Coconut Oil:
Miracle Medicine and Diet Pill

Summary
Coconut oil can replace most of your medicine cabinet, energize you, and make you slimmer in the bargain.
[7,000 words]

Eric Armstrong
TreeLight.com/Health

Contents


Introduction

Coconut oil and, to only a slightly lesser extent, palm kernel oil is far better for us than we have generally been led to believe.

Coconut oil consists almost entirely of saturated fat -- about 92% -- which sounds pretty bad on the surface. But not all saturated fats are created equal. As the old saying goes, "some are more equal than others". Coconut oil actually helps you lose weight and stay healthy in ways that no other fat can match.

In particular, note that:

Notes:


It Melts In Your Hand

Coconut oil becomes a liquid at 76-degrees Fahrenheit. So on a warm day, it's liquid in the jar. On cool days, however, it's a white solid. When it's solid, it looks like one of those hard-to-digest fats that might clog up your arteries and end up around your middle.

But the difference becomes apparent when you pick up a little and rub it between your fingers. The fat "solid" turns into an oily liquid almost immediately. That reaction hints at how quickly it metabolizes -- how quickly it breaks down to produce energy in your even warmer interior.

It turns out that coconut oil is so effective at providing energy and at protecting the body from disease-causing microbes that it's used in baby formulas, intravenous fluids, and sports endurance snacks. Those uses, along with centuries of use by healthy indigenous cultures, are major clues as to just how good it is for you.

It's Good for your Hair!

Coconut oil turns out to be great for your hair, as well as for your skin and general health. It bonds with the hair follicles, making them stronger and darker. And some of it gets to the scalp, where it helps to keep the skin healthy.

One reader wrote in that she mixes it with her shampoo. She puts a bit in the palm of her hand and adds shampoo before rubbing it into her scalp. I modified the idea by mixing it with moisturizer, and use it on my skin after the shower. (For my hair, I use a small amount of coconut oil directly--but then, my hair is relatively short.)

 


The Miracle Diet Pill

Coconut oil is metabolized from other fats. It breaks down quickly and is burned for fuel long before it can be stored as fat. That process makes all the difference in the world, not only to your weight.


Tends to be Burned, Rather than Stored

When we think about saturated fat, we generally think of the 18-carbon long-chain fatty acids found in meat and dairy products. But medium chain fatty acids (MCFAs) are different. They contain 8, 10, or 12 carbons, and they are metabolized in radically different ways. Approximately 64% of coconut oil consists of medium chain fatty acids, so the difference is important.

Since MCFAs are shorter, they contain less energy. So instead of containing 9 calories per gram like longer saturated fats, they contain a little over 6 calories per gram. That's a bargain, right there. For the same satisfying taste, you save 1/3 the calories over meat and dairy products.

But that's just the beginning, because the medium-chain fatty acids tend to be converted into energy, rather than stored as fat. To understand how, see the sidebar, What Happens to Fat. (Or skip it to save yourself the gory details.)


What Happens to Fat

A large portion of the medium-chain fats are broken down by saliva. They are then packed off to the liver by way of the portal vein the moment they arrive in the upper intestine. Many of the free fatty acids are then converted into energy packets called Acetyl-CoA (Acetylcoenzyme A) in the liver and in the cells. (Converting those free fatty acids into energy packets is actually slightly simpler the conversion of glucose![Guyton, 22]) Mitochondria in the cells then convert those packets into energy.

Long-chain saturated fats, on the other hand, move into the intestines, where they are slowly broken down, absorbed, and synthesized into triglycerides (3-part fats). The triglycerides are then passed to the lymph system. From there, they move to the heart and are distributed throughout the body.[Guyton, 20, 842-843]

Of course, the liver synthesizes triglycerides as well, along with the phospholipids that are a necessary part of cell membranes.[Guyton, 885] But since coconut oil contains mostly medium-chain fats, the synthesized triglycerides are shorter -- that's why that have a little over 6 calories per gram, instead of 9 calories per gram like other fats. (Actually, medium-chain fats contain 6.8 calories per gram. But I think of it as "a little over 6" to simplify the math.)

However they are created, some triglycerides (generally too many!) go to the fat cells, where they are stored. Some go to internal cells, where they are used for energy. Others go to surface cells where they are emitted as skin oil and other forms of sebum (for example, in the sinuses). And some, when they return to the liver, are converted into phospholipids, lipoproteins, cholesterol, and Acetyl-CoA, all of which are necessary for your body to function.

When the medium-chain fats that aren't immediately used for energy are stored as fat, they only contain 2/3 the energy of the long-chain variety -- so when they're burned, they burn more quickly. You'll learn more about that beneficial side effect in a moment.

