For many years, coconut oil was labeled as dangerous due to its unusually high saturated fat content – coconut oil has even more saturated fat than butter. However, now that people are coming to realize that saturated fat is not inherently bad [1, 2], the health benefits of coconut oil are being re-examined. So far, the results are promising.
In this article, we will explore the scientific research to uncover why coconut oil, in moderation, is a powerful addition to your diet and body care regimen.
What is Coconut Oil?
Coconut Oil is the oil that has been extracted from the “meat” inside the hard-shelled coconut (Cocos nucifera). Coconut oil is solid at room temperature and has a very long shelf life (six months at 75 °F) .
The majority of coconut oil (approx 65%) is composed of medium chain triglycerides (MCTs), which are triglycerides and fatty acids with a carbon length chain of 6 – 12. MCTs are mostly comprised of lauric acid, which has a 12 carbon chain and therefore is almost considered a long chain fatty acid.
I personally notice a significant difference between MCT oil and coconut oil.
Coconut oil is produced mostly in Asian countries and, as well as the food industry, is used in margarine and soap production .
My Experience With Coconut Oil
I had a very negative experience with high amounts of coconut oil. Some clients also have a poor response, while most others respond positively. For me, coconut oil caused decreased energy and worse brain function.
This article is mainly about the benefits of coconut oil in moderation. There aren’t many studies with people taking excess amounts of coconut oil, and even if there was, not everyone would respond the same way.
I recommend using moderation with coconut oil, about 2 tbsp a day for the average person.
One must also realize that everyone burns fat differently. Even though coconut oil mainly has MCTs, they don’t function like the MCTs in pure MCT oil (C8 and the C10).
Coconut Oil Snapshot
- Increases metabolism and fat burning
- Balances blood sugars
- Jet fuel for your brain
- Heart healthy
- May cause loose stools when taken in high amounts.
- Might cause fatty liver when consumed in excess.
Health Benefits of Coconut Oil
1) Might Increase Metabolism & Aid Weight Loss
Coconut oil is “thermogenic”. This means that consuming coconut oil actually increases energy expenditure (fat burning), versus consuming the same amount of calories from other fats .
Coconut oil is 65% MCTs. A number of studies have explored fat loss and metabolic changes in response to MCT oil. In every one of these studies, MCT oil was found to increase metabolism and fat loss [5, 6, 4, 7].
For example, one study found that daily doses (1-2 tbsp) of coconut oil MCTs per day increased total fat burning by 5% (120 calories) per day .
One study found that MCTs in coconut oil actually down-regulate genes associated with excess body fat .
Similarly, another study found that after 7 days, individuals on a diet rich in MCTs from coconut oil and butter burned more fat and had a significantly higher resting metabolic rates than those consuming diets rich in beef tallow .
Subjects who consumed 30ml of coconut oil per day had lost an average of 1.1 inches from their waist circumference .
Another study instructed forty women with abdominal obesity to consume 10ml of either coconut oil or soybean oil at each meal. By the end of the study, both groups had lost an average of 2.2 lbs (1 kg). Those consuming coconut oil had a decrease in waist circumference of half an inch. Those consuming soybean oil group had actually had a slight increase in waist size .
2) May Decrease Inflammation
Women who consumed a high-fat diet based on coconut oil had less post-meal inflammation, especially when compared to the group on a diet high in unsaturated fatty acids .
Virgin coconut oil was found to be anti-inflammatory for artificially-induced ear and paw swelling in rats .
Inflammatory levels in artificially induced colitis were lowered on a diet rich in coconut oil .
In a mice study, the anti-inflammatory activity of virgin coconut oil was comparable to aspirin .
3) Heart Healthy
A natural experiment that helps prove coconut oil’s safety has been taking place in many tropical countries for decades: Many Polynesian populations consume very high percentages of calories from coconut oil (up to 60%), and yet have very low levels of heart disease .
In one study, women who consumed a high-fat diet based on coconut oil had improved markers of heart disease risk, especially when compared to the group on a diet high in unsaturated fatty acids .
Virgin coconut oil stabilizes blood pressure and improves blood vessel function in rats fed a diet high in oxidized palm oil . Thus, if you eat a meal high in oxidized oils (heated or rancid), it might be best to include a small amount of coconut oil.
Current evidence supports the idea that the diseased heart is energy deficient. Coconut oil, with its rich source of ketogenic MCTs, might offer an important alternative fuel source for the heart .
A number of studies have highlighted an association between chronic bacterial infections and heart disease. Thus, coconut oil, with its potent antibacterial properties, might improve heart health .
