Coconut Oil for Alzheimer’s and Dementia: The Evidence

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Last updated June 26, 2023.
Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC. Written by Deane Alban.

Coconut oil and the MCTs it contains are effective for Alzheimer’s and dementia. Adding coconut oil to your diet has protective benefits for brain health.

In the past few years, the health reputation of coconut oil has undergone a total reversal — from unhealthy fat to superfood.

In countries of Asia and the South Pacific, where coconut is called the “tree of life,” it never went out of fashion.

Populations that traditionally use coconut oil are considered to be exceptionally healthy, with low incidences of modern diseases like stroke and heart disease

Now, the rest of the world is finally coming around.

As a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, however, the potential use of coconut oil is still up for debate.

There is convincing but anecdotal evidence that coconut oil can halt and even reverse the progression of degenerative brain diseases.

But can this claim withstand scientific scrutiny?

And, are there neuroprotective benefits for including coconut oil in your diet anyway?

Why Your Brain Needs Dietary Fats

First, let’s discuss why your brain needs dietary fats to keep it healthy.

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

It’s largely made of fat, 60% by weight.

Brain cell membrane integrity largely depends on the quality of the fats we eat. 

And healthy brain cell membranes are critical for brain health and function.

They control what’s allowed in (nutrients) and what is kept out (toxins, pathogens).

When unhealthy trans fats are integrated into brain cell membranes, they become less efficient.

Trans fats even condemn brain cells to shorter lives.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the quality of your brain cells depends on the quality of the fats you eat.

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The Low-Fat Diet Disaster

Low-fat diets have been a disaster for our brains.

Some experts believe that low-fat eating may be responsible for the recent increase in brain disorders such as anxiety, depression, ADHD, and even Alzheimer’s.

Additionally, although we’ve been led to believe otherwise, the healthiest plant-based fats ARE NOT:

  • canola
  • soy
  • sunflower
  • other seed-based oils

These highly processed oils not only contain unhealthy trans fats but are chemically rancid by the time you get them home, due to heat and oxidation

Samples of store-bought canola oil have been found to contain as much as 4.2% trans fats

Trans fats contribute to chronic inflammation and increase the risk of many of the most prevalent diseases, including: 

  • allergies
  • Alzheimer’s
  • cancer
  • cardiovascular diseases
  • diabetes
  • obesity

Trans fat consumption has even been linked to significantly increased risk of death

There are many foods that contain fats that are actually good for the brain, including avocados, nuts, fatty cold-water fish, and olive oil.

But when it comes to healthy brain fats, coconut oil is in a category by itself.

How Coconut Oil Uniquely Feeds the Brain

Most plant-based oils contain long-chain triglycerides.

These are larger molecules that are hard to break down and are readily stored as fat.

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There are very few food sources of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) — coconut products, palm oil, and full-fat dairy products.

And, as you can see in this chart, coconut oil is by far the best source.

sources of medium chain triglycerides
Coconut oil is the best source of MCTs. (Image courtesy of PerfectKeto.com)

Coconut oil’s unique medium-chain triglycerides are smaller, more easily broken down, and are suitable as a backup source of energy for your brain.

MCTs are critical for the development of the human brain and are found in abundance in human breast milk.

Related on Be Brain Fit —
How MCT Oil Benefits Brain Health

Here’s how coconut oil’s unique MCTs feed the brain.

Your brain uses 20% of your daily energy input.

Your brain does not store energy, so it needs a constant supply.

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

For most people, this energy is usually provided in the form of blood glucose.

However, there are times when your brain can’t get the energy it needs from carbohydrates (the usual source of glucose in a typical Western diet).

Fortunately, there’s a backup energy system in place.

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" Coconut oil bypasses glucose metabolism, delivering energy directly to the brain cells that need it.

Your liver breaks down stored fat to produce ketones (also called ketone bodies) that can be used as a substitute fuel.

Ketones readily cross the blood-brain barrier to provide instant energy to brain cells.

Normally, there aren’t a lot of ketones in the body to provide energy to the brain.

One way to access ketones as an alternative source of brain fuel is through a high-fat, low-carb ketogenic diet.

The ketogenic diet, while now in the news, is not new. 

It has been used to treat drug-resistant childhood epilepsy for nearly 100 years.

But not everyone wants to eat this way and it is notoriously difficult to get people with dementia or Alzheimer’s to change their diets.

Coconut oil, with its MCTs, provides a convenient workaround.

It provides instant energy to brain cells, without the assistance of insulin.

This point is key to understanding how coconut oil can help dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Alzheimer’s: Diabetes of the Brain

What does the ability of MCTs to fuel the brain without insulin have to do with Alzheimer’s?

As we age, our brains become less able to process glucose as brain fuel.

Brain cells can become insulin-resistant.

The brain cells of patients with Alzheimer’s have lost the ability to take up the glucose they need, and those cells subsequently die.

This has led to the theory that Alzheimer’s is actually a type of diabetes, i.e., diabetes of the brain

It’s sometimes referred to as type 3 diabetes.

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But coconut oil bypasses glucose metabolism, delivering energy directly to the brain cells that need it. 

Using PET scans, it can be seen that the areas of the brain affected by Alzheimer’s readily use ketones as an alternative fuel source. 

This is very exciting news!

Note: Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are terms that are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same condition. Dementia is a general term that describes a set of symptoms. There are over 100 diseases that can cause dementia; Alzheimer’s is just one of them. 

