Coconut oil for Alzheimer’s – separating fact from fiction
By Robin Brisbourne | Friday 08 September 2017
Coconut oil as a treatment for Alzheimer’s? It’s one of those claims that has rumbled on for a few years now, but so far research has been inconclusive so there’s little evidence to say it can be of any help. Companies selling nutritional drinks and making claims about their effects don’t count. And while anecdotes from individuals can be compelling, sadly these claims can’t be verified, and need to be treated with caution. In fact, it’s best to be wary about any claims around coconut oil or other foods or supplements: as well as no proven benefits, there are potential harms.
This blog explains the thinking behind coconut oil as a treatment for Alzheimer’s and the reasons we have to remain cautious.
Coconut oil – energy for the brain?
To get to the idea behind coconut oil for Alzheimer’s, we need to take a step back to understand a little about fats and energy.
Anecdotes from individuals can be compelling, but sadly these claims can’t be verified and need to be treated with caution.
Most of us consume oil in our diets, be it vegetable, sunflower or olive oil. Oils are fats, rich in energy that our bodies usually turn into glucose to use. Different oils and fats have different structures and compositions. One component of coconut oil is caprylic acid. This is broken down into ‘ketone bodies’ which can also be used by our cells for energy. Glucose and ketone bodies aren’t the only energy sources for our bodies, but they’re the ones relevant here. Our brain usually gets most of its energy from glucose, but brain cells can also use ketone bodies.
During Alzheimer’s disease, we can see from brain scans that areas affected by the disease use less glucose. This is thought to be due to a number of causes, including, but not limited to:
- Expression of specific genes
- Oxidative stress
- Cell activation and inflammation
- Synapse loss
- Cell death.
So the thinking is that ketone bodies, provided by coconut oil, can give the brain the energy it needs to function properly. Most experts in neuroscience and Alzheimer’s don’t follow this argument – if cells are dead or dying because of Alzheimer’s disease, giving them energy won’t help, it can’t protect them.
Just a theory
We know that normally when we lack glucose, for example from prolonged fasting, our brains start to switch to using ketone bodies for energy. But we don’t know if this happens in Alzheimer’s disease too, let alone whether consuming coconut oil, which may be turned into ketone bodies, could help.
Many researchers are sceptical. Just providing energy to cells affected by Alzheimer’s is extremely unlikely to save them from the toxic processes caused by the disease. There’s so much we don’t understand about how and why nerve cells die during Alzheimer’s, causing its devastating symptoms, but it’s more complex than needing energy.
While some are doubtful, some continue to research ketone bodies as a potential treatment.
Some testing has been done in the USA, on a product containing caprylic acid. Its makers undertook Phase II clinical trials of the product and found people taking it did improve in memory function compared to those taking a placebo. However, phase II trials aren’t enough to prove something is effective, they’re too small and primarily designed to look at side effects and dosage. The company didn’t undertake phase III clinical trials to confirm the effectiveness of their product, and so it’s marketed in the US as a medical food, which doesn’t require any clinical testing.
It’s important to note that these are only clinical trials of a product containing caprylic acid. No other research groups have replicated these early findings. Manufacturers of such products are the only ones to be making any claims that they might help people with Alzheimer’s. There are no published results from clinical trials testing coconut oil, although one study in the USA is currently recruiting (Apr 2017). Until we have the results from a large-scale clinical trial, we must conclude that at the moment there’s no scientific evidence that coconut oil can help people with dementia.
‘But it helped me…’
Unfortunately, people’s stories of improvements in memory and thinking skills after taking coconut oil don’t prove that is was the oil causing these changes. We cannot say that what is true for one person will be true for another, or even whether it would be safe for another. We cannot say what any improvement seen in an individual was caused by; there are too many factors to take into account. There’s a large placebo effect in Alzheimer’s, and people’s condition naturally fluctuates, so it’s difficult to assess whether any intervention is working or not. To find that out we’d need full placebo controlled clinical trials.
You may well think, if it could help, then why not? Because there’s a risk – coconut oil is extremely fatty. The World Health Organisation and the NHS, amongst others, advise against consuming high amounts of coconut oil, due to its high levels of saturated fat which could, in turn, lead to high cholesterol levels.
This is not all doom and gloom about yet another treatment that turns out to be a myth. Energy dysfunction in brain cells is important in Alzheimer’s and many researchers worldwide are investigating how this process is involved in the disease – this is not a closed off area of research.
We must conclude that at the moment there’s no scientific evidence that coconut oil can help people with dementia.
It also serves as reminder about diet. While there’s unlikely to ever be one simple thing we can eat or drink to help with symptoms, it’s still important to eat a healthy balanced diet. This, together with regular exercise, could help lower your risk of developing dementia. It’s also important to remember that a healthy balanced diet is especially vital for people with dementia, to ensure they get all the right nutrients.
For more information on the current treatments available for Alzheimer’s and other dementias, visit our website.
Find out more about clinical testing and trials on our website.
Image credit: Hafiz Issadeen, via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.