Very recently, there seems to be a flood of websites and blogs all touting coconut oil as a "cure" for Alzheimer’s disease. One website states the following:
"… However there is a way to both prevent and reverse Alzheimer’s Disease…the solution involves coconut ketones --- a high energy brain food."
The craze for coconut oil as a memory aid can be attributed to Dr. Mary Newport, M.D., in her book "Alzheimer’s Disease: What If There Were a Cure — The Story of Ketones."
This book is a fascinating account of how coconut oil helped her husband’s symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease and it is very hopeful. However, it is merely an extended case study or a testimonial — the result of one person’s experience. There are no clinical trials on the use of coconut oil for Alzheimer’s disease.
Dr. Newport did not devise this theory herself. Instead, she based her ideas on the science behind the development of an experimental drug called Ketasyn. In a pilot study on Alzheimer’s patients, Ketasyn was found to improve memory in 47 percent of the subjects tested.
Ketasyn research was ultimately abandoned after Phase II Clinical Trials, but the key ingredient was later marketed as a medical food called Axona.
Medical foods do not have to go through the same rigorous testing as pharmaceutical drugs — they are usually used as an adjunct to conventional treatments and offer symptomatic relief only.
The active ingredient in Axona is caprylic acid from coconut oil. Dr. Newport substituted a combination of pure, extra virgin (non-hydrogenated) coconut oil, coconut milk, MCT oil and other coconut food products in her husband’s diet to achieve similar amounts of MCTs as the medical food. Her husband improved dramatically and her book is the result of this healing journey.
The theory behind using coconut oil for Alzheimer’s Disease rests on the observation that the brains of Alzheimer’s patients have neurons (nerve cells) that are insulin resistant — they no longer effectively use glucose (blood sugar) as a fuel.
For this reason, some medical researchers feel that Alzheimer’s Disease is in fact a form of "Diabetes of the Brain." Insulin resistant cells can’t use glucose, but they can use ketone bodies as an alternate fuel source.
Typically, a ketogenic diet is used to elevate ketone bodies in the bloodstream. A ketogenic diet is very low in carbohydrate and high in protein and fats. It is extremely difficult to follow and is very unpalatable.
Coconut oil is a rich source of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), such as caprylic acid, which is easily changed into ketone bodies in the liver when ingested. These ketones can act as an alternate fuel source for the brain. Adding MCTs to the diet mimics the benefits of a ketogenic diet without having to change the amount of carbohydrate in the diet.
One important point which is overlooked in all of the Internet hype about coconut oil and its benefits for Alzheimer’s Disease is that in the original studies that were done on Ketasyn, the patients were also taking conventional drugs for Alzheimer’s Disease.
Also, the researchers used a highly purified form of caprylic acid — not coconut oil. Most importantly, we shouldn’t confuse symptom improvement with prevention.
There is absolutely no research that shows a preventive effect of either MCTs or coconut oil on dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease. Lastly, one should be careful not to extrapolate from this research that MCTs or coconut oil can improve memory in a general sense, as the benefits are confined to those with Alzheimer’s disease.
Coconut oil is a very stable oil that doesn’t easily oxidize when heated. It tastes wonderful and can be used in cooking as a replacement for butter. Coconut oil has many other health benefits and can be safely used as part of a healthy diet.
Be aware that large amounts of coconut oil and MCT oil can cause gas, bloating and diarrhea. If you want to add coconut oil to your diet, start out slowly and gradually increase the amount, so that you minimize these side effects.
Adding coconut oil to the diet of a person with Alzheimer’s Disease is certainly not harmful and may even be beneficial. Clearly, more research is needed, especially human clinical trials.
But until there is a cure for this most devastating illness, caregivers and loved ones might look to the humble coconut for hope.