Learn what the medical research archives have to say about coconut oil, a substance which has been described as being of assistance in diabetes, hypothyroidism, weight loss, Alzheimer's disease, candidiasis and other skin conditions, hair health, and finally as a performance aid, providing a sustained energy source for intense workouts.
What Is It?
Coconut Oil is oil extracted from the meat of mature coconuts. This oil has been consumed in tropical diets for many thousands of years. Coconut oil is used in foods and in medical applications. The oil is very stable and is therefore useful in cooking methods such as frying. Its stability also leads to long shelf life of up to two years. The oil is high in saturated fat, and for this reason is targeted, along with other saturated fats, by the Food and Drug Administration, World Health Organization, American Heart Association as a substance which should only be consumed in small quantities. Coconut oil contains large amounts of lauric acid, a saturated fat which raises HDL (good) cholesterol. Furthermore, virgin coconut oil is composed mainly of medium chain triglycerides, which may not carry the same health risks as other saturated fats. Early studies on coconut oil were done with partially hydrogenated coconut oil, which creates trans fats, unlike virgin coconut oil.
Further confusing the issue, there are many research studies pointing to specific and measurable health benefits of coconut oil, so the final word on coconut oil is not really in.
What Does The Medical Research On Coconut Oil Really Say? Is It Healthy Or Unhealthy?
A 4 week open-label study using virgin coconut oil performed in 2011 on 20 obese but healthy Malaysian volunteers found decreased waist circumference of 2.86 cm (over 1 inch) in the male study subjects. Lipid profiles were unchanged, and there was no evidence of liver or kidney toxicity.
A 2011 study on the use of coconut oil as a cosmetic agent found no safety concerns when used for fragrance, hair treatment or skin treatment.
A 2011 study on 1,839 Filipino women age 35-69 years found that Dietary coconut oil intake was positively associated with high density lipoprotein (HDL, "good" cholesterol) cholesterol especially among pre-menopausal women, suggesting that coconut oil intake is associated with healthy lipid profiles. Coconut oil consumption was not significantly associated with low density lipoprotein (LDL, "bad" cholesterol) cholesterol or triglyceride values. The authors concluded that the relationship of coconut oil to cholesterol profiles needs further study in populations in which coconut oil consumption is common.
A 2011 study on mice found that conjugated linoleic acid induced lipolysis (fat breakdown) in mice fed coconut oil but not in mice fed soy oil.
A 2011 rodent study showed virgin coconut oil to have both antinociceptive (anti-pain) and anti-inflammatory effects.
A 2011 study on rats showed virgin coconut oil to have a hepatoprotective (liver protective) effect
at doses of 10mL/kg.
A 2010 study on diabetic rats found that coconut oil caused the rats to have significant decreases in total cholesterol and non-HDL (bad) lipid levels. Rats fed coconut oil also showed improved anti-oxidant capabilities and improved glucose tolerance. The conclusion was that lauric acid present in coconut oil may protect against diabetes-induced dyslipidemia.
A 2011 study on rats heart cell mitochondria (energy producing organelles or components of the cells) showed that rats fed coconut oil were found to have a strong protection against oxidative stress in their heart mitochondria.
A 2010 study on rats found that ingestion of repeatedly heated coconut oil caused a genotoxic and preneoplastic (precancerous) change in the liver.
A 2010 study on rats showed anti-inflammatory, analgesic (anti-pain), and antipyretic (anti-fever) effects of virgin coconut oil.
A 2010 study on rats showed that virgin coconut oil applied to skin wounds on the rats caused much faster healing of the wounds versus untreated wounds.
A 2010 study on rabbits concluded that in the absence of cholesterol supplementation, coconut oil intake up to 30% of daily energy supply (calories) did not cause hypercholesterolemia or oxidative stress.
A 2009 study on rats found that virgin coconut oil (VCO, extracted by wet process), as compared to copra coconut oil (CO, extracted by dry process), showed that lipid (blood fat) and lipid peroxide levels were lower in VCO-fed animals than in animals fed either CO or cholesterol alone. Antioxidant enzyme activities in VCO-fed animals were comparable with those in control animals. components called polyphenols from VCO also showed significant free radical-scavenging activity compared with those from CO. The authors concluded that the study clearly indicated the potential benefits of VCO over CO in maintaining (healthy) lipid metabolism and antioxidant status.
A 2009 study found that lauric acid from coconut oil demonstrated "great potential" for becoming a safe and effective therapeutic medication for acne vulgaris (acne) and associated diseases.
A 2009 randomized, double-blind study on 40 abdominally obese women aged 20-40 years showed that supplementation with coconut oil did not cause dyslipidemia (worsening cholesterol and lipid profiles) and seemed to promote a reduction in abdominal obesity.
A 2008 study on subjects with atopic dermatitis found that VCO was useful as a broad-spectrum agent against Staph. aureus, fungi, and viruses on skin affected by atopic dermatitis.
A 2009 study researched VCO versus refined, bleached, and deodorized coconut oil, and found VCO to have much stronger anti-oxidant properties.
A 2010 clinical trial found a coconut and anise spray to be much more effective at eradicating head lice than permethrin cream.
A 2005 study on mice found that CO increased fat loss when the mice were also given conjugated linoleic acid.
What Can We Conclude About Coconut Oil?
- Most of the available research over the past several years points to health benefits of coconut oil, especially virgin coconut oil.
- Coconut oil may help decrease abdominal fat levels
- Coconut oil may help improve blood lipid levels (lower cholesterol & triglyceride, higher HDL)
- Coconut oil may help wound healing
- Coconut oil has broad-spectrum antimicrobial properties
- Coconut oil may have a hepatoprotective effect
- Coconut oil may have analgesic, anti-inflammatory, and antipyretic effects.
- Coconut oil, especially virgin coconut oil, appears to have anti-oxidant properties.
- Coconut oil may be of use in various skin diseases such as acne and atopic dermatitis
- Coconut oil may have cardioprotective and/or antidiabetic effects
- Much more research needs to be done to confirm these early, promising results
- Always consult your health care provider before starting any supplement, diet, or exercise program.
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Liau KM, Lee YY, Chen CK, Rasool AH. An open-label pilot study to assess the efficacy and safety of virgin coconut oil in reducing visceral adiposity. ISRN Pharmacol. 2011;2011:949686. Epub 2011 Mar 15.
Burnett CL, Bergfeld WF, Belsito DV, Klaassen CD, Marks JG Jr, Shank RC, Slaga TJ, Snyder PW, Andersen FA. Final report on the safety assessment of Cocos nucifera (coconut) oil and related ingredients. Int J Toxicol. 2011 May;30(3 Suppl):5S-16S.
Feranil AB, Duazo PL, Kuzawa CW, Adair LS. Coconut oil is associated with a beneficial lipid profile in pre-menopausal women in the Philippines. Asia Pac J Clin Nutr. 2011;20(2):190-5.
Ippagunta S, Hadenfeldt TJ, Miner JL, Hargrave-Barnes KM. Dietary conjugated linoleic acid induces lipolysis in adipose tissue of coconut oil-fed mice but not soy oil-fed mice. Lipids. 2011 Sep;46(9):821-30. Epub 2011 Jun 4.
Lemieux H, Bulteau AL, Friguet B, Tardif JC, Blier PU. Dietary fatty acids and oxidative stress in the heart mitochondria. Mitochondrion. 2011 Jan;11(1):97-103. Epub 2010 Aug 5.