Thinking About Coconut Oil

coconutThink about this.  What has no mass, doesn’t occupy space, has no mobility, cannot be touched and yet exists?  A thought!  And what a mysterious thing it is!  Just about all we know for sure is that it is created in the brain and that there is an energy requirement to generate it.

Whenever we think, the brain “burns” more glucose, which is its main fuel supply.  It stands to reason that any sort of inhibition of this glucose metabolism can have a profound effect on brain function.  We know, for example, that a rapid drop in blood glucose, as can be precipitated by an overdose of insulin, quickly causes a deterioration in cognitive performance.  This is because so much glucose is absorbed by muscle cells that little is left for the brain.

Alzheimer’s disease is characterized by a progressive decline in the rate of glucose metabolism in the brain.  This impaired use of glucose is paralleled by a decline in scores on cognitive tests.  Exactly why glucose use is affected in Alzheimer’s is not clear.  It may be a function of the buildup of “amyloid” protein deposits that are the hallmark of the disease, although it is also possible that the deposits are not the cause, but the result of impaired metabolism.  In any case, improving the brain’s ability to generate energy in the face of low glucose metabolism seems a worthy avenue to explore.

The most obvious approach would be to supplement the diet with glucose and provide sufficient insulin for its absorption into cells.  But insulin cannot easily be delivered specifically to the brain and its systemic administration can cause problems in other tissues.  So is there another option?  A clue can be found in studies of people who are experiencing starvation.  When there is a lack of glucose available from the diet, the body tries to meet the brain’s demand for energy by tapping its abundant stores of body fat.

Fat, however, cannot be used directly as fuel, it first has to be converted to smaller molecules called “ketone bodies.”  The buildup of these in the bloodstream results in “ketosis,” a condition that is not encountered when there is an adequate intake of carbohydrates, the source of glucose.  It can, however, occur in diabetes when an insulin shortage prevents glucose absorption into cells which then have to resort to the use of ketone bodies to supply energy.  That’s why acetone, a “ketone body,” appears in the breath of diabetics who fail to administer their insulin properly.  Ketosis can also be encountered when low carbohydrate regimens such as the Atkins diet are followed.  It is the breakdown of fat to yield ketone bodies that results in weight loss.

Now back to Alzheimer’s disease.  An extremely low carbohydrate diet can conceivably increase ketone bodies delivered to the brain, but such diets are difficult to follow and may not be healthy for other reasons.  But there may be another approach.  It turns out that not all forms of dietary fat are handled by the body the same way.  So-called “long chain fatty acids,” composed of at least twelve carbons, as found mostly in animal products, are readily stored by the body, whereas the “medium chain fatty acids” that contain six to twelve carbons tend to be metabolized in the liver to ketone bodies.  This presents a potential therapeutic application for Alzheimer’s disease.  Why not just supplement the diet with medium chain fatty acids?  They’re not hard to find.  You don’t have to look further than coconut oil.

At least one published trial lends support to the idea.  Patients in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease showed an improvement in cognitive performance tests administered ninety minutes after treatment with a single forty gram dose of medium chain fatty acids.  This finding flew pretty well under the public radar until pediatrician Dr. Mary Newport’s story started to circulate on the Internet.  Rather it was her husband’s story that got people talking.  Steve Newport was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and was fading quickly.  His wife did what most people do these days; she let her fingers do the walking on the keyboard.  As a physician, she knew that the drug treatments available were not very effective and became intrigued when she came across the research that had linked medium chain fats to increased metabolism in brain cells.  What was to lose by giving her husband a couple of tablespoonfuls of coconut oil every day?

The very next day Steve was scheduled for a routine cognition test and showed a surprising improvement over his previous performances.  Dr. Newport obviously decided to continue the regimen and reports that after two months her husband was once more reading avidly, resumed jogging and even started to do volunteer work at a hospital.  But should he miss his morning oil, he quickly becomes confused and experiences tremors.  Swallowing the regular dose brings quick improvement.  .

So what are we to make of all this?  Is there a cure for Alzheimer’s disease that is being ignored by conventional medicine?  Not likely.  But that is not to say there’s isn’t something to the medium chain fatty acid story.  However, it is a little disturbing that the source for circulating email is an article written by Dr. Frank Shallenberger.  Let’s just say this good doctor is not a candidate for a staff position at Harvard Medical School.  He’s had multiple disciplinary actions for gross incompetence, surrendered his California license and moved to Nevada where he later pleaded guilty to another count of medical malpractice.  He now writes a newsletter about “Real Cures” such as “ozone therapy” and pushes medium chain fatty acids for Alzheimer’s disease.

What we have here is one interesting study published in the literature that in no way shows reversal of Alzheimer’s, an intriguing personal account that begs for independent verification, and some overly optimistic statements from a physician who has had disciplinary actions against him for incompetence.

But let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water.  The theory behind boosting levels of ketones such as acetone to enhance cellular energy production in the brain has merit and needs further exploration.  Don’t think, though, that drinking nail polish remover is the way to go.  But coconut oil?  Well, let’s hold that thought.

Joe Schwarcz

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