The Benefits of Coconut Oil for Brain Health

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The benefits of coconut oil for memory loss, depression, and neurological disorders are significant. Get practical information to get coconut oil in your diet.

woman drinking from a coconut

For decades, coconut oil was considered an unhealthy fat that clogged arteries and caused heart disease. 

Now coconut oil is being hailed as a superfood that can cure everything from Alzheimer’s to tooth decay.

Why the flip-flop on the health benefits of coconut oil?

And does it live up to its reputation as the latest cure-all?

Let’s take a look at how dietary advice about fats has evolved, the truth about coconut oil, and what this means for your overall health and your brain.

How Coconut Went From Being the “Tree of Life” to a Killer

Coconut trees are found around the world in the tropics and subtropics.

This versatile palm — Cocos nucifera — is the “Swiss Army knife” of the plant kingdom.

coconut tree partsVirtually every part of the coconut tree has an important use.

Traditionally coconut water, oil, and meat have been used for nourishment.

Coconut husk and fronds are used to make everything from rope to roofs.

Coconut oil has been used to promote health as part of India’s ancient Ayurvedic healing tradition.

It’s been used for beautiful and healthy skin and hair as well. 

According to Dr. Jon Kabara in The Coconut Oil Miracle, “Even today the Asian Pacific community, which may represent as much as half of the world’s population, uses coconut oil in one form or another.”

People who make coconut a major part of their diet are extraordinarily healthy with low incidences of heart disease, cancer, and other serious health conditions. (12)

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Coconut is so important to people in these areas, they call it the “Tree of Life.” (3)

But here in the West, coconut oil has been considered a cause of heart disease to be avoided. 

How did coconut go from being the “tree of life” to a killer?

Saturated Fat Myths That Are Making Us Sick

There are three big dietary myths concerning dietary fat that wrongly vilify coconut oil.

These myths have also contributed to making the US one of the fattest countries on earth, and the least healthy among wealthy countries. (4, 5)

Let’s bust these myths about dietary fat. 

Myth #1: Saturated Fat Causes Heart Disease

It’s “common knowledge” that saturated fat — the kind found in meat, lard, butter, and coconut  — causes heart disease and should be avoided. But it’s not true.

This idea came from a highly-flawed observational study from the 1950’s — the Seven Countries Study — which speculated that saturated fat was the cause of heart disease.

This idea took hold and fueled the theory that “low-fat = heart-healthy” and that saturated fat causes heart disease … even though this has been disproven time and time again. (67, 8

Since coconut oil is is 90% saturated fat, it was high on the list of foods to avoid. (9)

Myth #2: Vegetable Oils Are a Healthy Alternative to Saturated Fat

As long as man has been cooking — about 2 million years — we’ve been eating saturated fat as an important source of fuel. (10)

canola oil and flower fieldIt’s only in the past few decades that saturated fat has come under fire for being the fast track to a heart attack.

Highly processed vegetable oils like canola, safflower, soy, and sunflower were promoted as healthy alternatives.

These vegetable oils are chemically unstable and, when heated or exposed to oxygen, turn into unhealthy trans fats. (11)

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Trans fats cause inflammation and increase the risk of many major diseases including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity, and cancer. (1213, 14, 15)

Trans fat consumption wreaks havoc with your quality of life and mental well-being. They can leave you less happy and hopeful about your life. (16)

They can increase your risk of depression by up to 50%. (1718)

Vegetable oil consumption is even correlated with increased violence and homicide rates. (19)

According to a US Department of Agriculture report, the average American consumes over 35 pounds of added vegetable oils per year. (20)

Myth #3: Low-Fat Diets are Heart Healthy and the Way to Maintain a Healthy Weight

Low-fat diets have been a Big. Fat. Failure.

unhappy woman eating celeryEating a low-fat diet doesn’t prevent heart disease or help you live longer. (2122)

And they certainly haven’t made us any thinner. (23)

Study after study has shown that there is no correlation between saturated fat consumption and heart disease. (24)

One meta-analysis pooled data that followed almost 350,000 people over time — 14 years on average. Once again, the research conclusively showed that saturated fat doesn’t cause heart disease or stroke. (25)

The Harvard School of Public Health concludes that “The low-fat approach to eating hasn’t helped us control weight or become healthier. Detailed research — much of it done at Harvard — shows that the total amount of fat in the diet isn’t really linked with weight or disease.” (26)

Healthy Fats for Healthy Brain Cells

Of all the organs in your body, your brain especially needs healthy dietary fat.

