as a healthier alternative to other products that are high in saturated fat (such as butter or margarine). This could be especially useful for those avoiding animal products in their diets.
In conclusion, coconut oil could be used in moderation as part of a balanced diet and may offer several health benefits, however the possibility of these being improvements to memory or cognition is unlikely and as yet, is largely unproven.