Coconut: Science-Based Healing Properties of a Superfood

When discussing wellness, macronutrients like fat, protein and carbohydrates are what come to most minds. In matters of weight and health, a common belief is that fats should be avoided, and even healthy fats like those found in avocado, nuts and olive oil should be included only in moderation. This line of thought says that fats, and particularly saturated fats, all contribute to complications such as obesity and heart disease. Research is showing, however, that there is at least one very big exception to that rule. Coconut, and especially its oil, is one of nature’s superior foods, both nutritionally and medicinally, shown to be effective as an antiviral, antimicrobial, antibacterial high-energy healing food.

The most significant factor that sets coconut apart in its medicinal and nutritional benefits is the oil it contains (Fife, 2005). Fats are categorized as Short-Chain Fatty Acids (SCFAs), Medium- Chain Fatty Acids (MCFAs) and Long-Chain Fatty Acids (LCFAs). The majority of fats we consume are LCFAs, composing at least 98 percent of the average diet. Coconut contains mostly MCFAs (or Medium-Chain Triglycerides/MCTs). Unlike other types of fat, the MCFAs are smaller, and are metabolized differently than LCFAs.

To understand how different the fats from the coconut and its oil behave in the body, it is important to understand how fats are normally processed. When LCFAs are digested, they travel through the stomach and are released into the intestines where almost all of their digestion takes place (Fife, 2005). Digestive enzymes are released from the pancreas along with bile from the gallbladder. As they are digested, the bonds holding the fatty acids together break and individual fatty acids are absorbed into the intestinal wall. Fats and proteins are bundled together as lipoproteins that circulate through the body in the bloodstream, releasing small particles of fat into the blood. This is the source of fat that collects in the fat cells, adding to weight gain, and that collects in and clogs the artery walls. Lipoproteins from LCTs are eventually transformed into LDL, or “bad cholesterol.”

When MCTs are eaten, however, they pass through the stomach into the intestinal tract, as well. But because they digest so easily they are actually broken down completely by the time they leave the stomach (Fife, 2005). Therefore, no pancreatic digestive enzymes or bile are required. This is especially significant for individuals with gallbladder disease, or who have had their gallbladder removed. In the latter case, MCTs would be the only safe fat to consume. Because of this action, people with digestive issues such as IBS, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis and inflammatory bowel disease can also benefit from consuming a diet rich in coconut. The fatty acids from MCTs are immediately absorbed into the portal vein and sent to the liver where they are a source of fuel for energy production. Consequently, the fats from MCTs like those contained within coconut do not circulate in the bloodstream to the same degree as other fats, aren’t packed into fat cells, and do not clog arterial walls.

The idea that fat can be an aid to weight loss stands in contradiction to much of what the population has been taught. However, research demonstrating that in addition to the fact that MCTs are not stored in the fat cells, but they also help people lose already accumulated pounds, is extensive. In a 2009 randomized double-blind study that involved forty women between the ages of 20 and 40 presenting abdominal obesity (Assunçåo et al, 2009), half of the test subjects were fed 30mL of coconut oil a day while the other twenty subjects were given soybean oil in the same dosage. The results of the trial revealed that the group who consumed the coconut oil experienced a reduction of abdominal fat, seemingly due to the ingestion of coconut oil. Another study published in 2008 yielded similar findings (St-Onge et al, 2008), concluding that the consumption of MCTs as part of a healthy diet improves weight loss when compared to olive oil, which contains primarily LCFAs. According to Bruce Fife, PhD (Fife, 2005), coconut oil happens to be the lowest calorie of all the fats (8.6 per gram versus 9 per gram). As previously stated, MCTs are processed as a preferred source of energy by the liver, and are not stored in fat cells. In addition to being burned as energy, they also increase the body’s energy expenditure, thereby boosting the metabolism. Fife cites a study that demonstrated that the consumption of coconut oil increased energy expenditure in normal individuals by 48 percent, and in obese people by an astounding 65 percent. This effect is relatively long-lived, lasting for twenty-four hours after consumption. This is also beneficial for thyroid function. Up to forty percent of the population has some kind of thyroid issues. If function is decreased, all other bodily processes slow, including healing, digestion, immune response and hormone production. MCTs raise metabolism and body temperature, improving hypothyroid conditions. They also enhance the absorption of other nutrients because they are so easily digested. Coconut oil in the diet enhances absorption of minerals like magnesium and calcium, some B vitamins, fat-soluble vitamins, and some amino acids. Multiple research studies show deficiency symptoms diminish when even a small amount of coconut oil is added to the diet.