It’s largely made of fat — 60% by volume. (27)

Your brain cell membrane integrity largely depends on the quality of the fats you eat. (28)

You may have heard that coconut oil can increase your cholesterol. And that’s a good thing for your brain!

Your brain specifically needs cholesterol.

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The brain has higher cholesterol content than any other organ with about 25% of the body’s cholesterol found in the brain. (29)

Low cholesterol increases the risk of suicide, depression, and dementia. (30)

The risk of dementia is reduced by 70% in those with high cholesterol. (31)

Dr. David Perlmutter, neurologist and author of the best seller Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth about Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar–Your Brain’s Silent Killers goes so far as to say that we should look at cholesterol as our brain’s friend. 

How Coconut Oil Uniquely Feeds the Brain 

Any process relating to the role of fats in the body is complicated.

The mechanism by which coconut oil uniquely feeds the brain is no exception. Here’s a condensed version:

Most vegetable oils are long-chain triglycerides. These are larger molecules that are harder to break down and are more easily stored as fat.

Coconut oil uniquely consists of medium-chain triglycerides which are smaller and can be used as a backup source of energy.

There are only two significant sources of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) — human breast milk and coconut oil.

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Your brain is a hungry little organ.

At just three pounds, it uses 20% of your daily energy input. (32)

Your brain’s main fuel is glucose. Your brain cells can’t store energy and can live for only a few minutes without it. 

If your brain cells don’t get the energy they need, they soon start to die.

brain fuel gaugeFortunately, there’s a back-up energy system for times when you can’t get enough energy from carbohydrates. 

Your liver can produce ketones that can be used as a substitute fuel during times of starvation.

But you don’t have to starve to access ketones as a source of brain fuel.

The MCTs in coconut oil can do the job.

They’re broken down into ketones by the liver, and readily cross the blood-brain barrier to provide instant energy to brain cells.

Coconut Oil Benefits for Your Brain

There’s a lot of hype out there about coconut oil. 

But research done on coconut oil reveals that a lot of it is actually true.

Coconut Oil: A Potential Treatment for Dementia and Alzheimer’s? 

One of the most exciting uses of coconut oil is as a potential Alzheimer’s treatment.  

Alzheimer’s is sometimes called type 3 diabetes.

In this disease, brain cells becomes insulin-resistant, don’t get the glucose they need, and subsequently die.

coconut and coconut oilCoconut oil bypasses glucose metabolism, getting energy directly to the brain cells that need it. (33)

PET scans show that the areas of the brain affected by Alzheimer’s have no problem taking up ketones. (34)

The woman who popularized the idea of using coconut oil to treat Alzheimer’s is Dr. Mary Newport.

As a neonatal physician, she was familiar with the use of isolated MCTs with newborns.

MCTs are added to all infant formulas since they naturally occur in breast milk.

When Dr. Newport’s husband developed early-onset Alzheimer’s, she administered coconut oil along with supplemental MCT oil with some success.

Dr. Newport  wrote a detailed account of her husband’s progress and her struggle to get the medical establishment to consider the coconut oil treatment in Alzheimer’s Disease: What If There Was a Cure?

Dr. Newport was instrumental in getting the University of South Florida Health Byrd Alzheimer’s Institute to run a clinical trial to test coconut oil as a potential Alzheimer’s treatment. (35

This is not the only study on coconut oil and MCTs for Alzheimer’s.

Other studies show that coconut oil reduces the beta-amyloid plaque that cause Alzheimer’s and that ketone bodies hold promise as a therapeutic tool. (3637)

Currently, Alzheimer’s patients can get a prescription-only “medical food” called Axona that utilizes MCTs. (38

Coconut Oil and Neurological Disorders

Dr. Newport and other experts in the field believe that coconut oil and MCTs have great potential for treating other neurological diseases, including all forms of dementia, Parkinson’s, stroke, and traumatic brain injury. (39)

She recently did a podcast interview where she mentioned some other ways coconut oil is being successfully used — for treating glaucoma, Down syndrome, ALS, and Huntington’s. It reduces diabetic complications such as insulin resistance, retinopathy and kidney damage. (40)

Brain Anti-Aging

High-fat diets, especially ones that include the MCTs found in coconut oil, can delay brain aging. (41)

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woman with sticky note on foreheadMemory Loss

MCTs can help with memory loss and memory disorders.

