Coconut oil offers unique benefits for the brain, including the potential to treat neurological disorders. Learn how to use coconut oil for brain health.
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The versatile coconut palm, Cocos nucifera, is so important that, in some cultures, it’s called the “tree of life.”
Coconut oil has been used for thousands of years to promote health in India’s ancient Ayurvedic healing tradition.
There’s also a growing body of evidence that coconut oil is equally as beneficial for brain health and function.
Why Your Brain Thrives on Coconut Oil
Of all the organs in your body, your brain especially needs healthy dietary fat.
The brain is largely made of fat, 60% by weight. (3)
Your brain cell membrane integrity depends mostly on the quality of the fats you eat. (4)
Coconut oil does contain cholesterol, but don’t panic.
This is, in fact, a good thing for your brain.
Your brain specifically needs cholesterol.
It has a greater cholesterol content than any other organ.
About 25% of your total body cholesterol is found in your brain. (5)
Cholesterol is important for mental health.
Low cholesterol actually increases the risk of suicide and depression. (6)
Counterintuitively, seniors with high cholesterol have a 70% reduced risk of dementia. (7)
David Perlmutter, MD, is a neurologist and best-selling author.
In his book, Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth about Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar–Your Brain’s Silent Killers, he contends that you should stop looking at cholesterol as the enemy and start considering it your brain’s friend instead.
(If you’re concerned about cholesterol and heart disease, we’ll cover why that’s not an issue shortly.)
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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 of how the MCTs in coconut oil provide instant energy to brain cells.
Most vegetable oils are long-chain triglycerides.
These large molecules are hard to break down and are more readily stored as fat.
Coconut oil consists of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) which are smaller and can be used as a backup source of energy.
There are few natural sources of MCTs, namely various parts of the coconut (oil, meat, cream, and milk), palm oil, and full-fat dairy products.
And, as this chart illustrates, coconut oil is by far the best source of MCTs.
Your brain is a hungry little organ.
At just three pounds, it accounts for 20% of your daily energy requirements.
Your brain’s main fuel is glucose, a simple sugar.
Your brain cells can’t store energy and can live for only a few minutes without glucose.
Fortunately, there’s a backup energy system for times when you can’t get enough energy from glucose.
Your liver can break down stored fat to produce ketones that can be used as a substitute fuel during times of starvation.
But you don’t have to starve to access ketones, the MCTs in coconut oil can also do the job.
They’re broken down into ketones by the liver, and readily cross the blood-brain barrier to provide instant brain energy.
5 Benefits of Coconut Oil for Your Brain
There’s a lot of hype surrounding coconut oil.
But research confirms that some of the claims are actually true.
Here are the main science-backed brain benefits of coconut oil:
1. Coconut Oil for Serious Memory Loss
One of the most exciting uses of coconut oil is as a potential treatment for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Alzheimer’s is now considered a form of diabetes of the brain known as “type 3 diabetes.” (8)
In this disease, brain cells become insulin-resistant, can’t absorb the glucose they need, and subsequently die.
The medium-chain triglycerides in coconut oil bypass glucose metabolism, delivering energy directly to the brain cells that need it. (9)
PET scans show that the areas of the brain affected by Alzheimer’s that can’t take up glucose readily take up ketones. (10)
The medical pioneer who popularized the idea of using coconut oil to treat Alzheimer’s is Mary T. Newport, MD.
As a neonatal physician, she was familiar with the use of 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 notable success.
Dr. Newport wrote a detailed account of her husband’s progress and her struggle to get the medical establishment to consider using coconut oil as a treatment in her book Alzheimer’s Disease: What If There Was a Cure?.
Currently, Alzheimer’s patients can get a prescription-only “medical food” called Axona that contains a proprietary formulation of MCTs. (13)
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2. Coconut Oil and Other Neurological Disorders
Dr. Newport and other experts in the field believe that coconut oil and MCTs have great potential for treating other neurological diseases: (14)
- all forms of dementia
- traumatic brain injury
In a recent interview, she mentioned some other ways coconut oil is being successfully used including treating glaucoma, Down syndrome, ALS, and Huntington’s.
Coconut oil reduces diabetic complications such as insulin resistance, retinopathy, and kidney damage. (15)
3. Coconut Oil Protects the Brain Against Aging
High-fat diets, especially ones that include the MCTs found in coconut oil, can delay brain aging. (16)
Coconut oil possesses antioxidant properties that are important for maintaining a healthy brain. (17)
Antioxidants neutralize damaging free radicals, unattached oxygen molecules that damage cells and hasten their demise.
