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The Benefits of Coconut Oil: Magic or Myth?

It’s been touted as the cure-all to a long list of ailments – but is it?

We’re all seeking that silver bullet – the quick and easy remedy to our health woes. And, if you wholly digest the now widely disseminated information about coconut oil, you may think you have found it.

Coconut oil has been touted as a key factor in the treatment of everything from dry skin to diabetes. Just look at the list of disorders it’s meant to impact: cholesterol, blood pressure, weight loss, Alzheimer’s, stress, digestion, bone health, HIV and cancer. Dr. Mehmet Oz says coconut oil has superpowers. Dr. Joseph Mercola says the benefits are “near miraculous.”

So what is this stuff? And how can it claim to have these amazing healing claims?

There are two components in coconut oil that are the reason for all the attention. You may recall that coconut has gotten a bad rap for years because of its high level of saturated fat. But the majority of its saturated fats are medium chain triglycerides, of which lauric acid is a chief component.

Medium chain triglycerides, or MCTs, metabolize differently from other fats by going directly to your liver, where they are quickly burned off as fuel rather than getting stored in fat tissue. Coconut oil is used often by athletes for this reason, but it’s also the science behind the weight loss claim, although that hasn’t yet been supported by large-scale research. That’s not to say the benefit doesn’t exist, but it’s likely modest and needs to complimented by other lifestyle decisions if weight loss is the desired outcome.

The body also converts the lauric acid into monolaurin, a compound found not only in coconut oil and coconut milk but in human breast milk, which has exhibited anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties. It’s been used to treat infections, colds, flu, herpes, shingles and even chronic fatigue syndrome, although much of this success is still in laboratory testing. Still, a natural anti-bacterial, anti-fungal isn’t to be sneezed at, especially in a form that can be easily incorporated into your diet.

One of the most surprising treatments is the use of coconut oil with neurodegenerative diseases. Normally, our brain uses the glucose metabolized from the foods we eat as fuel, but age and environment can prevent effective uptake of glucose and cause starvation in the brain. When that happens, our body switches to using ketones, products of fat metabolism.

In degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, the hormone that normally brings glucose to our cells has become ineffective, but ketones produced by medium chain triglycerides are released immediately into the bloodstream to be used as fuel. The theory is that if the ketone level in the brain can be raised in neurodegenerative patients, then some brain function may be restored.

Research done by a Florida pediatrician has advanced this theory, but other research hasn’t yet borne it out. That doesn’t mean the MCTs in coconut oil may not be beneficial, only that they may not have as staggering an effect as many hope. Anecdotal evidence continues to support the benefits.

It’s worth exploring coconut oil, which can be used in cooking (it has a high smoke point) or just taken on a spoon (smoothies are a good way to incorporate it) as part of a healthy lifestyle, as long as you’re not expecting a silver bullet.

 

Mary Porter is a nutrition counselor living in the Fort Hunt area. You can email her at mary@betterplate.com

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