Meanwhile, the medium-chain fats that go to the surface cells in the skin, sinuses, digestive tract, and vaginal tract create an extremely potent defensive barrier against microbial invaders. You'll see how that process works later on.

The bottom line with respect to fat metabolism is that long-chain fats take longer to digest, and they tend to be stored as that "stubborn fat" you can't get rid of. Medium-chain fats, on the other hand, are immediately broken down into fatty acids, and tend to be burned for energy.

Those who combat fatigue on a daily basis may therefore notice an increase in body temperature (and blood pressure) when they consume coconut oil. It's the result of the increased metabolic rate as the medium-chain fatty acids are burned. Since you're more energetic, you feel more like working and exercising, which burns even more fat.

Notes:


Burns Stored Fat, Too

Replacing other fats with coconut oil means that the rate at which your body stores fat slows down, because more of your dietary fat is metabolized for energy. But beyond that, coconut oil actually increases the rate at which you burn stored fat, even beyond the extra fat you burn simply because you exercise more and work harder.

As you grow accustomed to your new energy levels, you'll tend to eat less sugary and starchy foods, because you don't have as much need for them. It's not something you'll have to try to do, either. Your body will make the adaptation naturally. (For an example, see the sidebar, How Your Appetite Can Change.)


How Your Appetite Can Change

Once upon a time, I fell into the habit of running every day -- generally for half an hour, often for an hour or more. After two months of that, I walked into my regular steak house, and I vividly remember passing the salad bar and salivating at all those luscious red and green vegetables. Then I walked up to the grill, where the steaks and baked potatoes, previously so enticing, no held no interest for me at all. The smells weren't even exciting! I simply could not wait to get through the line and get to the salad bar.

I relate that story, because it showed me in clear detail how the body's desire for food -- and the foods it has an appetite for -- result from what we're doing and what we're eating. If we exercise a lot and eat decent foods, the appetite doesn't just go down, it changes to prefer things that are healthy.

In my case, my diet hadn't changed during the previous two months. I had been eating my normal assortment of salads, meat, potatoes, and cookies, with the occasional vegetable thrown in. Somehow, my body knew which of those foods it really needed, and it took control of my taste buds to get them!

The Standard American Diet (SAD) generally defeats the body's wisdom, because the nutrients it needs are nowhere to be found. So the body is just generally hungry for anything and everything it can find, in hopes of finding the nutrients it needs. When you give it the right stuff, it will quickly adapt and make it your favorite food.

When you eat less sugar and starch -- especially refined starch like white flour and white rice -- you'll have less glucose (blood sugar) in your blood stream. The brain runs on glucose exclusively (except when fasting), but the rest of your cells will tend to alter their hormonal balance to metabolize the additional fatty acids that are arriving for energy, instead of sugar.

The lack of glucose, in turn, causes fat cells to release fatty acids instead of storing them.[Guyton, 866] It's an interesting mechanism. When sugar is present in the blood, fat cells tend to store fat. But when it's absent, fat cells tend to release fat. They're simply optimizing things in attempt to keep your energy levels constant. The fats are then burned, in a process known as hydrolysis.

Note:
The prefix hydro- means "water". The process requires water, so be sure to drink plenty of it.

So one interesting and useful effect of replacing other fats in your diet with coconut oil, over time, is to increase the amount of fat that is released as result of the lowered glucose levels -- even though your energy level is still high from the medium chain fatty acids you're burning for energy. In essence, your body is reacting to the low-sugar state that triggers it to burn fat, only you aren't experiencing the fatigue and hunger you normally associate with low blood sugar.

But wait. There's more!

When you've been consuming coconut oil for a while, most of the fat you've stored only contains 2/3 the energy of long-chain fats, because you've been storing medium-chain triglycerides. So whenever your body goes into fat-burning mode as a result of exercise or waiting to eat, it has to burn 1/3 more stored fat to deliver the same amount of energy! It's like getting 60 minutes of exercise for the price of only 40 -- another great bargain.

The process might take less time, than you think, too. Fat stores are actually dynamic. Fat doesn't just sit there like a lump. Every day, your body releases the fatty acids it contains and replaces it with new fatty acids it receives. So the fat in your body actually turns over every 2-3 weeks![Guyton, 867]

Of course, most of us tend to keep putting on a little more than we're taking off, but that has a lot more to do with the partially hydrogenated soybean oils in our diet than it has to do with saturated fat. Just eliminating the trans fats tends to stabilize your weight. But when the majority of your fat comes from coconut oil, your body will tend to take off more than it puts on.

