The coconut is versatile in its many forms, be it shredded or flaked as a popular dessert ingredient, or as preparations that yield coconut milk, water, and oil. Recently, nutritionists and medical professionals have been taking a closer look at coconut oil for its medicinal properties. Aside from being rich in antioxidants and medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs), it also possesses some unique constituents that offer insight into the way brain cells function and perform their own self-repair and maintenance.


Background


Coconut (Cocos nucifera L.) is a tropical tree from the palm family, with the Philippines and India producing the bulk of the world’s supply.1 For thousands of years, the coconut has been considered an essential product in folk medicine, with mentions dating back nearly 4,000 years to the ancient Sanskrit language.2 During World War II, medics in the south Pacific who were experiencing shortages of essential medical supplies used coconut water as a substitute for normal saline in intravenous infusions to save lives.2

Science


Routine consumption of virgin coconut oil (VCO) has been associated with increased levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol—the “good” cholesterol and a known cardioprotective marker—even in the presence of increased total cholesterol (TC).1 Despite this finding, earlier published studies had criticized the use of coconut oil, owing in part to its high content of saturated fats; however, some of these studies had used hydrogenated coconut oils or did not differentiate among saturated fats.3 Today, research shows a place for VCO in our diets, since nonhydrogenated VCO may help balance the ratio of HDL to low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (HDL/LDL).4 Researchers believe that this is largely due to the fact that MCFAs, which are rapidly metabolized in the liver and do not enter into the biosynthesis of cholesterol, make up the majority of the fat content of VCO.5 In addition, data indicate that consumption of VCO flattens the postprandial spiking of plasminogen and lipoprotein-a, both important markers of cardiovascular disease.5 These actions and other metabolic effects of VCO have been shown to help reduce abdominal (visceral) adiposity.6

Results from a population study conducted in the Philippines suggest that consuming significant amounts of dietary VCO has beneficial effects on lipid profiles and cardiovascular disease risk.3 Nearly 2,000 women were followed for more than 20 years with data collected on dietary habits, socioeconomic information, menstrual status, and medication profile. A positive correlation was noted between the amount of VCO consumed per day and elevation of total cholesterol and HDL, yielding a favorable TC/HDL ratio.