Health Benefits of Coconut Oil

Jessica Lewis
October 4, 2016

Specialists regard coconut oil as one of the foods that fully deserve the status of “super foods” and for a good reason. As of now, there are more than 1500 scientific studies conducted on the subject of coconut oil’s health related benefits. Many others are yet to be concluded. Health and wellness associations have avoided it for many years, mainly due to its high saturated fat levels. That happened until the media sources started to promote it, leading to massive sales of a food people were not exactly familiar with. The oil is used in tropical countries where people take full advantage of the coconut plantations. Lately, countries in Europe, as well as people from the United States, have started to use it extensively. Many factories utilize coconut oil in favor of other traditional oils such as the sunflower or olive ones, in their products. The oil is safe for personal use so people can buy it from local grocery stores as well as health food stores.

Coconut oil is truly wondrous. Experts in medicine, cosmetics, and nutrition claim that it can help treat almost anything from skin problems to diabetes and even cancer. In addition, the organic coconut oil is stable to cook unlike other vegetable based oils because it withstands high temperatures without heat damage. The only aspect many organizations warn about is its high saturated fat content. The American Heart Association advises people to use it and any other tropical oil cautiously. Philippines and India are two of the world’s largest exporters of organic coconut oil.[1]

Coconut Oil Overview

coconut-oil-healthbenefits-250x250Coconut oil is an edible oil obtained by crushing copra, the dried kernel of matured coconut harvested from the coconut tree. Tropical countries, in particular, have used it for thousands of years, but it was just as welcomed on the European and American food markets as well. The oil is high in saturated fatty acid content. Most of the fatty acids are medium chain fatty acids. Coconut oil has a high melting point of 75 degrees Fahrenheit which makes it suitable for baking. It oxidizes rather slowly and is resistant to rancidification. It can last for several months before its smell and taste are spoiled by degradation. In Asia, the coconut palm is the most important source of oil with constant productivity and consistency in demand, the tree is resistant to various local environmental conditions, given that it grows in tropical regions where the temperature variations are not major enough as to affect its growth. There are three coconut oil types available for daily use, namely the virgin coconut oil from wet coconuts, coconut oil from dry coconuts and coconut oil by solvent extraction method. They differ in their manner of production. Virgin coconut oil has the most health related benefits, is highly nutritious and rich in lauric acid, a fatty acid known for its capacity to fight disease. There are two processes by means of which coconut oil is extracted from the coconuts:

  • Dry process: dry processing takes place when the meat is removed from the shell and let to dry using sunlight, fire or traditional kilns. In different parts of India and Sri Lanka, people still crush copra to extract oil by using primitive tools or hydraulic presses. Coconut oil is produced by excluding t dry copra after which it enters a process of refining when the oil is exposed to high temperatures. Usually, refined coconut oil has a little Aside from coconut oil, there is another end product that is high in fibers and proteins but has poor quality and is not recommended for human consumption.
  • Wet process: this process uses raw coconuts instead of dried copra. The coconuts are pressed as to release the milk and oil. The two components are obtained simultaneously, so it may be difficult to break up the emulsion in order to get the oil. Virgin coconut oil is the result of modern techniques being implied. Many of them avoid heat, chemicals or refining and use instead cold, acids, enzymes, electrolysis or salts to separate milk from oil. The final product is colorless and keeps something from the sweet taste of coconuts. Coconut oil obtained through the wet coconut processing is the one people find in grocery or drug stores and is superior in value to the clean Coconut oil is insoluble in water but more soluble in alcohol than many other fats and oils.[2]

Coconut Oil Compounds

Coconut oil is rich in glycerides of lower chain fatty acids, also known as medium-chain fatty acids. It has high saponification value that makes it suitable as an ingredient in soaps. The oil is resistant to atmospheric oxidation and becomes liquid at temperatures of over 27 degrees Celsius.

