Is Coconut Oil a Solution for Alzheimer's?

Some researchers are saying coconut oil might safely and effectively improve symptoms of Alzheimer's disease.

Coconut oil is a good source of fats known as medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs). These types of fats are broken down by the liver into ketones, which can supply quick energy to the brain in the absence of carbohydrates. Normally, the brain uses glucose as its primary fuel and the liver only produces an abundance of ketones to keep the brain and other organs working when there is a shortage of other nutrients. These circumstances occur during periods of fasting or starvation, or when there is a severe shortage of carbohydrates in the diet to provide glucose.

The theory behind using coconut oil to treat Alzheimer's is that the disease interferes with the brain's ability to use glucose, and ketones can be used instead to fuel affected brain cells. Consuming oils rich in MCTs is an established way of boosting blood levels of ketones.

An extremely high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet, known as a ketogenic diet because it forces the body to produce more ketones, has been clinically shown to improve symptoms in people with brain disorders, and a medically controlled version of this type of diet has been shown to be safe in humans. But the diet, which gets at least 90 percent of its calories from fat and as few as 2 percent calories from carbohydrates, is not practical because it is not palatable. Because the MCTs in coconut oil are metabolized differently than other types of fats, it can be taken as a supplement to a more normal diet to achieve similar effects.

There are good reasons not to "self medicate" with coconut oil or use coconut oil often in cooking in place of healthy fats such as olive oil and canola oil. For one thing, it is unclear how coconut oil affects the risk of developing heart disease. Coconut oil is a saturated fat and, as such, can raise blood fat and unhealthy LDL cholesterol levels. Like other MCTs, however, coconut oil is more likely to be broken down to produce energy than to be stored as body fat. That makes the saturated fat in coconut oil different from the saturated fats found in foods like butter, meat, and other tropical oils.  Coconut oil may actually increase blood levels of healthy HDL cholesterol but, overall, studies of its effects on blood fats and cholesterol have shown inconsistent results.

According to the Alzheimer's Association, any reports of coconut oil actually helping someone with Alzheiemer's Disease have been strictly anecdotal, with no scientific evidence to back them up. Ongoing research is looking at the effect of MCT supplementation on brain function. But at this point, it is unclear whether or not MCTs from coconut oil or any other source are actually beneficial or that their effect, if there is one, is even significant.



Alzheimer's Association: Alternative Treatments

Berkeley Wellness Letter: Can Coconut Oil Treat Alzheimer's? June 2012 Web Aug 2012's/

Costantini, L. et al; "Hypometabolism as a Therapeutic Target in Alzheimer's Disease" BioMed Central Neuroscience 2008;9(Suppl 2): S16

Cunnane, S. et al; "Brain Fuel Metbolism, Aging and Alzheimer's Disease"  Nutrition 2011 Jan;27(1):3-20

New York University: Tropical Oils