For decades it was believed that the key to weight loss and health was to remove fat from our diets. Now we know that this is far from true. From omega-3 fatty acids to coconut oil, the health benefits of certain fats are becoming common knowledge around the world.
Coconut oil has gained popularity over the last decade thanks to its benefits for use as a healthy cooking oil, addition to our diets, and even use in cosmetics and skin care products. Chances are, if you are a health conscious consumer, that you have a jar of coconut oil in your kitchen right now.
Emerging evidence suggests the health benefits of coconut oil extend far beyond being simply a healthier cooking oil option. Studies suggest a role of coconut oil in optimal brain health and memory function, functioning as an antiviral, antibacterial, antioxidant, and anti inflammatory agent.
What Makes Coconut Oil Unique?
You may have noticed that virgin coconut oil is different from other traditional cooking oils, simply by being solid at room temperature. It is its fat composition that accounts for this difference: coconut oil is 90% saturated fat. (3)
It may surprise you to know that coconut oil is very high in saturated fats, given that diets rich in saturated fats have been tied to cardiovascular disease risk. (1) However, even as far back as 1992, studies have found that coconut oil consumption does not lead to increased total cholesterol, cardiovascular disease, nor a higher mortality rate. (2)
In fact, back in 1978, the per capita consumption of coconuts in Sri Lanka was at 120 coconuts per year. (3) At this time, only one out of every 10,000 deaths in Sri Lanka was related to heart disease. Clearly, the fats in coconut oil are not harmful for cardiovascular health.
So what is it that makes coconut oil different from other foods high in saturated fats?
The saturated fats found in coconut oil are structurally different than those found in animal fats, such as meat, cheese, and milk. While saturated fats found in animal products tend to be made up of long chain fatty acids, over 50% of the fats in coconut oil are medium chain fatty acids, with lauric acid and monolaurin constituting roughly 50% of the fats in coconut oil. (3) It is lauric acid that is largely credited with the health benefits of coconut oil.
What Makes Lauric Acid Better than Other Saturated Fats?
While long chain fatty acids undergo degradation and re-esterification following consumption, medium chain fatty acids are absorbed directly through the small intestine, sent to the liver, and used rapidly for energy. (3)
The unique way by which your body uses lauric acid for energy has many implications for health, one of those on cholesterol. Thanks to this expedited energy process, lauric acid is not involved in the creation or transport of cholesterol, unlike other fats, such as long chain fatty acids.
While fats that must be broken down appear to play a role in diet-related diseases, including obesity, heart disease, and metabolic syndrome, this is not true of medium chain fatty acids like lauric acid.
Does Coconut Oil Help Brain Function?
As coconuts are the food highest in lauric acid content, studies have begun to find a surprisingly wide array of benefits. These include benefits for brain health, memory, brain fog, depression, anxiety, and more. There are three primary ways that it is thought coconut oil may help to benefit brain health: reducing inflammation and oxidation, providing a source of energy for the brain, and boosting neuron survival.
Coconut Oil and Brain Cell Health: Membrane Permeability and Mitochondria
Many of the benefits of coconut oil on brain health are thought to be thanks to increasing brain cell survival, improving membrane permeability, and boosting mitochondrial function.
In in vitro studies, coconut oil treatment was found to help boost neuron survival in cultures treated with amyloid beta. (5) Amyloid beta is a plaque associated with Alzheimer’s disease and age-related memory loss.
This increase in survival compared to cells just treated with amyloid beta was accompanied by attenuated mitochondrial and circularity changes. The mitochondria are the energy powerhouses of our cells, and decreased circularity demonstrated improvements in membrane permeability. (4,5)
Additional benefits were found in the modulation of the Akt and ERK cell signalling pathways. By boosting the activity in these pathways it is believed that coconut oil may help to increase brain cell survival.
These benefits were more profound when the cells were pretreated with coconut oil prior to amyloid beta exposure, demonstrating the likely importance of this fat for those who are healthy to avoid problems that may surface with age.
Coconut Oil and Energy
Traditionally our brains will use carbohydrates, in the form of glucose, as their primary fuel source. (4) Unfortunately, under certain conditions, including Alzheimer’s, the brain is no longer as capable of using glucose for fuel.
At this point, the brain cells are capable of using fats for fuel in the form of ketone bodies or free fatty acids. It is ketone bodies and free fatty acids that are released into our blood when we consume coconut oil, and studies suggest that these provide ketone bodies to our neurons. (4)
There are other times where our brains will utilize fats for fuel: when we have not recently eaten. Coconut oil can help to increase the available ketones for energy production in our brains when we have not recently eaten other food.
Coconut Oil, Inflammation, and Oxidative Stress
Not all of the benefits of coconut oil are thanks to its fat content. Studies have found that this fat has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. (4) This activity is believed to be thanks to the polyphenols and tocopherols (vitamin E and carotenoid) found in coconut oil.