The process will be slow at first, because most of your stored fat will probably be of the long-chain variety (and worse, ugly trans fats). But it will speed up over time, as more and more of your stored fat becomes medium-chain triglycerides. People have reported losing 20 lbs. in 6 months without making any other changes in their diet or exercise regimen.[Fife, Eat Fat, 9, 147, Miracles, 130-132; Hopzapfel, 40-42] With a healthy diet and exercise, of course, your changes will come that much faster.


Doesn't Interfere with Thyroid Function (unlike soybean oil)

The origins of the American obesity epidemic can be traced to the 1970's when a concerted campaign against "harmful tropical oils" by the American Soybean Association led to the elimination of coconut oil in virtually all commercial cooking.[Fife, Miracles, 26-30]

The coconut oil was in the main replaced by partially hydrogenated oil, which interferes with insulin activity and causes other health problems, as explained in What's Wrong with Partially Hydrogenated Oils?. But "partially hydrogenated oil" on a food label generally means soybean oil, and soybean oil adds an additional problem of its own -- it inhibits the thyroid's ability to produce the hormones we need to burn fat, generate energy, and carry on the processes of life.[Fife, Eat Fat, 130-131]

When the thyroid isn't operating properly, your body's metabolism is lowered, so you store fat instead of burning it. And you don't want to exercise, because you don't have the energy. So you just naturally gain weight.


Summary of Weight Loss Benefits

To sum it all up, coconut oil reduces your fat calories by a third, tends to be burned for energy rather than stored as fat, promotes the metabolism of stored fat, and keeps your thyroid firing on all cylinders. And since you're more energetic, you tend to exercise more and work harder, so you burn even more fat. See Coconut Loss Diary for a personal account of energizing weight loss using coconut oil and natural, fiber-rich foods.

In a word, coconut oil is dynamite for weight loss. But as you'll see in the next section, it's dynamite for your general health, as well, because it blows up microbial invaders!


The Perfect Composition of Fats

Of course, some saturated fat is necessary in the diet. As it is absorbed in the intestines, it carries the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. Without that fat, vitamin deficiency results. Saturated fats and cholesterol are also built into cell membranes, strengthening cell walls so they keep their shape. And saturated fat is used by the liver to construct cholesterol -- to the tune of 1,000 mg per day. (Sunshine converts cholesterol to Vitamin D, and cholesterol is the first step in manufacturing testosterone and estrogen). So you definitely don't want to eliminate saturated fats entirely. If you did, you would be in a world of hurt.

The long-chain saturated fats that make up 20% of coconut oil fill meet the body's requirements nicely -- it's enough long-chain saturated fat to be healthy, but not enough to make you fat.

Note:
Myristic acid, a 14-carbon fatty acid, makes up 18% of coconut oil. According to Mary Enig, some writers call it a medium-chain saturated fat, while others consider it a long-chain saturated fat.[Enig, 261] I have included it in the long-chain category, as she does, but it's not clear why others classify it differently. The correct classification obviously depends on whether it tends to be absorbed through the portal vein or the lymph, but so far I haven't found any definitive statement. Given Enig's expertise, one suspects that it must be through the lymph, since she classifies it as a long-chain fat. On the other hand, it's interesting to speculate that myristic acid might be an "in-betweener" that can function as either a short-chain fatty acid metabolized for energy, or as a long chain fatty acid. It wouldn't surprise me if that were so, but I have no evidence for that conjecture either.

The remaining 8% of coconut oil is unsaturated fat (6% omega-9 and 2% omega-6), which is useful as well--and it's present in the small amounts you need, rather than in excess.

The fatty acid composition of coconut oil and palm kernel oil is so perfectly suited for human consumption that it's almost as if we evolved in some tropical climate where it was readily available...

Hold on... Come to think of it, we did!

Note:
The only thing missing is the small amounts of the polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids that you need for optimum health. Those fats come from fish, borage seeds, kukui nuts, and flax seeds. Of those, the kukui nut (the new state nut of Hawaii) is worth closer inspection. It contains 20% omega-9 fatty acids (like olive oil), 42% omega-6 (like sesame oil) and 21% omega-3 (like flax seed).[Analysis] With that much unsaturated fat, the oil would have to be /Templates/health.dwted very carefully and refrigerated constantly (unless, like sesame oil, it contains anti-oxidation agents). But for a nut, that sure is one impressive resume. Only small amounts would be needed to ensure optimum health. And it is indicative, I think, that kukui nuts also grow in the tropics!