The Alzheimer’s Case That Put Coconut Oil on the Map

Mary T. Newport, MD, is a pioneer in the use of coconut oil for treating severe neurological conditions.

As a neonatal physician, she is very familiar with the use of MCT oil supplements derived from coconut oil.

MCT oil is routinely fed to premature infants to help meet their high energy demands.

It is also included in high-quality baby formulas.

When her husband, Steve, developed early-onset Alzheimer’s, she reasoned that the MCTs in coconut oil could bypass glucose metabolism to directly feed his brain.

She added coconut oil, along with supplemental MCT oil, to his diet and achieved considerable success.

One standard measurement for Alzheimer’s and other neurological disorders is the Clock-Drawing Test.

Patients are asked to draw a clock.

If their clock is missing important details like hands or numbers, it indicates a problem.

Steve took the clock test before starting his coconut and MCT oil regimen, and then again shortly thereafter.

Here are his results.

Alzheimer's clock test results before and after coconut oil
Alzheimer’s clock test results show improvement after administration of coconut oil.

You can see how his clock renderings dramatically improved after a short time on coconut oil, indicating that his brain function had improved.

Dr. Newport wrote a detailed account of her husband’s progress and her struggle to get the medical establishment to consider coconut and MCT oils as potential treatments in her eye-opening book, Alzheimer’s Disease: What If There Was a Cure?.

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In her book, you’ll note that her husband’s progress was not always positive.

Over the years, he has experienced ups and downs.

But Dr. Newport contends that coconut oil slowed the progression of his disease and she is now an outspoken proponent of the use of coconut oil for treating neurological disorders of all kinds.

She has recently published a follow-up book, The Complete Book of Ketones: A Practical Guide to Ketogenic Diets and Ketone Supplements.

Dr. Newport reports that coconut oil is now being successfully used for treating many neurological disorders, including:

  • amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)
  • cancer
  • Down syndrome
  • epilepsy
  • glaucoma
  • Huntington’s disease
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • stroke
  • traumatic brain injury

It also reduces diabetic complications such as insulin resistance, retinopathy, and kidney damage.

Scientific Evidence for Using Coconut Oil for Dementia and Alzheimer’s

Dr. Newport has been contacted by hundreds of people around the world who have halted or even reversed their mental decline with coconut oil.

The growing body of anecdotal reports of the benefits of coconut oil for Alzheimer’s and other neurological disorders is compelling.

But anecdotal news for using coconut oil to treat dementia is, of course, insufficient scientific evidence for its efficacy.

The US National Institutes of Health’s database lists thousands of scientific studies done on coconut oil, ketones, and MCT oil.

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Here’s a sample of findings based on the latest scientific research:

  • High-fat diets, ketone bodies, and MCTs offer neuroprotective benefits for a wide range of neurological diseases, including all forms of dementia, Parkinson’s, stroke, and traumatic brain injury. 
  • High-fat diets, especially ones that include the MCTs found in coconut oil, can delay brain aging by providing extra fuel to repair brain cell damage. 
  • Isolated caprylic acid, a medium-chain triglyceride found in coconut oil, shows anti-aging, anti-Alzheimer’s, and anti-autism properties. It’s also a potent antibiotic. 
  • Ketogenic diets increase glutathione, a naturally occurring antioxidant, which is especially protective for the hippocampus, the part of the brain considered the seat of memory. 

How to Use Coconut Oil for Dementia and Alzheimer’s

There are few people in the world who know more about using coconut oil for dementia and Alzheimer’s than Dr. Newport.

She recommends starting by taking one teaspoon of coconut oil 2-3 times a day with food, working up to 4-6 tablespoons a day of coconut oil and MCT oil combined.

The onset of diarrhea or an upset stomach means that you’ve taken too much, too soon.

You can download a copy of her Coconut Oil Dietary Guidelines and learn more on her website CoconutKetones.com.

It’s easy to get the impression that you must take coconut oil by the spoonful, like medicine, to get its benefits.

But the best way to use coconut oil is as a food since it’s a versatile culinary oil.

Swap it out for any unhealthy oils you may be using like canola, sunflower, or safflower oil.

You can use coconut oil anywhere you normally use butter, margarine, or nut butters.

You can bake, sauté, fry, and roast with it, or add it to smoothies.

The results will be delicious!

[For more ways to use coconut oil, see our brain food recipes and brain-healthy snack ideas.]

Coconut oil is unusual in that its melting point is room temperature — 76° F/24° C.

So, you’ll find that it alternates between being solid and liquid.

For that reason, don’t drizzle coconut oil on foods that are cool or cold, like salads (you’ll get little, unappetizing lumps of coconut oil).

For that, use olive oil, another brain-healthy oil.

Axona: Coconut-Based Medical Food for Alzheimer’s

If you are an Alzheimer’s patient or caretaker, you may be concerned about using coconut oil without your doctor’s approval.

If that is the case, I urge you to talk to your doctors before adding coconut oil to your diet.

If they are not on board, you can mention a prescription-only “medical food” called Axona that is made from coconut oil.

One clinical study found that patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease experienced improvements in memory and cognition when taking Axona.

You can learn more about Axona and see the Axona ingredient list at RxList.com.

Unfortunately, it contains other ingredients besides MCTs, including sugar, artificial sweeteners, and preservatives, none of which are beneficial for brain health.

Also, you can expect that it will cost hundreds of dollars for a month’s supply — much, much more than coconut oil. 

If your doctor recommends Axona, I suggest you arm yourself with information and have a discussion about the use of coconut oil versus Axona.

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