Your Brain On Coconut Oil: What The Science is Saying

Coconut oil

Coconut oil. It's been all over people's “brain waves” lately. 

“It'll help you burn fat.” 

“Swish it around your teeth.”

“Blend it into your coffee.”

But what about for your noggin?  Can coconut oil help?

Before we dive into why coconut oil is a NeuroTrition-approved source of fat, let's first dig into what makes it special.

Coconut oil’s special fats

Coconut oil is extracted from coconuts, but you can see it's different from other plant oils as it is a white solid at room temperature. That's because it's mostly (90%) saturated fat.

You may have heard that saturated fats are bad for your health, but recent research has been showing that we may have been wrong about the dangers of saturated fats all along. 

Not only that, but coconut oil contains a special kind of saturated fat.

In fact, most (65%) of the fat in coconut oil is a mix of different “medium-chain triglycerides” (MCTs).  This is not the same kind of saturated fat you find in dairy and conventional meats.

Coconut oil’s medium-length chains are easily absorbed and go straight to the liver where, unlike other fats,  they’re quickly metabolized (i.e. converted) into energy as special molecules called “ketones.”

Ketones can be a great brain fuel, and have been shown to help with several brain disorders such as Alzheimer's and epilepsy.

Ketones can be a great brain fuel, and have been shown to help with several brain disorders such as Alzheimer's and epilepsy.

How MCTs can help with Alzheimer's disease

Coconut has been called a “potential cognitive strengthener” when it comes to Alzheimer's disease, and it's all because of those ketones.

Basically, your brain uses carbohydrates as its primary fuel. However, in people with Alzheimer’s, there appears to be a reduced ability to use carbohydrates in certain parts of the brain. In fact, this change has been observed in people before they went on to develop symptoms of Alzheimer’s, so that makes it even more important for all of us.

Because ketones are one of the brain's “backup” fuels, researchers have been studying the use of ketones from MCTs as an alternative energy source for those malfunctioning brain cells.

In addition to their role as brain fuel, ketones have also been shown to help protect brain neurons from the negative effects of beta-amyloid peptide (the stuff responsible for forming the brain plaques found in Alzheimer’s patients), which can start to accumulate in the brain years before symptoms of Alzheimer’s appear.

Several small clinical studies have shown that when some people with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s eat a diet rich in MCTs, they had improved memory, attention, and cognition.

Several small clinical studies have shown that when some people with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s eat a diet rich in MCTs, they had improved memory, attention, and cognition. 

Research is ongoing, and more is needed to better understand the role MCTs may play in reducing the risk, and improving symptoms of Alzheimer’s, but the results so far seem promising. We’ll keep reporting on where the science in this fascinating area goes, so stay tuned!

How MCTs can help with seizures

Here is another possible use of coconut oil for the brain, again because of its metabolism into ketones.

Several decades ago, a “ketogenic diet” was successfully used to reduce seizures in some children with epilepsy, and is still currently being used to help reduce severity and frequency of pediatric seizures. This diet is a very low carb, very high fat diet.

Because this diet can be difficult to maintain, researchers found that supplementing a “regular” diet with MCTs (from coconut oil) can help increase the body's ketones without requiring a full ketogenic diet.

In fact, adding MCT oil to certain people's diet had marked reduction in the frequency of seizures, and has been shown in several clinical studies to have a similar efficacy as a full ketogenic diet.

What type of coconut oil is recommended?

Before running out to buy some coconut oil, know that all coconut oil is not created equal.

First off there is conventional coconut oil which is extensively processed (including the use of chemical solvents) and has no aroma or taste. So do the sniff test—and avoid the bland stuff.

On the other hand, there is “Extra Virgin Coconut Oil” (EVCO) which is expelled out at cooler temperatures, without the use of solvents. This process preserves some of the “coconutty” aroma and taste, as well as some of the antioxidant polyphenols (antioxidant compounds found in plant food sources). This is why we recommend virgin coconut oil for your overall health and your brain.

No, you don't need to eat it with a spoon right out of the jar. You can use it in a lot of regular cooking. As with all fats, it is best if used at temperatures below its smoke point to avoid damaging the oil.  Because coconut oil is mostly saturated fat, it’s also quite heat-stable. For EVCO, that heat-stable temperature is 350F. That means it's great for most baking, and you can even fry it at a low-medium setting*. 

Note: Beware of “hydrogenated” coconut oil.  Hydrogenating any oil, not just coconut oil, creates the infamous “trans fats” that wreak havoc on your whole body, including your brain.

Wondering how to get coconut oil into your diet? Coconut oil is in various coconut products, plus it can be made into countless recipes. Here are our top NeuroTrition-approved ways to get your coconut oil.

5 best ways to get coconut oil

1. Extra Virgin Coconut Oil (obviously!)

2. Coconut butter. You can use store-bought OR make your own.

3. Coconut whipped cream. This recipe will come in handy as the holiday season approaches.

4. Full fat coconut milk. But we recommend the coconut milk sold in BPA-free cans! The kind in cartons is often watered-down, lower in fat, and also can be packed with thickeners and preservatives that you might want to avoid. 

5. Coconut crème. Add this to dessert recipes, coffee, lattes. Yum!

We clearly love coconut oil, use it whenever we can in our Brain Food Menus and confidently push back on the haters by arming ourselves with the latest research. So now you can, too!

* Refined coconut oil has a smoke point of 400F so you can take refined coconut oil to a much higher temp and cook with it at really high heat, but we recommend using EVCO, at a lower heat. 

Contributions to this article provided by Dr. Matthew Hill, PhD.

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