The Miracle Energizer and Fatigue Fighter

Coconut oil energizes you for most of the same reasons that it promotes weight loss. It has even been effective in treating Chronic Fatique Syndrome (CFS).[Fife, Miracles, 72-73, 103-106]

The increased energy induced by coconut oil occurs for a variety of reasons:

Finally, coconut oil offloads the immune system in ways you'll read about in the next section. Since the immune system needs less fuel, more energy is available for your brain and muscular activity.


The Miracle Medicine

So far, coconut oil keeps you thin, gives you energy, and you can cook with it. But it gets better. Coconut oil is uniquely effective at protecting your health, primarily because of its high concentration (48-50%) of lauric acid. Lauric acid is a very important triglyceride (3-part fat) that breaks down into monolaurin, which kills bacteria and viruses.

Coconut oil also contains caprylic acid (8%) which kills fungus (for example, athlete's foot fungus) and yeast (candida, as well as vaginal yeast). One or more of coconut oil's medium chain fats also kill a wide variety of intestinal parasites.[Fife, Miracles, 69-76]

Note:
Coconut oil contains other medium chain fatty acids as well, including capric acid (7%), caproic acid (0.5%), and the "in-betweener", myristic acid (18%). So far, I haven't seen any discussions of specific benefits they provide. But it's likely that they are lethal to some kind of undesirable microorganism since, as Fife says, "different fatty acids...are more effective at killing certain kinds of germs than others."[Fife, Eat Fat, 28]

Because of its composition and high MFCA content, coconut oil is effective for treating and preventing heart disease,[Fife, Miracles, 77-87] as well as AIDs, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, osteoporous, gallbladder disease, diabetes, liver disease, Crohn's disease, prostate enlargement, and cancer.[Fife, Miracles, 99-120] That's a lot of protection for an inexpensive food that until recently was a standard part of our diet!


Fights Microbes on the Skin and in the Digestive Tract

Monolaurin is created when either your saliva or the bacteria on your skin break down the 3-part lauric acid triglyceride into single units, called monolaurin. The beauty of monolaurin is that it kills microbial invaders before they even get in the door, so the immune system doesn't spend all of its time and energy fighting them. Because the immune system only operates inside the skin, it can be required to do a lot of work to defend against bacterial and viral invaders that could just as easily have been killed by monolaurin on the skin and in the sinuses. Similarly, lauric acid plays a key role in protecting the digestive tract, which is also outside the skin, topologically speaking.

Besides coconut oil, the only other good source of lauric acid is mother's milk. Lauric acid is critical for infants because it's the only protection they have until their immune systems develop. When you think about it, that fact speaks volumes about the power of lauric acid -- it keeps babies healthy even in the absence of the immune system! That's why coconut oil is a critical ingredient in healthy milk formulas. And that's why it is effective at treating and preventing AIDs.[Enig, 214; Fife, Miracles, 58-59; Holzapfel, 61-65].

Notes:


Infiltrates Microbial Invaders and Strips Away Defenses

Monolaurin works, not by attacking an invader directly, but by destroying the invader's "body armor". You see, our skin, sinuses, and digestive tract "ain't a fit place to live" for a harmful bacteria or virus. So they wrap themselves in fatty acids and sneak in that way -- the proverbial wolf in sheep's clothing. In this case, the wolf's cloak is weaved from multiple fatty acid strands.

Because monolaurin is a fatty acid, it gets weaved in, as well. But monolaurin is so biologically active that it rapidly dissolves, disintegrating the microbe's protective coating. The microbe must use whatever fatty acids happen to be available to weave it's body armor, and if monolaurin is in the immediate vicinity, the microbe has to use whatever is available.

But monolaurin isn't attacking the microbe directly, the way the immune system does. So the microbe doesn't evolve a defense. Instead, it's the body's chemical environment that destroys the invader-- and that's an attack that can't be defended against.[Fife, Miracles, 101-103] So unlike antibiotics, monolaurin doesn't produce resistant strains. That's another reason that monolaurin has proven to be so effective against AIDs, which proliferates by continually and rapidly evolving into new, drug-resistant strains.

Also, since monolaurin doesn't attack bacteria directly, the healthy bacteria we need to create B-vitamins and perform other functions in the digestive tract are unaffected -- again unlike antibiotics, which kill all bacteria indiscriminately.

Monolaurin works its magic in two different ways, depending on whether it is saliva or bacteria that is releasing the monolaurin:

Coconut oil is also effective for skin conditions like rash, eczema, psoriasis, and rosacea. It can be applied topically by rubbing it into the skin. But it is even more effective when significant quantities are in the diet, because it forms a self-renewing protective layer as the oils are released throughout the day, forming a protective barrier that stops microbes dead in their tracks.