Every cell in your body is affected by free radical, or oxidative, damage, but brain cells are particularly vulnerable since they use a disproportionate amount of oxygen.
4. Coconut Oil and Depression
Researchers have called coconut oil an “antidepressant functional food” due to its unique combination of medium-chain fatty acids and antioxidants. (18)
Additionally, coconut oil is anti-inflammatory.
This is key because brain inflammation is a contributing factor to depression. (19)
5. Coconut Oil for Stress and Anxiety
Some research suggests that coconut oil combats the effects of psychological and physiological stress. (22)
Conversely, I’ve read a few anecdotal accounts where people with anxiety experience an increase in symptoms when they consume coconut oil.
So if you have anxiety, add coconut oil to your diet slowly and pay close attention to how it makes you feel.
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How to Use Coconut Oil for Brain Health
The best way to consume coconut oil is simply to make it a regular part of your diet.
Substitute it wherever you normally use other vegetable oils like canola, safflower, soy, and sunflower oil.
These oils are highly processed and not as healthy as we’ve been led to believe.
Trans fats cause inflammation and increase the risk of many major diseases including ADHD, depression, bipolar disorder, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity, and cancer. (24)
Unsaturated fats like canola oil easily turn into unhealthy trans fats once heat is applied or upon exposure to air. (25)
Because coconut oil is mostly saturated fat, it is highly stable for cooking and does not become rancid.
This makes coconut oil excellent for frying, sauteing, roasting, and baking.
You can add a dollop when making rice or hot cereal or add it to soups or smoothies.
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 refrigerator; it will turn rock-hard.
One caution is to not drizzle it on salads or make salad dressing with it.
It will immediately solidify when it hits your cool veggies.
Stick with another healthy oil, extra virgin olive oil, for salads.
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Coconut Oil Dosages for Brain Health
A daily intake of 2-3 tablespoons is all you need for general brain benefits.
However, Dr. Mary Newport recommends 4-6 tablespoons per day of a combination of coconut oil and MCT oil if you are trying to treat serious neurological disorders.
We recommend that you include coconut oil in your diet rather than taking it by the spoonful like medicine.
Most people find this unpleasant and quickly get tired of taking it this way.
And skip coconut oil capsules.
This is an expensive, highly inefficient way to get therapeutic amounts of coconut oil.
Depending on the capsule’s size, you would need to take at least 12 capsules to get one tablespoon of oil.
Coconut Oil Side Effects
Coconut oil has very few reported side effects.
The most common one is digestive upset such as diarrhea and nausea.
This almost always happens when people add too much to their diet too fast.
If this happens to you, start with a teaspoon per day and increase your intake slowly.
And, of course, just like any other food, it’s possible to be allergic to coconut oil.
There are rare reports of people experiencing brain fog, fatigue, or an increase in anxiety or panic attacks when they consume coconut oil.
Concerns About Coconut Oil and Heart Disease
One of the most common concerns people have about eating coconut oil is that it might increase their risk of heart disease.
Old ideas die hard.
Heart disease is virtually unknown in populations where traditional coconut oil consumption is high. (26)
The US 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. (27)
Coconut oil actually improves the metabolic profile by lowering “bad” LDL cholesterol, while increasing “good” HDL cholesterol. (28)
5 Tips for Buying Coconut Oil
When you shop for coconut oil, you’ll see a lot of variation on packaging labels.
Here are five simple tips to help you pick a high-quality coconut oil:
- Avoid any coconut oil that says “partially hydrogenated” on the label.
- “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. (29)
- Don’t pay more for “extra virgin” coconut oil. There is no industry standard for the terms “virgin” or “extra virgin.” Both are usually expeller-pressed from dried coconut.
- Keep in mind that virgin coconut oil retains the odor and taste of coconuts.
- Refined coconut oil is taste and odor-neutral. This is a good option if you don’t want everything you eat to taste and smell like coconuts. Stick with quality brands that use steam processing.
Coconut Oil and the Brain: Take the Next Step
Coconut oil is a traditional food that has been historically enjoyed by much of the world.
Its brain-healthy qualities are mainly due to medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) which deliver energy directly to brain cells, bypassing glucose metabolism.
Coconut oil has been found helpful for mood and neurological disorders, brain aging, and serious cognitive decline.
Switching from vegetable oils to coconut oil is one of the easiest lifestyle changes you can make to build a better brain.