In an in vitro study, it was found that coconut oil decreased the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) when brain cells were exposed to amyloid beta. (4) In another study, polyphenolic compounds isolated from virgin coconut oil were found to be more effective than certain medications at reducing inflammation and boosting antioxidant enzymes in rats with arthritis.
Coconut Oil Promotes Healthy Cholesterol Levels
The benefits of coconut oil on cholesterol appear to be greater than simply not increasing cholesterol thanks to how it is broken down and used for energy in the body. Lauric acid has been shown to enhance cholesterol metabolism, thus promoting healthier cholesterol levels. (4)
Healthy cholesterol levels are critical for brain health. With roughly 25% of the cholesterol found in the body concentrated in the brain, it is important to maintain proper levels of cholesterol. Coconut oil has been found to increase levels of HDL cholesterol, the “good” cholesterol, while not changing overall cholesterol levels. (1) This cholesterol is involved in hormone production and functions as a component of cellular membranes. (10)
Coconut Oil and Brain Health: The Neurological Benefits
Anxiety and Depression
Stress, anxiety, and depression are all tied together. Stressful situations can lead to anxiety, and chronic stress has been tied to the pathology of depression. Additionally, chronic inflammation has been tied to the pathogenesis of depression and anxiety conditions.
Animal studies support the benefits of coconut oil on stress, anxiety, and depression. In a study on mice, virgin coconut oil consumption was found to exert antistress, antidepressant, and antioxidant activity in both a forced swim test and a cold restraint test, two models of stress. (7)
These benefits are likely thanks to the anti inflammatory and antioxidant properties of coconut oil.
Brain Fog and Mental Alertness
When it comes to brain fog and mental alertness, there are no studies that directly examine these benefits, however many users report benefits for brain fog when supplementing with coconut oil.
One plausible explanation for this is that coconut oil provides an alternative source of fuel for the brain when glucose stores are low, or when brain cells are unable to properly utilize glucose, such as in Alzheimer’s disease. Additionally, through reducing inflammation and oxidative stress, it is plausible that coconut oil may lead to a healthier brain that functions at a higher level.
Benefits for Memory
When it comes to the benefits of coconut oil for brain health that have been backed up with abundant research, its benefits on memory for those with Alzheimer’s disease (AD) or dementia are some of the most impressive.
One study on Alzheimer’s patients found that three weeks of supplementation with 40 ml/day extra virgin coconut oil led to improvements in memory and cognitive function. (6) It is thought that the primary reason for this improvement is through the fat that can be used as a source of energy in brain cells.
In AD, brain cells become insulin-resistant, meaning that they are not able to take up and utilize glucose the same way that they were able to previously. When neurons do not have a source of energy, they die. By providing a source of energy in the form of fat rather than glucose, coconut oil appears to have a positive effect on cognition and memory in those with AD and dementia.
Brain Damage: Amyloid Beta and Alzheimer’s Disease
Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is characterized by amyloid beta plaques in the brain, and these plaques are believed to be involved in the pathogenesis of the disease and related decrease in cognition and behavior. (4) Numerous studies have found coconut oil to improve neuronal survival when neurons are exposed to amyloid beta.
These benefits are particularly strong when cells are exposed to coconut oil before they are exposed to amyloid beta. This suggests that coconut oil may be able to help prevent against brain damage associated with age-related cognitive decline and amyloid beta.
ADHD and ADD
While you will find reports scattered across the internet of coconut oil helping with symptoms of ADD or ADHD, presently there have been no studies examining this effect. There have been studies that have found benefits of omega supplementation, suggesting that healthy fats may help those with ADD or ADHD. (9)
How Much Coconut Oil for Memory Improvement?
It is recommended to take approximately 3 tablespoons of coconut oil per day, preferably split into three 1 tablespoon doses over the day. If you suffer from neurological diseases, you could up this to 6 tablespoons per day.
You can either take coconut oil on its own or add it to food. You can use it as a cooking oil, pouring the extra oil from the pan onto your plate to be sure that you are getting enough. Alternatively, you can use coconut milk when making food or smoothies, with approximately 1 tablespoon of coconut oil in ever 3 ounces of coconut milk.
What Kind of Coconut Oil is Best?
When looking for a coconut oil, be sure that the label says:
- Virgin or extra virgin (there is no difference between these two)
- Unrefined (this will have a slight coconut taste, but it is better for you than refined)
- Wet milled
Try to stay away from refined or processed options as they can be heated or bleached, resulting in a loss of healthful benefits.
Much of the research surrounding coconut oil is in its infancy, largely thanks to negative press surrounding saturated fats, which scared people from consuming or studying coconut oil.
Over recent years, the research that has surfaced has been incredibly promising when it comes to the benefits of coconut oil and overall health, particularly brain health, depression, and memory.
Much of these benefits are thought to be thanks to the unique fatty acid profile of coconuts, which are the best dietary source of lauric acid available.
When purchasing coconut oil, be sure to find one that is raw, cold pressed, and unfiltered to experience optimal benefits.