Note:
Since it is the 8% caprylic acid in coconut oil that is effective against fungus, stronger solutions used in conjunction with coconut oil are even more effective on skin conditions like planter's warts and athlete's foot.[Fife, Miracles, 68]


Rosacea Cure (an ancecdote)

Since I added coconut oil to my diet and using it on my skin (about two weeks ago) a roscea problem (red skin on the face and neck) of more than 15 year's duration has all but entirely cleared up.

The problem started when I moved to dry climate in California's San Jose peninsula. So it's possible that dehyration was the cause. Or maybe it's a fungus. Or a baceteria. No one really knows -- including the dermatologist I went to cure the problem. The ointment she gave me seemed effective where I applied it, but caused it to spread to surrounding areas. When I spread it even wider to cover clear skin as well, the rosacea simply spread wider and stayed on the edges. When I returned to her office, I wanted to know what I was up against! She told me that the didn't know what caused it, and if the antibiotic ointment she gave me didn't work, she'd try something stronger and suggest something to take internally.

By that time, I had had enough of that kind of "try it and see what happens" approach. And I had begun to blame my skin condition on the cortisone injections and creams that doctors used to give me to "cure" poison oak and poison ivy -- until I discovered a simple little soap that takes care of the probem quite nicely -- a soap called tecnu (see Curing Poison Oak and Poison Ivy). If the doctors could be so wrong about that, I fgured they could be wrong about this, too -- especially since they didn't even know what caused the problem!

So I said goodbye to the doctor. But it would be years before I found out about coconut oil's healing properties. But, once I did, results came quickly. After two weeks, my neck and face are nearly normal. You have to look closely to see the last remnants of the problem. And the deep crevices that had formed to either side of my nose have smoothed over. One is almost completely gone. The other is half as long and deep as it used to be. In a word, I've taken another 10 years or so off my appearance.

I'm getting more sun, too. I've noticed that sunlight caused minor improvements in the past. The coconut helps thre, too. It keeps the skin from drying out and protects against free radical damage, so I can get more sunlight.

Of course, the problem may never entirely disappear. The story is that once you have it, it stays forever. There is always the possibility that it will disappear altogether. If the problem really is caused by a fungus or bacteria, and the coconut oil is killing it, then the problem could well be eradicated completely. Not even the high-priced skin conditioning regimens on the infomercials can say that -- and coconut oil is a whole lot less expensive than those remedies.

The fact that coconut oil is so effective is less surprising when you consider that it is the oils and fats in soap that kills germs![Fife, Eat Fat, 28] (In the past, though, soaps were made from natural fats that contained a mixture of fatty acids, so they killed a wider variety of germs.) Think of coconut oil as basically a particularly effective antibiotic soap that's secreted from your pores every hour of the day, 24-7.

Notes:


Replaces Most of the Medicine Cabinet

Coconut oil can effectively replace most of your medicine cabinet! In particular, it can replace these:


Other Possible Medicinal Uses

These are a few interesting possibilities that need further investigation:


Finding Coconut Oil and Adding it to Your Diet

About 3-1/2 tablespoons of coconut oil per day is recommended for good health. I get it at the natural foods store, where my favorite brand, Garden of Life (www.gardenoflifeusa.com) comes in a medium-size black canister with a label that clearly states: "No trans fats....contains NO HYDROGENATED OILS and is not Refined, Bleached, or Deodorized." It has a very mild, delicate hint of coconut, but not much. (Personally, I wish it had a stronger flavor. It doesn't taste enough like coconut for me. But then, my sense of smell isn't all that great, so maybe I'm just less sensitive it.)

Like olive oil and sesame oil, coconut is stable at room temperature. That makes them ideal for use when traveling or when refrigeration isn't available (like nuts).


Consuming Coconut Oil

The best way to get the recommended amount is to take a tablespoon with every meal, because it gives you an energy lift that makes coffee unnecessary! (Especially if you use sea salt, which adds the trace minerals you need to keep your metabolism running well -- minerals which are missing in many of our foods.)

The simplest way to take coconut oil is to replace dairy products with it in your diet:

Both Healing Miracles and Coconut Oil (below) contain a collection great recipes. Fife also recommends mixing it with raw milk, cream, fruit smoothie, vegetable juice, cottage cheese, or yogurt.[Fife, Eat Fat, 211]


Possible Uses for Coconut Milk

Some open questions about the possibilities for using coconut milk:

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Steve Sauder for pointing out that coconut oil can raise blood pressure.


References

These books are listed in suggested reading order. They're available at Amazon.com.
For more books on health, see Recommended Reading.

These references are available online:

Copyright © 2004, 2005 by Eric Armstrong. All rights reserved.
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