Coconut oil offers unique benefits for the brain, including the potential to treat neurological disorders. Learn how to use coconut oil for brain health.
The versatile coconut palm, Cocos nucifera, is so important in some cultures that 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.
Dr. Jon Kabara writes 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.”
There’s also a growing body of evidence that coconut oil is equally as beneficial for your brain health and function as it is for the rest of you.
Why Your Brain Needs 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)
You may have heard that coconut oil can increase your cholesterol level.
And that may be a good thing for your brain!
Your brain specifically needs cholesterol.
The brain has a higher cholesterol content than any other organ with about 25% of the body’s cholesterol found in the brain. (5)
Low cholesterol increases the risk of suicide, depression, and dementia. (6)
The risk of dementia is reduced by 70% in those with high cholesterol. (7)
Dr. David Perlmutter, neurologist and author of the bestseller Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth about Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar–Your Brain’s Silent Killers, asserts that you should look at cholesterol as your brain’s friend.
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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.
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 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 the best source of MCTs.
Your brain is a hungry little organ.
At just three pounds, it uses 20% of your daily energy input. (8)
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 it.
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 as a source of brain energy.
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.
5 Benefits of Coconut Oil 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 the positive claims made are actually true.
Here are some of the highlights of the benefits of coconut oil for the brain that are backed by scientific research.
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 sometimes called type 3 diabetes.
In this disease, brain cells become insulin-resistant, don’t get the glucose they need, and subsequently die.
Coconut oil bypasses glucose metabolism, getting energy directly to the brain cells that need it. (9)
Related on Be Brain Fit —
Coconut Oil for Alzheimer’s and Dementia: The Evidence
PET scans show that the areas of the brain affected by Alzheimer’s have no problem taking up ketones. (10)
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.
Related on Be Brain Fit —
How MCT Oil Benefits Brain Health
Dr. Newport wrote a detailed account of her husband’s progress and her struggle to get the medical establishment to consider a coconut oil treatment in Alzheimer’s Disease: What If There Was a Cure?.
Currently, Alzheimer’s patients can get a prescription-only “medical food” called Axona that utilizes 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, including all forms of dementia, Parkinson’s, stroke, and traumatic brain injury. (14)
She recently did a podcast interview in which 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)
Free radicals are 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 because 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 and brain inflammation is now thought to be a contributing factor to depression. (19)
5. Coconut Oil for Stress and Anxiety
There’s no scientific evidence that coconut oil helps anxiety; however, a few studies show that coconut oil can help combat the effects of stress. (20)
Since stress is a component in anxiety, it could have some minor anti-anxiety properties.
However, I’ve read many anecdotal cases where people with anxiety experience an increase in symptoms, including panic attacks, when they consume coconut oil.
So if you have anxiety, add coconut oil to your diet slowly and pay close attention to your anxiety level.
How to Use Coconut Oil for Brain Health
The best way to consume coconut oil is to make it a regular part of your diet.
Use it wherever you normally use other vegetable oils.
Trans fats cause inflammation and increase the risk of many major diseases including ADHD, depression, bipolar disorder, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity, and cancer. (22)
Because coconut oil is mostly saturated fat, it highly stable for cooking and less likely to become rancid.
Unsaturated fats like canola oil easily turn into unhealthy trans fats once heat is applied or upon exposure to air. (23)
Coconut oil is excellent for frying, sauteing, roasting, and baking.
Related on Be Brain Fit —
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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 or 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 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.
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.
Some people report 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. (24)
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. (25)
Coconut oil actually improves the metabolic profile by lowering “bad” LDL cholesterol while increasing “good” HDL cholesterol. (26)
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. (27)
- 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 unhealthy vegetable oils to coconut oil is one of the simplest and healthiest lifestyle changes you can make.