Coconut Oil For Health
In traditional coconut growing areas every part of the coconut tree is used. The various products of the coconut tree include coconut water, coconut meat, coconut oil, coconut leaves, coconut shell and wood based products. The edible parts have antibacterial, antifungal, antiparasitic, antioxidant, hypoglycemic, hepatoprotective and immunostimulant properties. Unsurprisingly in Indian classic texts the coconut palm is eulogised as ‘Kalpavriksha’ – meaning “The all giving tree” (1), and in Sri Lanka the coconut tree has come to be called the “Tree of life”.
Here we’ll be looking at the many uses of coconut oil which is extracted from fresh coconut kernels. It contains medium chain saturated fatty acids and antioxidants which, as we shall see, have many beneficial properties. At the end of the article is a delicious recipe to help you enjoy the benefits of coconut oil.
So What Makes Coconut Oil So Special?
South Asian and Oceanic societies which use coconut oil as their primary source of dietary fat tend to be at low risk of cardiovascular disease (2). This may be because although coconut oil is high in saturated fats they are in the form of medium chain fatty acids. Compared to the long-chain fatty acids in dairy products these medium-chain fats are less likely to be stored as fat and do not promote insulin resistance and inflammation. When ingested, medium-chain fatty acids are rapidly metabolised in the liver resulting in a glut of acetyl-coenzyme A which increases ketone body production and provokes a thermogenic response (2). The ketones produced may have benefits for the brain…
Coconut Oil and Alzheimer’s Disease
Ketone bodies are an important alternative source of energy for the brain and may have neuroprotective effects. It is thought that this could be beneficial for people with memory impairment, as in Alzheimer’s disease (2). In addition, coconut oil contains phenols and other compounds that may inhibit a key step in the development of Alzheimer’s disease (3,4). This is backed up by one study which found that patients with Alzheimer’s given 40ml a day of extra virgin coconut oil experienced an improvement in test scores and cognitive status (5).
So What About the Effects of Coconut Oil on Heart Health?
For decades saturated fats have been vilified for increasing the risk of heart disease. However, it is now thought that it is processed fats, refined carbohydrates, sugars and sedentary lifestyles that play a bigger role in weight gain and heart disease than saturated fats (6).
Currently there is mixed evidence for the effects of coconut oil on lipid profiles and cardiovascular disease risk. Some studies find that coconut oil intake is positively associated with beneficial HDL cholesterol and others find it to have lipid lowering, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities (7,8). Other studies find that coconut oil has no significant effect on cardiovascular parameters.
Coconut Oil and Recovery from Stress
Coconut oil may be valuable as an anti-stress functional oil. For example, mice given coconut oil after a forced swim test experienced reduced immobility time and improved oxidative stress. Furthermore, mice treated with coconut oil exhibited higher levels of brain antioxidants and lower cholesterol, triglycerides, glucose and corticosterone levels (9).
Anti-Fungal Effects of Coconut Oil
Candida albicans are a normal part of the gastrointestinal microflora. However, if candida starts to over-colonise it can become pathogenic and lead to a wide range of symptoms in the digestive tract and beyond. Coconut oil and its constituent fatty acids have antifungal properties. Mice fed a coconut oil rich diet had reduced colonization of candida compared to mice fed beef tallow or soybean oil. Extrapolating to humans, these findings suggest that coconut oil could become a worthwhile dietary intervention to reduce candida albicans in the GI tract (10). Applying coconut oil to fungal skin infections may also have beneficial effects.
Increase Nutrient Absorption with Coconut Oil
As well as being a rich source of antioxidants coconut oil can also increase the absorption of antioxidants from the foods it is eaten with. For example, if eaten with tomatoes it increases the tissue uptake of tomato carotenoids (11).
For further information about the wonder that is coconut oil see the blog post “Coconut Oil ~ Beyond Diet”.
Coconut oil can be used as you would use olive oil or butter for frying, roasting or baking. Here’s a recipe to help you enjoy the benefits of coconut oil.
Coconut Cacao Fridge Bites
2 cups of coconut oil
1 cup of cacao powder
1 cup of stoned dates, chopped
3 tbsp maple syrup (optional)
1 cup of hazelnuts, lightly roasted, roughly chopped
- Put the coconut oil in a food processor and blend or whip for a couple of minutes until it is light and fluffy.
- Add the cacao powder, dates and maple syrup if using. Blend for a minute until the ingredients are completely homogenised. You may need to scrape down the sides and beat again.
- Stir in the chopped hazelnuts.
- Line a shallow dish with baking parchment. Spread the mixture out in the dish and smooth the top. Cover and refrigerate for at least an hour or put in the freezer for 20 minutes. Cut into squares and store in an air tight container in the fridge or freezer.
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- 2. McCarty MF, DiNicolantonio JJ. Lauric acid-rich medium-chain triglycerides can substitute for other oils in cooking applications and may have limited pathogenicity. Open Heart. 2016 Jul 27;3(2):e000467.
- 3. Fernando WM, Martins IJ, Goozee KG et al. The role of dietary coconut for the prevention and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease: potential mechanisms of action. Br J Nutr. 2015 Jul 14;114(1):1-14.
- 4. Nafar F, Mearow KM. Coconut oil attenuates the effects of amyloid-β on cortical neurons in vitro. J Alzheimers Dis. 2014;39(2):233-7.
- 5. Hu Yang I, De la Rubia Orti JE, Selvi Sabater P et al. Coconut oil:non-alternative drug treatment against Alzheimer’s disease. Nutr Hosp. 2015 Dec 1;32(6):2822-7.
- 6. Lawrence GD. Dietary fats and health: dietary recommendations in the context of scientific evidence. Adv Nutr. 2013 May 1;4(3):294-302.
- 7. Illam SP, Narayanankutty A, Raghavamenon AC. Polyphenols of virgin coconut oil prevent pro-oxidant mediated cell death. Toxicol Mech Methods. 2017 Jul;27(6):442-450.
- 8. Feranil AB, Duazo PL, Kuzawa CW, Adair LS. Coconut oil is associated with a beneficial lipid profile in pre-menopausal women in the Philippines. Asia Pac J Clin Nutr. 2011;20(2):190-5.
- 9. Yeap SK, Beh BK, Ali NM et al. Antistress and antioxidant effects of virgin coconut oil in vivo. Exp Ther Med. 2015 Jan;9(1):39-42.
- 10. Gunsalus KT, Tornberg-Belanger SN, Matthan NR et al. Manipulation of Host Diet To Reduce Gastrointestinal Colonization by the Opportunistic Pathogen Candida albicans. Msphere. 2015 Nov 18;1(1). pii: e00020-15.
- 11. Conlon LE, King RD, Moran NE, Erdman JW Jr. Coconut oil enhances tomato carotenoid tissue accumulation compared to safflower oil in the Mongolian gerbil (Meriones unguiculatus). J Agric Food Chem. 2012 Aug 29;60(34):8386-94.