Researchers at University François Rabelais, France, now recommend the consumption of MCTs for people with heart disease .
4) Improves Cholesterol Levels
After 40 days on a diet rich in coconut oil, rats showed improved lipid profiles. This included: reduced total cholesterol, triglycerides, phospholipids, LDL, and VLDL cholesterol levels and increased HDL cholesterol. The authors suggested these changes might be due to the polyphenol content of coconut oil .
Rats fed a diet rich in virgin coconut oil had significantly lowered levels of total cholesterol, LDL & VLDL cholesterol, Apo-B, and triglycerides, compared to rats fed copra oil, olive oil and sunflower oil (26).
A diet high in coconut milk (rich in coconut oil) is heart-healthy due to its ability to decrease LDL and increase HDL . Indeed, rats fed this diet showed none of the heart problems one would expect given the conventional wisdom on saturated fats .
The fatty acid, Lauric acid, present in coconut oil may protect against damage from unhealthy cholesterol levels found in diabetics .
5) Enhances Mitochondria
MCTs in coconut oil increase the respiratory capacity of mitochondria without adding any oxidative stress .
Aged dogs that were given MCTs found in coconut oil had significantly improved mitochondrial function, measured by increased active respiration rates .
Coconut oil can increase mitochondrial energy production in those with defects in mitochondrial fatty acid oxidation .
6) Enhances Brain Function
The MCTs in coconut oil improve cognition under conditions of low blood sugar .
In dogs, supplementation with the MCTs found in coconut oil can increase levels of ketones and improve cognition (R).
7) Helps Regulate Blood Sugar
After 21 days on a diet rich in virgin coconut oil, rats had reduced blood glucose levels.
8) Reduces Appetite
For example, consumption of a diet high in MCTs caused six healthy men to unintentionally eat 256 fewer calories per day .
Almost 50% of the fatty acids in coconut oil are lauric acid. After being digested, coconut oil also forms the monoglyceride, monolaurin. Both lauric acid and monolaurin kill pathogenic bacteria, viruses and fungi e.g. Staphylococcus Aureus [44, 45].
Coconut oil is an effective treatment for vaginal thrush (yeast infection) .
One way coconut oil kills candida is by disrupting the yeast’s plasma membranes .
Many disease-causing microbes, including potentially deadly ones like HIV and drug-resistant bacteria, are vulnerable to MCTs found in coconut oil .
When used topically, treatments containing coconut oil show great efficacy in dealing with local bacterial infections .
Coconut oil is effective at reducing the levels of dangerous bacteria found on poultry .
MCTs found in coconut oil have also been shown to reduce the growth of certain species of Malassezia fungus. This fungus is very common in hospitals .
In rats, MCTs improve gut integrity, modulate of the immune response and improve intestinal secretion of antibodies .
The type of fats in coconut oil can lower gut pH, modulate the gut microenvironment and prevent post-weaning diarrhea .
10) Improves Digestion And Nutrient Absorption
Coconut oil improves the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (A, B, D, E, K) beta-carotene, CoQ10, minerals such as calcium and magnesium, and amino acids . So, in a sense, coconut oil makes the food it’s consumed with more nutritious.
Coconut oil is used to treat malnutrition and malabsorption syndrome in children and is a common ingredient included in hospital feeding formulas for premature and low birth weight babies. In fact, intravenous MCT oils are used for very malnourished people .
Post-surgery, consumption of coconut oil leads to faster growth, weight gain, and improved nutritional status than other fats .
Patients with bile acid malabsorption do best when MCTs, as found in coconut oil, are their primary source of fat .
Similarly, those with pancreatic insufficiency respond well to foods rich in MCTs .
Individuals with liver disease are able to absorb the types of fats found in coconut oil better than other longer chain fatty acids .
11) May Treat Brain Disorders
Caprylic acid, a key component of coconut oil, significantly improves the quality of life of people with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a brain disorder of motor neurons causing progressive muscle weakness, paralysis, and finally death .
Build up of Amyloid-β plaques in Alzheimer’s disease can cause brain damage. One study showed that neurons are more likely to survive exposure to amyloid-β when coconut oil is present. Coconut oil also decreased amyloid-β-induced mitochondrial changes .
One study gave caprylic acid (common in coconut oil) to people with Alzheimer’s disease. After 18 months, their condition (memory, autonomy, recognition, etc.) was significantly improved .
