NancyH, an AgingCare.com caregiver, wants to know:
"Does coconut oil help people who have Alzheimer's disease?"
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It's a question that, as it turns out, is surprisingly difficult to answer.
Could it help?
"Absolutely it could," says Carolyn Dean, M.D., N.D., medical director for the Nutritional Magnesium Association.
According to Dean, the potential health benefits of coconut oil have been celebrated since ancient times by different cultures around the world. It's been used as an anti-fungal treatment, a hair-strengthener and a skin softener.
Coconut oil, classified as a medium-chain triglyceride, may even be beneficial for people suffering from other incurable diseases, such as Parkinson's, Multiple Sclerosis and ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease).
Dean witnessed the potential curative power of coconut oil while working with individuals suffering from HIV and AIDS. "We started getting stories about people with HIV that took coconut oil and felt better. As the testimonials started growing, all of us began to realize that there must be something to it."
But, to understand how coconut oil could help someone with Alzheimer's disease, one must first examine the connection that exists between blood sugar, the human brain and diabetes.
The diabetes-dementia link
Sugar (glucose) is a brain cell's preferred form of fuel.
Brain scans of Alzheimer's sufferers indicate that, as the disease progresses, certain sections of the brain start to have trouble using sugar as energy—an issue not unlike the problem that diabetics have when their bodies can no longer produce the insulin necessary to ferry glucose into their cells.
The outcomes of an increasing number of scientific studies have begun to highlight the connection between diabetes and Alzheimer's. The link has become so strong that some medical professionals have even gone so far as to dub Alzheimer's disease, "Type III diabetes."
Diabetics who don't keep their blood sugar levels in check can experience a certain amount of cognitive impairment, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Japanese researchers recently discovered that people with diabetes have an overall increased risk of developing dementia, regardless of whether their disease is well managed, or not.
On the flip side, people with mild Alzheimer's have been found to derive a minor memory boost, after receiving insulin, according to scientists from the University of Washington, School of Medicine.
Coconut oil, ketones and Alzheimer's disease
What does all of this have to do with coconut oil helping people with Alzheimer's disease?
Coconut oil advocates believe that the cognitive benefits experienced by people with Alzheimer's can be traced to so-called "ketone bodies," the biological byproducts of the coconut oil digestion process. Ketone bodies are one of the few things that can serve as an alternate fuel source for brain cells when glucose isn't available or cannot be absorbed as efficiently (as is the case in people with Alzheimer's).
The human body doesn't typically produce many ketone bodies on its own, unless a person is following a diet that is extremely low in carbohydrates. However, consuming coconut oil can create a temporary state of hyperketonemia—where the number of ketone bodies in a person's blood stream is greatly elevated.
The saturated fat stigma
Predictions of an oncoming onslaught of aging Americans threatening to cripple an already wounded health care system are ringing in the ears of researchers and public officials alike. Every major drug company is currently questing after the elusive cure for dementia.
So why does it seem like no one is talking about coconut oil as a potential therapy for Alzheimer's disease?
Dean feels that many people are hesitant to give coconut oil serious consideration because it has been given the black mark of a saturated fat. Coconut oil is often included in the same list with well-known artery-clogging culprits, such as butter, beef, lard, and whole fat dairy products.
But, Dean maintains that just because coconut oil does indeed qualify as a saturated fat, that doesn't necessarily mean that it's "bad" for you.
"All of these traditional foods and oils have benefits. Our society wouldn't have survived if they were taking something that was bad for them," she says.
The body (and the brain), need a variety of oils and fats. Coconut oil, in particular, is a very efficient fat, according to Dean.
Each neuron in the human brain has a fatty outer coating, called a myelin sheath, which is constantly being replaced as new fats are consumed in a person's diet. Dean says that swapping unhealthy trans-fats (found in pre-packaged and processed foods) with the more wholesome fats found in coconut oil will provide better building blocks for brain cells.
It's important to keep in mind that anecdotal evidence of success has, thus far, not led to large-scale research studies on the efficacy of coconut oil for Alzheimer's disease. This is why many doctors don't mention coconut oil as a possible therapeutic option for people experiencing cognitive impairment. (Discover what every caregiver should know about Alzheimer's research)
Giving coconut oil a chance
A lack of physician backing doesn't mean that caregivers should immediately write off coconut oil as a possible Alzheimer's therapy.
Coconut oil comes in either liquid or pill form. Proponents typically recommend using anywhere from 3-5 tablespoons of coconut oil per day for the treatment of Alzheimer's disease.
Liquid coconut oil can be used in a variety of different ways. You can stir a few tablespoons into a loved one's oatmeal, yogurt or smoothie. You can also replace vegetable oil or butter with coconut oil when sautéing vegetables or meats, especially in a stir-fry.
In the absence of formal clinical trials, it's hard to say whether the anecdotal evidence surrounding the benefits of coconut oil for Alzheimer's disease is fact or fluke, but there's really very little downside to giving it a chance. "Being a food, coconut oil is very safe and it can be very beneficial," says Dean. (Here are a few more examples of some quick and healthy foods for picky eaters)
However, it's important to bear in mind that coconut oil is considered a saturated fat and has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a treatment for any kind of ailment.
Also, the FDA cautions people to keep their consumption of saturated fats to a minimum. Too much saturated fat can lead to high levels of "bad" (LDL) cholesterol and an increased risk for developing heart disease.
Especially if a loved one has heart issues, it is advisable to at least mention that you're considering using coconut oil as an alternative therapy for Alzheimer's to their doctor first. A physician may not be able to recommend the oil as a remedy, but you should always keep your loved one's doctor updated on any major dietary changes.
As with any new therapy, it's important to do your research and find the best variety of coconut oil. Try to use only non-hydrogenated and trans-fat free versions, often referred to as "virgin" coconut oil. And start slowly. Some people experience feelings of extreme fullness and diarrhea when they first begin taking coconut oil.