  1. Fatty acids

Medium chain triglycerides are a class of triglycerides in which three saturated fats are bound to a glycerol backbone. In this case, each molecule is made of six to twelve carbons. While being part of t many foods available on the market, coconut oil is the source with the highest levels of medium chain triglycerides. They are man-made to some extent in that they occur after the oil has been processed in laboratories or factories. Medium chain triglycerides have a different absorption mechanism than lower chain triglycerides, one that is easier and more efficient. Before being absorbed, the lower chain triglycerides must go through a process during which they glycerol backbone is separated from the lipase enzyme. The resulted triglycerides attach once again to the glycerol before entering the blood stream. Medium chain triglycerides, on the other hand, are much more practical because the intestinal walls absorb them directly so the body can use them faster. People use medium chain triglycerides together with medication for treating diarrhea, celiac disease, liver disease or digestive problems that appear as a result of gastrectomy. Patients who suffer from malnutrition are treated with middle chain triglycerides because they do not require the body to release any energy but are instead rapidly absorbed. Pregnant and nursing women, diabetics or patients suffering from liver diseases should avoid coconut oil as there is not enough evidence in regards to medium chain triglycerides’ effects on these types of patients.[3]

Triglycerides are a regular component of oils and fats. Most fats and oils are composed of long chain triglycerides but coconut oil is rather unique from this point of view because it mainly consists of medium chain fatty acids. It is this fatty acid type that which offers coconut oil its status as a super food with healing properties. Many of the medium chain triglycerides used in research projects and experiments come from coconut oil. Aside from the oil, they are also occurring in human breast milk. In situations when the mother chooses not to breastfeed the baby, the fats can be obtained through infant formulas enriched with medium chain triglycerides. The following are coconut oil’s essential fatty acids:

  • Lauric acid: is a saturated fatty acid with a faint odor or soap. In coconut oil, it represents almost half of the fatty acid content. It is also found in coconut milk, laurel oil and the human breast milk but in smaller quantities. It is rather uncommon otherwise. It would not be safe to assume that coconut oil’s health benefits are related only to the lauric acid as the oil contains many other substances. Even so, recent studies suggested that numerous properties are directly linked to this acid’s presence in coconut oil’s structure. Lauric acid is a non-toxic compound and generally regarded as safe in spite of being a saturated fat. People from Southern Asia who include coconut oil in their daily meals register lower risks of cardiovascular disease.
  • Palmitic acid: Although present in smaller quantities, it remains an active compound in coconut oil’s composition. Palmitic acid is related to the risk of cardiovascular disease. A study done by a group of rat fed a diet consisting of carbohydrates and palmitic acid pointed towards damage on the rodents’ central nervous system, the area responsible for controlling the insulin secretion more precisely.
  • Myristic acid: is a fatty acid found in coconut and palm oils, butter fat or nutmeg. It pertains to the low chain fatty acid group with 14 carbons in its structure. Animal products except for cheese and butter have limited quantities of myristic acid. Cosmetic manufacturers include it in soaps, shaving creams and many other cosmetics in the form of the ester isopropyl myristate.
  • Decanoic acid: more popularly known as capric acid, decanoic acid makes up for 10% of the coconut oil’s composition. It is otherwise absent from many other foods, be they animal or plant based ones. The cosmetic industry uses it in the manufacture of perfumes, lubricants, plastics, food additives and pharmaceuticals.[4]
  1. Phenolics

Phenolics, also known as phenols, are a class of chemical compounds naturally occurring in plants. They can as well be synthesized in laboratories. Phenolics can be either simple phenols or polyphenols depending on the number of phenol units in the molecules. Both sub-classes have antioxidant properties. Researchers have conducted a study to compare the antioxidant levels of virgin coconut oil obtained by means of chilling and fermentation and refined coconut oil. The virgin coconut oil showed more potent capacities and the phenolic compounds were more complex and nearly seven times higher than those of bleached coconut oil. Virgin coconut oil obtained through the chilling method registered the largest phenolic amounts. The results suggested that the phenol content is strongly related to the extraction process. Coconut oil acts as an active substance when combined with oils such as sunflower or rice oil because it improves their oxidative stability.[5]

Health Benefits of Coconut Oil

Coconut oil has a multitude of health benefits in spite of being shunned multiple times for its high saturated fat content. The oil may be one of the most significant saturated fat sources on the food market but there is no need to avoid it. Many foods rich in this type of fats contain long-chain triglycerides. Coconut oil, on the other hand, has in its structure middle chain triglycerides that the body absorbs rapidly. After entering the digestive tract, the quickly go to the liver that uses them as energy or turns them into ketones, constituents linked to brain disorder improvement.