Coconut oil also satisfies hunger better than other fats (Fife, 2005). Studies have shown that consuming coconut oil yields a satisfied feeling sooner and keeps hunger away longer. Fife goes on to cite a study published in the International Journal of Obesity that found when MCTs are increased in the diet, food (and therefore calorie) consumption decreased. And as demonstrated by the differing percentages of increased energy expenditure between normal and overweight individuals, the thermogenic effects of MCTs in coconut oil adjust proportionately to BMI, suggesting that people who are already thin need not worry that they will become underweight by consuming it.

Obesity is a risk factor for many illnesses including heart disease. Coconut oil has been largely vilified in medical and culinary circles and amongst nutritional authorities as bad for heart health because it is a saturated fat, said to increase cholesterol and clog arteries. As a great number of studies and testimonials continue to reveal, quite the opposite is true. Already presented is how MCTs from coconut are metabolized uniquely and do not enter the bloodstream or build up in arterial walls (Fife, 2005). In a 2004 study (Nevin et al, 2004), rats were fed virgin coconut oil (VCO) for a period of forty-five days. The rats had measurably lower total cholesterol levels, triglycerides, phospholipids, LDL and VLDL levels (“bad cholesterols”), and experienced increased HDL levels (“good cholesterol”). The study also concluded that coconut oil can prevent LDL oxidation by physiological oxidants in vitro, therefore reducing risk for atherosclerosis. In contrast, when coconut oil was removed from the diet, LDL levels are found in increase, HDL levels to decrease by 11.4 percent, and the LDL/HDL ratio to increase by 30 percent (Enig, 1999). Soybean oil, comprised largely of LCFAs, decreases HDL levels, while coconut oil and its MCTs increase HDL. Mary Enig, PhD, F.A.C.N., reports that several types of bacteria and viruses have been shown in research to be connected to artherosclerosis: herpes, cytomegalovirus and chlamydia pneumonia. These bacteria and virus strains are inactivated and/or killed by monolaurin, a substance created through the transformation of lauric acid found in coconut oil.

To better understand the antiviral, antibacterial and antimicrobial benefits of coconut oil, it is important to understand the fatty acids that lend it these qualities, and how MCTs are broken down in the body. Jon Kabara, PhD, first uncovered the antimicrobial effects of MCTs in 1966 (Fife, 2005). Kabara was initially studying MCTs as a potential natural food preservative when the breadth of these capabilities began to reveal themselves. In their full form, MCFAs have no antimicrobial power. They only become effective once the triglycerides are broken down into monoglycerides and their free fatty acids: lauric acid, capric acid and caprylic acid. Each of these has a different effect on different organisms.

Lauric acid, and specifically the monolaurin which it is converted to, is the most powerful of the three fatty acids, and comprises about 50 percent of the fatty acids in coconut oil (Enig, 1999). Monolaurin is an antiviral, antibacterial and anti-protozoal substance that kills lipid-coated viruses such as HIV, herpes, cytomegalovirus, influenza, and pathogenic bacteria, including H. Pylori, and protozoa such as giardia. Many of these benefits have been reported since 1966. Capric acid, which comprises about 6 to 7 percent of the MCFAs in coconut oil, has been studied for it’s antiviral effects against HIV, herpes and chlamydia. Reports show that it has adverse effects on bacteria, yeast, fungi, and enveloped viruses.

To better illustrate the sweeping list of organisms killed by MCTs and conditions improved by them, it is useful to view an extensive, though certainly not exhaustive, list. MCTs kills parasites, such as tapeworm, lice and giardia; disease-causing bacteria, including those that cause stomach ulcers, urinary tract infections, pneumonia, and gonorrhea; yeast and fungi, including ringworm, athlete’s foot and candidiasis; viruses, including influenza, herpes simplex, measles, mononucleosis, hepatitis C, HIV, vesicular stomatitis, visna virus and cytomegalovirus (Enig, 1999).