Coconut oil might be such an effective tool for Alzheimer’s patients because it increases levels of ketones. Ketones have been shown to reduce the build-up of Amyloid-β plaques that cause Alzheimer’s disease (63, 64).
The phenolic compounds and hormones found in coconut oil may also prevent this build up of Amyloid-β plaques .
12) Improves Skin Health
Topical treatments containing coconut oil show great potential for healing wounds and combatting local bacterial infections .
Virgin coconut oil, applied daily for eight weeks, was an effective treatment for mild to moderate atopic dermatitis (eczema) .
Virgin coconut oil is a more effective treatment for eczema than virgin olive oil .
Coconut oil enhances the absorption of other topical treatments, such as Vitamin E .
13) May Treat Cancer
One animal study found that dietary coconut oil can protect against cancer-causing chemicals .
In cancer patients, MCTs found in coconut oil can help reverse weight loss and reduce in tumor size .
One study found that mammary tumors were 20% less common in rats given coconut oil than corn oil .
A mouse study found that a ketogenic diet enriched with the MCTs found in coconut oil slowed tumor growth .
14) Protects Against Stress
One study found that dietary virgin coconut oil improved the antioxidant status of rats more than three other oils, thus protecting against oxidative stress .
15) Good for Hair Health
Coconut oil was shown to be more effective at reducing hair damage than mineral or sunflower oil. Coconut oil reduced protein loss for both undamaged and damaged hair. These benefits may be due to the high lauric acid content of coconut oil .
Coconut oil may be such an effective hair treatment because it actually penetrates the shaft of the hair. Whereas mineral oil, which is more often found in hair products, does not .
A spray containing coconut was a more effective method for killing head lice than conventional treatments .
16) Protects Against Arthritis
One study gave coconut oil polyphenols to arthritic rats. These rats showed reduced levels of CRP (an inflammatory marker) and white blood cells, and also reduced the expression of inflammatory genes such as COX-2, iNOS, TNF-α and IL-6 .
17) Improves Bone Health
Oxidative stress and free radicals have been associated with the onset of osteoporosis (bone disease). Rats given virgin coconut oil show improved bone health. This is probably because of virgin coconut oil’s high antioxidant content .
Another study found that coconut oil prevented lipid peroxidation and increased the antioxidant enzymes in rats with osteoporosis .
18) Improves Oral Health
Coconut, when used as a mouthwash, reduces the amount of plaque-forming bacteria in the mouth .
Sixty individuals aged 16–18 years with gum inflammation were instructed to do oil pulling with coconut oil for 30 days. At the end of the study, both inflammation and plaque markers were significantly decreased .
19) Protects the Liver
Coconut oil can treat liver disorders caused by toxic agents, such as alcohol, bacteria, drugs, and chemicals .
MCTs present in coconut oil protect the liver and gut of rodents against exposure to endotoxins .
When taken in appropriate amounts, MCTs found in coconut oil can reduce fatty liver .
Saturated fats, like those found in coconut oil, protect the liver by reducing toxin build-up and lipid peroxidation .
Replacing unsaturated fats with MCTs found in coconut oil is an effective treatment for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease .
In one study, consumption of virgin coconut oil reduced the liver damage done rats given paracetamol .
20) Protects the Kidneys
The fatty acids in coconut oil protect the kidneys of rats exposed to a diet deficient in methyl groups .
MCTs in coconut oil are an ideal fat source for people with acute kidney failure .
21) A Natural Pain Killer
In patients with chronic pancreatitis, the MCTs found in coconut oil were found to ease post-meal pain .
In rats, virgin coconut shows moderate pain-numbing properties, as measured by a decrease in writhing response to pain stimulus .
22) Helps Detox Poisons
Coconut oil is a useful tool for treating aluminum phosphide poisoning in humans .
23) Eases Effects of Chemotherapy
One study instructed women undergoing chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer to consume 20ml of coconut oil per day. This resulted in better quality of life, fatigue, sleep, loss of appetite, sexual function and body image .
There is no published guideline for the upper limit of coconut oil consumption. But I think you can have too much of a good thing.
I limit my personal intake of high-quality coconut oil to no more than 1–2 tablespoons per day.
This is what works best for me, but I encourage you to experiment and find your own personal limit.
In SelfDecode, we created a diet pack with 8 categories (and growing), one of which analyzes your response to a high-fat diet and saturated fat.
It turns out, that I get a “D-” for saturated fats, which means I do more poorly with saturated fats than most people. The data is based on my genetics obtained from 23andme.
Coconut oil is used in many recipes in the autoimmune lectin avoidance cookbook.
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