  1. Cardiovascular Disease

Many people believe that if food is rich in saturated fats then it automatically becomes unhealthy. Such is the case with coconut oil that people generally disregards in order to avoid heart-related complications. Some studies suggest that coconut oil is, in fact, beneficial in decreasing the risk of cardiovascular disease because one of it acids, the lauric acid more precisely, can prevent an increase in LDL or “bad” cholesterol levels. Coconut oil supposedly reduces the damage to arteries caused by cholesterol and may prevent atherosclerosis occurrence. Other studies show that coconut oil does increase the bad cholesterol levels more than other vegetable oils. Still, it does not affect them the way fatty acids from butter do it. The results of present day research projects are contradictory and therefore unreliable. Many of them do agree that there are safer alternatives to coconut oil. People suffering from heart issues should reduce their saturated fat intakes as not to complicate the matter further.[6]

  1. UTI and Kidney Infection

Coconut oil is effective when combined with treatments for UTI or kidney infection or when consumed by itself. Women are more prone than men to develop urinary tract infections. Still, both sexes a can suffer from kidney disease equally. Doctors recommend antibiotics to treat them. Even so, people turn to more traditional alternatives as well. According to the Coconut Oil Center, coconut oil is rich in medium-chain fatty acids as well as phenolic compounds, two constituents that make it suitable to fight bacteria. Aside from its antioxidant properties, it also possesses antimicrobial ones. While other studies are to be conducted in regards to coconut oil’s capacity to treat UTI and kidney infection, its active compounds can alleviate various symptoms when consumed on a regular basis.[7]

  1. Cancer

Fallowing digestion, coconut oil produces ketones that are the result of fat burning as a means to obtain energy. The body also produces ketones whenever the pancreas cannot release enough insulin to normalize the glucose levels in the blood. As a consequence, the body registers an increase in glucose levels but cannot use the substance directly so it turns into its fat storage instead. Cancer cells are dependent on glucose because it breaks down rapidly, and this allows them to multiply at a faster rate. They cannot use ketones as fuel. A ketogenic diet may be one of the science’s possible treatments for patients suffering from cancer in the future. Further scientific evidence is needed to reach a final conclusion. In addition, the middle chain triglycerides present in coconut oil’s structure are believed to be beneficial against helicobacter pylori, a bacteria linked to stomach cancer occurrence.

  1. Weight loss

Obesity is one of the medical issues many people suffer from at the present moment. Specialists affirm that the calorie amount is indeed critical but just as important is the calorie source. For example, a food rich in complex carbohydrates may have the same number of calories as one rich in simple carbohydrates. The differences that the stomach digests the complex carbohydrates harder and provides energy for longer so people will not be tempted to eat again too soon. Such is the case with fats as well. Coconut oil may be effective for weight loss because it contains medium chain triglycerides that are better in terms of quality than little chain triglycerides. The capric acid present in coconut oil positively impacts the process of fat burning. According to a study published in the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, male rats that suffered from obesity and were injected with capric acid registered a decrease in body weight. This acid can as well support a healthy thyroid and endocrine system. Moreover, it increases the body’s metabolic rate, leading to a more productive fat burning process.[8]

Another study in which researchers compared coconut oil and olive oil showed that participants using coconut oil in their daily meals lost more weight than the others. This is not because coconut oil contains fewer calories than other popular vegetable oils. Rather, it is the result of a long chain fatty acid substitution with medium chain fatty acids. People in Southern Asia who are coconut oil’s primary consumers generally have an average body weight and are not considered obese.

