Can coconut oil treat or prevent Alzheimer's disease? What are the benefits of coconut oil and MCTs for brain health?
There’s a lot of buzz right now about coconut oil being good for your brain. The primary argument is that coconut oil is rich in medium-chain triglycerides, or MCTs, which are metabolized a little differently than most types of fat. The MCTs in coconut oil break down into ketones, which can be used by brain cells for fuel. The idea is that supplying the brain with some extra fuel might make it run better.
Under normal circumstances, brain cells use glucose for energy. But because your brain is so important to your survival, there’s a back-up plan. If you run out of glucose, your body starts to convert stored fats into ketones, which are transported to the brain. It’s a little like having a back-up generator for your house. If you lose power during a storm, the back-up generator will kick in to keep the lights on.
Although it’s certainly better than being in the dark, most back-up generators are designed to be used only in emergencies until regular power is restored. Similarly, although they will gladly use ketones when no other energy source is available, healthy brain cells will preferentially burn glucose if it’s available.
So the fact that coconut oil supplies ketones doesn’t necessarily mean that the brain will use them for fuel. And perhaps that’s why I can’t find any studies showing that simply adding coconut oil to the diet leads to improvement in cognitive function in people with normal brain function.
Can Coconut Oil Treat Alzheimer’s Disease?
People with Alzheimer’s disease, on the other hand, do not have normal brain function. In Alzheimer’s disease, brains cells can become resistant to the effects of insulin, meaning that they don’t take up glucose very effectively. This has led some to describe Alzheimer’s disease as “Diabetes of the Brain,” although this is a bit of an oversimplification.
PET scans of Alzheimer’s patients show that areas of the brain that are having trouble utilizing glucose will readily take up ketones. So the idea that coconut oil could help people with Alzheimer’s by providing an alternate source of fuel is completely reasonable. This theory has been popularized by Mary Newport, a physician who gave coconut oil to her own husband, who was suffering from fairly severe Alzheimer’s dementia, and noticed a dramatic improvement in his cognitive function.
Of course, this was only one patient and coconut oil was only one of several alternative therapies Dr. Newport was trying at the same time. So it’s hard to say how much of the effect she observed was due to the coconut oil. It’s also quite possible (as well as completely understandable) that her assessment may have been influenced by her intense emotional involvement in the situation.
Sadly, her husband lost his battle with Alzheimer’s earlier this year. But Dr. Newport continues to promote a protocol involving large amounts of coconut oil and MCTs as a potential therapy for Alzheimer’s. However, there are still plenty of unresolved questions—not just about the effectiveness of this therapy, but also about its safety. In a recent review of the evidence published in Current Psychiatry Reports, the authors conclude that “the use of coconut oil is not recommended for those suffering from AD [because]… the potential benefit does not outweigh the risks.”