As we get older, defects begin to develop in our nervous system, our brain loses some of its intellectual capacity, and the risk of developing diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s increases. Alzheimer’s disease is currently the fastest-growing age-related disease with over 850,000 people thought to be suffering from dementia in the UK.
There is a growing amount of research and anecdotal evidence that the medium chain fatty acids or triglyceride found in coconut oil are broken down in the liver to produce ketones and these ketones help to “feed the brain”.
A theory now exists, that dementia could a sort of diabetes of the brain. Just as diabetics have problems with glucose and insulin, similarly Alzheimer’s sufferers can’t get enough glucose into brain cells to give them the energy they need to make new memories and think clearly. And interestingly, if you suffer with diabetes you are x3 more likely to develop Alzheimer’s. It’s thought that getting extra ketones into brain cells provides the brain with an alternative source of fuel.
Kieran Clarke, Professor of Physiological Biochemistry at Oxford and head of the Cardiac Metabolism Research Group is an expert on the way the body makes and uses energy and her research explains that coconut oil might help with Alzheimer’s by boosting the brain’s energy supply. Most often our brains rely on glucose from carbohydrates but if that is not available – because we haven’t eaten anything for a while or because we are eating almost no carbohydrates – then our brain cells can switch to using the energy from our fat stores that comes in the form of small molecules called ketones. By the time we wake up in the morning we will have made a small amount of them due to the natural fasting period whilst we sleep.
Professor Clarke comments “Coconut oil is interesting, because it contains a particular sort of fat that our bodies can use to make more of the ketone “brain food” without having to cut right back on carbohydrates or go on a fast. It’s known as MCT (medium chain triglyceride) and it is not found in the fats that most of us eat.”
Dr Mary Newport, is a paediatrician in Florida who began using coconut oil to treat her husband with Alzheimer’s seven years ago. He’d been diagnosed with early onset of Alzheimer’s but had seen no benefit from the drugs. With the oil, says Dr Newport, there were positive changes: “he began to get his short-term memory back”. Dr Mary Newport has an interesting you tube clip you may wish to watch which explains her experience and thoughts.
Shop for Spring Chicken’s Organic Virgin Coconut Oil here. £9.95 for 500ml or £17.95 for 1 litre.
There is also Danish-led research suggests that signs of brain aging can be postponed in mice if placed on a high-fat diet. According to research by the Centre for Healthy Aging, University of Copenhagen and the National Institute of Health from an article published in Science Daily last Nov, this could well be the case. The study looked at mice with modified DNA to mimic the Cockayne syndrome on a high-fat diet will postpone aging processes such as impaired hearing and weight loss. Cockayne syndrome is where patients prematurely age as children and die at an age of 10-12 years.
“The study is good news for children with Cockayne syndrome, because we do not currently have an effective treatment. Our study suggests that a high-fat diet can postpone aging processes. A diet high in fat also seems to postpone the aging of the brain. The findings therefore potentially imply that patients with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease in the long term may benefit from the new knowledge,” says Professor Vilhelm Bohr from the Centre for Healthy Aging.
Our brain has a constant need for fuel in the form of either sugar or so-called ketones. Ketones are the brain’s fuel reserve, and, in particular, play an important role in periods of low blood sugar levels, e.g. if you are fasting. This is because the body breaks down fat if it needs sugar, and during this process it produces ketones. The researchers see a particular positive effect when the mice are given the so-called medium chain fatty acids — e.g. from coconut oil. The study has been published in the scientific journal Cell Metabolism.
The issue of whether coconut oil, which is high in saturated fats, poses a threat to the heart is controversial. Dieticians and most doctors claim it does, but paediatrician Dr Newport points out that mother’s milk contains high levels of the fat Lauric acid – most abundant in coconut oil. And previous clinical trial results used hydrogenated coconut oil which we know has a detrimental effect on any oils.
However, professionals are still understandably sceptical of the coconut oil claims. “There is a huge placebo response in Alzheimer’s,” warns Professor Robert Howard, Professor of Old Age Psychiatry and Psychopathology at the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust. “It is a remitting and relapsing disease, there are often times when things seem to be getting better. It is important to protect patients from false hope and not expose them to quackery.”
A placebo controlled trial happening in the States to test the effectiveness of coconut oil is due to present findings in Sept. For more information on this trial click here.
We eagerly await these results but if favourable that should make it more medically acceptable. But right now people are hungry for information on anything that might help with Alzheimer’s.
What we do know is that in countries where the majority of the diet is rich in coconuts there are less health issues like obesity, heart disease, liver disease and diabetes, so even if the jury is still out on coconut oil’s benefits to our mind in moderation it’s a healthy alternative to other oils, butters and spreads.