When given to adults with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), they experienced significant improvement in memory recall within 90 minutes of taking their first dose. (42)

Depression

Coconut oil can be as effective for depression as prescription antidepressant medications, without the side effects.

Researchers attribute this success to coconut oil’s unique combination of medium-chain fatty acids and antioxidants. (43

Cognitive Decline in Dogs (really!)

A fair amount of research has been done on MCT oil and cognitive decline in dogs. (44, 45, 46)

You can now buy dog food with MCTs to keep those doggie brains sharp. 

Anxiety and ADHD 

It’s not hard to find a plethora of anecdotal evidence that coconut oil helps conditions such as ADHD and anxiety. 

But I haven’t found actual research studies to back this up.

What is known for sure is that the alternative — seed-based vegetable oils — are bad for your brain and mental well-being. 

A surprise finding is that a significant number of anecdotal reports on popular “brain hacking” forums reveal that supplemental MCT oil (not coconut oil) makes anxiety and depression worse in some people who are prone to these conditions. 

Other Important Coconut Oil Benefits

Finding unbiased information on coconut oil benefits isn’t easy.

There are plenty of coconut “enthusiasts” who claim it’s the cure for whatever ails you. They usually rely on anecdotal evidence and wishful thinking. 

On the other hand, you’ll find most health organization simply say “the evidence isn’t there” to support coconut oil health claims.

I didn’t have much trouble finding studies, so I don’t think they’re looking very hard.

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Dr. Bruce Fife, founder of the Coconut Research Center, has compiled a list of coconut oil studies. It’s 42 pages long.

(You can download the list of coconut oil studies here.) 

Here are some of the highlights of coconut oil benefits that have studies to back them up. 

Note that some studies used isolated MCTs rather than whole coconut oil.  

Nature’s Pharmacy

Coconut oil is a natural antiseptic.

It has proven antimicrobial properties and is effective even against the very dangerous staph bacteria — Staphylococcus aureus. (47, 4849, 50)

It can speed up wound healing. (51)

It’s antifungal and very effective in treating Candida albicans (as well as other forms of Candida). This study concluded that coconut oil should be used to treat fungal infections in view of emerging drug-resistant Candida species. (52)

Weight Loss

woman on beach holding coconutWhile you shouldn’t expect the pounds to melt off by adding coconut oil to your diet, it does slightly increase metabolic rate and reduce appetite. (53, 54, 55, 56)

The addition of coconut oil can also cause modest reduction in especially unhealthy belly fat. (57)

Inflammation

The antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of coconut oil have been found to reduce the pain of arthritis. (58)

Coconut oil acts like a natural version of Tylenol — it is anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and can bring down a fever. (59)

Cancer

Coconut oil’s medium-chain triglycerides have been shown to have anti-tumor properties. (60, 61, 62)

The addition of coconut oil to the diet improves the overall quality of life for women with breast cancer. 

These patients reported less fatigue, shortness of breath, sleep difficulties, and loss of appetite. They experienced fewer overall side effects from chemotherapy and were more hopeful about the future. (63)

Heart Disease

One of the most common questions people ask about eating coconut oil is whether it will increase their risk of heart disease. Old ideas die hard. 

Heart disease is virtually unknown in populations where traditional coconut oil consumption is high. (64)

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The National Institutes of Health reported that increasing fat intake to 50% of calories improved the nutritional status of study participants, and did not increase their risk for heart disease. (65

One large study found that the more coconut oil consumed, the higher the level of “good” HDL cholesterol. (66)

Making Coconut Oil a Part of Your Daily Diet

Coconut oil has very few reported side effects. 

Just like any other food, some people can be allergic to it.

One reported side effect is digestive upset such as diarrhea and nausea.

This almost always happens when people add too much to their diet too fast.

Make Coconut a Part of Your Daily Diet

The best way to consume coconut oil is as part of your regular diet.

