The coconut palm (cocos nucifera), also known as the “tree of life,” provides many valuable foods – most famously coconut oil. In recent years, global consumption of coconut oil has boomed due to its promised health benefits.
But does the consumption of coconut oil really bring health benefits or does it rather do harm?
After the first positive reports, coconut oil was often touted as a “miracle cure”. In the trade press, on the other hand, it is often maligned as “the devil’s stuff” because it consists almost exclusively of saturated fatty acids, which could have a detrimental effect on arterial health. However, recently there has been increasing evidence of its beneficial effects on health due to the presence of medium-chain fatty acids (with a chain length of no more than 12 carbon atoms) and other valuable substances. Also, experts now agree that lauric acid with 12 carbon atoms, which is the main component of fatty acids in coconut oil, is also one of the medium-chain fatty acids. This is because more than 70% of lauric acid is metabolized like medium-chain fatty acids: they reach the liver directly without a detour via the blood circulation, where they are converted into ketones (1).
This unique chemical composition of coconut oil has led to more intensive research into its nutritional and therapeutic influences in recent years. In a recent review from this year (2), which compactly represents the current state of science, the therapeutic effects of coconut oil are summarized and discussed from various points of view:
- Unlike most other dietary fats, which have a high proportion of long-chain fatty acids, coconut oil contains medium-chain fatty acids. These are unique because of their specific metabolic pathway, bypassing the lymphatic system and entering the liver directly through the portal vein. Because of these special properties in absorption and metabolism, these fatty acids are able to form ketone bodies more easily and thus make energy available more quickly than other, longer-chain triglycerides. This direct metabolic pathway is particularly positive in connection with Alzheimer’s dementia, since the disruption of the brain’s sugar utilization is a significant risk factor and the resulting energy deficit can be compensated quickly and effectively by this readily available fuel alternative.
- Another positive side effect of the direct metabolic pathway of medium-chain fatty acids without further circulation in the bloodstream: Compared to long-chain fatty acids, they hardly contribute to fat deposits and are instead preferentially used for energy production via ketone formation. This effect has also been demonstrated in intervention studies.
- The three ketone compounds (or ketones for short) – acetoacetate, beta-hydroxybutyrate and acetone – are predominantly formed in the liver from the medium-chain fatty acids. Although more than 98% of all small-molecule drugs and compounds cannot cross the blood-brain barrier, beta-hydroxybutyrate can overcome this barrier and enters the mitochondria of brain cells. Here it can also be used as an energy source by brain cells already damaged by Alzheimer’s disease, which can no longer use glucose. Ketones represent an important energetic alternative in the brain and are of great advantage especially for people who develop memory disorders or already suffer from them.
- In addition, the phenolic compounds present in coconut oil, such as p-coumaric acid and ferulic acid, may also help prevent the aggregation of amyloid-beta peptide, thus reducing Alzheimer’s-specific deposits. Thus, their anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and anti-amyloidogenic properties would potentially inhibit the crucial step in the development of Alzheimer’s disease. However, the total phenolic content in coconut oil is strongly influenced by the different industrial processing methods and thus the antioxidant capacity of a coconut oil depends on the manufacturing process. In hot-extracted coconut oil, the content of phenolic compounds is higher than in oils obtained by the cold-extraction method, but the compounds are also partially destroyed by the higher temperatures. The highest total phenolic content was determined after “wet” extraction with fermentation, presumably because the oil layer is in contact with the aqueous phenolic phase for a longer time than in the dry extraction methods.
- Furthermore, lauric acid, the major fatty acid in coconut oil, supports the formation of beneficial high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol and also has the potential to delay the rate-determining step in cholesterol biosynthesis, the conversion of 3-hydroxy-3-methylglutaryl coenzyme A (HMG-CoA) protein to mevalonate, in the body by inhibiting the enzyme HMG-CoA reductase. This underscores the beneficial effects of coconut oil on cholesterol metabolism and the associated therapeutic benefits. The latter mechanisms may thus be responsible for the fact that, in the right nutritional context, these fatty acids could also be helpful in the treatment of dyslipidemia, elevated LDL, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and hypertension, all of which are risk factors for cardiovascular complications but also for AD. These findings should thus also refute concerns that coconut oil consumption poses a risk for cardiovascular disease due to saturated fatty acids – an assessment that is still held by the German Nutrition Society (DGE) and the German Federal Center for Nutrition (BZfE) despite current research findings to the contrary and, as shown, is misleading.
Coconut oil is repeatedly questioned as a healthy food because it would clog the arteries due to its high content of saturated fatty acids. However, according to the current state of science, this is clearly wrong. Instead, there is increasing evidence of the positive effects on health due to the presence of medium-chain fatty acids but also antioxidant components. Although long-term clinical data from large cohorts are not yet available, the authors of the review article (2) agree that coconut oil should be recommended as a treatment or preventive measure for Alzheimer’s disease and its comorbidities, such as cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, because it has extremely promising functional properties.
For this reason, we can say with certainty that the consumption of coconut oil can have a positive effect on your (brain) health due to its unique composition – but of course only if it is integrated into a healthy diet in the right measure and together with other healthy fats and oils. In doing so, also be sure to pay attention to the quality of the coconut oil and consume only toxin-tested and high-quality products, ideally also oils obtained from fermentation extraction.
If you would like to get even more in-depth information on this highly interesting topic, please read here at “Knowledge stops dementia”.
- Dayrit FM (2015) The properties of lauric acid and their significance in coconut oil. J Am Oil Chem Soc 92:1–15. DOI 10.1007/s11746-014-2562-7
- Sandupama P, Munasinghe D, Jayasinghe M (2022) Coconut oil as a therapeutic treatment for alzheimer’s disease: a review. Journal of Future Foods 2/1: 41-52. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jfutfo.2022.03.016