Millions of people around the world, including thousands of scientists, are desperately seeking a good treatment for Alzheimers diseaseor, almost beyond hope, a cure. So its no wonder that many readers have been asking us about a new book enticingly called Alzheimers Disease: What If There Was a Cure? by Dr. Mary Newport (a pediatrician), which has gotten lots of media coverage. The proposed cure is not one of those expensive Alzheimers drugs (which have marginal benefits), but rather a simple food thats supposed to have dramatic effects on people with the disease. The food is coconut oil.
The appeal of a personal story
Dr. Newports book is highly personal. Her husband, Steve, has Alzheimers, and this is her search for something to halt or reverse his decline. Her quest led her to research suggesting that ketones may help treat various neurological disorders, including Alzheimers. Ketones are byproducts of the breakdown of fats in the body; small amounts are normally produced. Ketone levels rise when you fast or go on a very-low-carbohydrate diet (which can lead to a state called ketosis).
Another way to boost ketones in your body is to consume fats called medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), of which coconut and palm kernel oils are good sources. MCTs are converted in the liver into ketones, which can be used by the brain and other organs as fuel; they are a more immediate source of energy than other fats and are not as readily stored as body fat. Ketones can provide energy to cells without the need for insulin, the hormone the body relies on to get glucose from the blood into cells. The theory is that ketones might provide an alternative energy source for brain cells that have lost their ability to use glucose as a result of Alzheimers.
So Dr. Newport began feeding her husband coconut oil, later combining it with a more-concentrated MCT oil. She reports that this improved his short-term memory, alleviated his depression, revived his personality, and reduced his walking and vision problemsand that an MRI showed that his brain had stopped shrinking.
Thats a powerful story, but just anecdotal evidence. The course of Alzheimers can vary from person to person, and there may be stable periods and temporary improvements within the long-term decline.
Dr. Newport cites research showing that ketone-producing diets may help treat difficult cases of epilepsy and possibly Parkinsons and other neurological disorders, as well as improve cognition and health in general. Nearly all of this has been highly technical, theoretical workor else preliminary research done in animals. In any case, apparently none of this research has used coconut oil, but rather special ketone solutions or products containing concentrated MCTs. A 2009 study of a pricey prescription medical food providing high doses of MCTs (Axona, whose maker funded the study) found some minor improvements in patients with mild to moderate Alzheimers.
According to the Alzheimers Association, a few people have reported that coconut oil helped with Alzheimers, but theres never been any clinical testing of coconut oil for Alzheimers, and theres no scientific evidence that it helps. The same is true of over-the-counter MCT oils.
Coconut oilthe bigger picture
Research on ketones and MCTs for dementia and other neurological problems has been interesting and should continue. At this point, its not clear whether they are beneficialand if so, under what conditions. Even if they are, its probably a leap of faith to think that coconut oil would yield enough ketones to have a meaningful and persistent effect.
Countless health claims have been made for coconut oil in recent years. There was even a book called The Coconut Oil Miracle. The oil is supposed to strengthen immunity, improve digestion, cause weight loss, slow aging, and prevent heart disease and arthritis, for instance. (Interestingly, cognitive benefits have seldom been mentioned before.) As weve reported previously, these claims dont hold water. Because of its MCTs, it does take a few more calories for the body to process coconut oil, compared to other fatsbut any calorie-burning effect would be insignificant.
Coconut oil is high in calories115 calories per tablespoon, like other oils. That can add up when the recommended doses are 4 to 8 tablespoons or more a day (Dr. Newports husband was taking 11 tablespoons a day at one point!). Large amounts can also cause diarrhea and other gastrointestinal problems, as Dr. Newport describes in her book. Despite fears about the saturated fat in tropical oils raised in the late 1980s, the fatty acids in coconut oil apparently do not have an adverse effect on blood cholesterol. You can use it in cooking occasionally if you like the flavor, though we recommend vegetable oils such as canola, olive, soy, or safflower for regular use.
Keep in mind that although Dr. Newports book focuses on treating Alzheimers, some of our readers have asked if coconut oil can prevent the disease. Theres no reason to think so. Other dietary interventions, notably omega-3 fats (from fish) and the Mediterranean diet, have been proposed for general brain health. Unfortunately, as several major reviews have concluded, theres no solid evidence so far that any food, eating pattern, nutrient, or supplement can help prevent age-related cognitive decline or dementia.
BOTTOM LINE: We wish we could tell you that the book makes a convincing case for coconut oil, but we cant. The most important thing to do if a family member has serious memory problems is to consult a doctor, preferably a neurologist. Dont just assume it is Alzheimers disease. There are other causes of memory problems and other forms of dementia, some of which are reversible. A vitamin B12 deficiency, hypothyroidism, hypertension, and depression can all lead to symptoms that may be mistaken for early Alzheimers. Certain medications can also impair memory. Thus, its important to rule these out and not be sidetracked by self-treatments such as coconut oil.
Published in the Berkeley Wellness Letter, Issue: June 2012