About 2-3 tablespoons is all you need to experience its health benefits. 

Use it wherever you normally use other vegetable oils. 

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There is no benefit in taking coconut oil by the spoonful like it’s medicine.

This is unpleasant and most people get tired of it.

And don’t bother with coconut oil capsules.

This is an expensive and highly inefficient way to get enough coconut oil to do you any good. 

Coconut Oil’s Saturated Fat Is Tops for Cooking

Coconut oil is mostly saturated fat. Here’s why that’s a good thing.

A saturated fat has all of its available carbon bonds occupied by a hydrogen atom. This makes it highly stable for cooking and less likely to go rancid.

Unsaturated fats like canola oil easily turn into unhealthy trans fats once heat is applied or it’s exposed to air. (67)

Coconut oil is excellent for frying, sauteing, roasting, and baking.

You can add a dollop when making rice or hot cereal.

The one caveat is to not drizzle it on salads or make salad dressing with it. It will immediately solidify when it hits your veggies. 

Stick with extra virgin olive oil — another healthy oil — for salads.

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Coconut oil melts at 76°F, so depending on the temperature in your home, some days it will be solid and some days liquid.

Don’t keep it in the fridge or it will turn rock hard.

You don’t need to stick with only the oil of coconut either. 

There are other ways to get the benefits of coconut:

  • Coconut milk — the liquid that comes from the grated meat of a coconut.
  • Coconut water — the clear liquid inside young green coconuts.
  • Coconut meat — the white flesh can be eaten dried, shredded or ground into flour.

Many people moisturize their skin with straight coconut oil. It’s thought that coconut oil’s health benefits can be absorbed through the skin.

coconut foods

Pros and Cons of MCT Oil Supplements

You may think that if coconut oil is good, MCT oil is even better.

MCT oil is a popular supplement with body builders, endurance athletes, and brain hackers.

Depending what brand you use, it can be up to 18 times stronger than plain coconut oil. (68)

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Too much MCT oil can give you diarrhea, and in some cases increase anxiety or depression.

A big downside of MCT oil is that it doesn’t doesn’t contain lauric acid.

About 50% of coconut oil’s saturated fat is lauric acid. This component is antibacterial, antiviral, and antifungal. It strengthens the immune system and is responsible for many of coconut oil’s healing properties. (697071)

Lauric acid naturally occurs in breast milk. Coconut is the only significant way to get it in your diet.

What to Look for When Buying Coconut Oil

When you go shopping, you’ll see words on the label like organic, virgin, extra virgin, cold pressed, refined, and unrefined. 

What do these terms actually mean? How to choose wisely?

Refined vs Unrefined Coconut Oil

One of the most confusing issues about coconut oil is whether to use refined or unrefined.

Unrefined sounds better, but is it?

Unrefined coconut oil is unfiltered, unadulterated and additive-free. 

It’s usually labeled “virgin” or “extra virgin.” 

It retains its distinctive coconut flavor and odor. 

Many people don’t want everything they prepare to taste like coconut, myself included.

These folks may prefer refined coconut oil which has no overt coconut taste or odor.

If you buy refined coconut oil, look for a high quality oil that’s been refined through a non-chemical steam process. 

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Avoid cheaper refined oils that use harsh chemical solvents. 

Both refined and unrefined retain the most important health benefits — MCTs and lauric acid.

It’s believed that unrefined coconut oil may retain slightly more other nutrients than refined. 

However, refined coconut oil can be a better choice for people with sensitive digestion or allergies since the refining process can remove some potential allergens.

Here are five simple tips that can help you pick the right coconut oil:

  1. Avoid any coconut oil that says “partially hydrogenated” on the label. 
  2. Organic may be an indicator of overall quality but buying organic is not necessary. Studies show that all coconut oil — even when not labeled organic — is virtually chemical-free. (72)
  3. There is no industry standard for the terms “virgin” or “extra virgin.” Both are usually expeller pressed from dried coconut. 
  4. Virgin coconut oil retains the odor and taste of coconuts.
  5. Refined coconut oil is taste and odor neutral. Stick with quality brands that use steam processing. 

Switching from unhealthy vegetable oils to coconut oil is just about the simplest lifestyle change you can make to improve your overall health, mental well-being, and brain health both now and in the future.