  1. Digestion

Coconut oil is beneficial for the digestion due to its antimicrobial properties. The compounds present in coconut oil fight bacteria and parasites that reside inside the digestive tract. By doing this, they prevent indigestion as well as many other digestion related problems including the irritable bowel syndrome. Coconut oil also helps the body to absorb nutrients and amino acids. Studies suggest that, if taken together with omega 3 fatty acids, the oil can ease their absorption.  This happens because, when combined, the medium chain triglycerides that the body digests quickly, combined with the fatty acids, lead to a more practical absorption process.

  1. Diabetes

Normally, the pancreas produces a particular insulin amount every time the body needs its blood sugar levels to decrease. Still, following frequent consumption of foods rich in simple carbohydrates that the body digests rapidly and which enter the blood stream at a fast rate, the pancreas is forced to produce insulin in larger quantities. At some point, the organ becomes unable to do so. As a result, the body no longer balances the sugar in the blood and becomes immune to insulin. Type II diabetes is the natural consequence of this process. Scientific evidence reports that diets rich in medium-chain triglycerides are beneficial in that they increase the body’s sensitivity to insulin. When medium chain triglycerides are digested, they produce ketones that the body can use as an energy source. This way, it is not forced to turn to glucose all the time so the pancreas is not required to produce more insulin than needed to counterbalance the glucose levels.[9]

  1. Candida and Yeast Infection

Candida is one of the most frequent gastrointestinal diseases. It occurs as the consequence of fungi, Candida albicans, excessively multiplying themselves. The bacteria produce internal problems, allergies and affect one’s emotional status. Coconut oil can provide relief from inflammation. On an external level, its moisturizing capacity keeps the skin from cracking. On the inside, its main compounds, namely the lauric acid, capric acid and myristic acid help eliminate Candida albicans when used together with medical treatments. The oil can be also utilized as a supplement. Its effects are gradual so the patient can easily accommodate with it. a study published in the Journal of Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy showed that the lauric acid and capric acid found in coconut oil’s composition are effective against yeast infections as well.

  1. Osteoporosis

Osteoporosis is a medical condition characterized by weak bones and an increased risk of fractures. Currently, there are more than 200 million women around the globe suffering from osteoporosis. Studies suggest that the number will reach one billion patients by 2020. Coconut oil is used as a natural alternative to treatments designed for people suffering from osteoporosis. Its high antioxidant levels can fight oxidative stress and free radicals, two of the main causes that lead to osteoporosis occurrence. In addition, coconut oil helps in the vitamin and mineral absorption, mainly that of calcium that is vital for healthy bones.

  1. Skincare

Coconut oil is rich in healthy fats and has high antimicrobial properties. The oil is beneficial for the skin as it quickly penetrates it, allowing for a faster absorption. It bonds well with proteins and nourishes the cells so it is also good for slowing the aging process. Coconut oil contains antioxidants that fight toxins, free radicals and lower the risk of oxidative stress. It can be applied directly to the skin. The oil has a smooth structure and sweet smell. Cosmetic manufacturers include it in skin care products so people can buy creams and moisturizers enriched with coconut oil if the oil in its natural state feels unpleasant to use.[10]

Coconut oil is effective in treating liver and pancreas problems, removes stress and can be used in patients suffering from Alzheimer’s disease because it is a natural brain booster.

Coconut Oil Side Effects

Chances are, the coconut oil’s sustainers and critics are close in number. However, both parts can agree that the oil has more benefits than disadvantages, being healthier than most vegetable oils on the food market in spite of its high saturated fat levels. This aspect is the element that produces discord. People believe the oil is directly linked to weight gain. What they fail to notice is that coconut oil, like any other of its kind, can be damaging only when used in large quantities. There are no studies to indicate possible side effects. Pregnant and nursing women, as well as young children, can safely consume it as a substitute for other oils. There is evidence that shows coconut oil increases the “good” cholesterol levels while having little to no impact on the “bad” ones.[11]