For over three decades, HIV/AIDS has been considered one of the most destructive and irreversible diseases threatening our population, with no cure and little hope. Surprisingly, in the 1980’s researchers discovered that the MCFAs in coconut oil could kill HIV (Fife, 2005). The first clinical trials with HIV patients were carried out in San Lazaro Hospital in the Philippines in 1999. Fourteen HIV patients between the ages of 22 and 38 were included in the six-month study. None had ever received medical treatment for the virus. Eight of the fourteen subjects experienced reduced viral loads. Five had an increased CD4 count (a measure of the number of white blood cells). Eleven regained weight lost due to the illness. A well-known HIV/AIDS organization, “Keep Hope Alive”, reports many good results with coconut oil. One man dropped his viral load from 600,000 to non-detectable levels in eight weeks by eating a bowl of coconut with fresh cereal daily as part of a diet including healthy fruits and vegetables.

Inflammation accompanies, contributes to and/or signifies many health issues and pathologies. Here, too, the benefits of the MCTs in coconut oil are seen. A 2014 study examined the polyphenolic fraction for virgin coconut oil (PV) against arthritis in rats (Vysakh et al, 2014). A high percentage of edema inhibition was found on the twenty-first day of the study. Inflammatory genes like COX-2, iNOS, TNF-a and IL-6 and the concentration of thiobarbituric acid reactive substance were decreased by the PV treatment. Antioxidant enzymes increased. PV was found beneficial on adjuvant-induced arthritis in rats because of its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. Another study in 2010 found moderate anti-inflammatory action for acute inflammation, and inhibitory effects on chronic inflammation (Intahphuak et al, 2009). Results of the study suggested anti-inflammatory, analgesic and antipyretic properties.

The antioxidant attributes of coconut oil mentioned previously are significant, suggesting benefits for cardiovascular health, detoxification processes, aging, cancer and more. A relevant study in 2013 found that rats fed virgin coconut oil (VCO) compared with capra oil, olive oil and sunflower oil had improved antioxidant status as evidenced by increased activities of catalase, superoxide dismutase (SOD), glutathione peroxidase and glutathione reductase (Arunima et al, 2013). Concentrations of glutathione increased significantly in the liver, heart and kidneys of the rats fed VCO. Paraoxonase 1 activity greatly increased, as well. VCO also prevented oxidative stress. The study concluded that VCO has a beneficial role on improving antioxidant status, thereby preventing lipid and protein oxidation.

Oxidative stress and free radicals are also linked to osteoporosis (Hayatullina, 2012). In 2012 researchers investigated the effects of VCO on bone microarchitecture in postmenopausal osteoporosis rats. Rats fed 8 percent VCO in their diets for six weeks had significantly greater bone volume and trabecular numbers, while their trabecular separation was lower. VCO was concluded to be effective in maintaining bone structure and preventing bone loss in estrogen deficient rats.

Previously cited studies indicated assistance with detoxification processes, including increased glutathione levels in several major organ systems (Arunima et al, 2013). Because the expulsion of toxins from the body is critical to health and disease-prevention, coconut oil’s ability to assist the body with detoxification is profound. Functionally, the fatty acids contained in coconut help detoxify from several different angles (Fife, 2005). First, and extensively covered, are the antimicrobial, antiviral and antibiotic properties of MCTs. Secondly, MCTs are chemically stable which allows them to function as antioxidants protecting the body from free radicals from toxins. Third, as the metabolism increases as part of the thermogenic effects of coconut, detoxification, repair, growth and immune function also increase. And finally, coconut neutralizes the harmful effects of many toxins, including the deadly aflatoxin.

Other benefits and uses of coconut and coconut oil are too many to list, including aches and pains, cancer, hormone balance, acid/alkaline balance, fibromyalgia, sunscreen, kidney disease, liver disease, allergies and sinus infections, gum disease, insomnia (Fife, 2005), and wound healing (Nevin, 2010). The fatty acid composition of coconut, being primarily medium chain triglycerides, and the particular way these are metabolized, set coconut apart from most other foods provided by nature (Fife, 2005). The powerful ability they have to destroy a wide range of bacteria, viruses, parasites and germs extends its healing portfolio across a wide platform. The well-researched and documented effects of coconut and the fats it contains mean it is a “functional food”, bearing not only nutritional but also medicinal benefits, and prove it to be a healing powerhouse and one of nature’s most superior foods.


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