Caption: Could the humble coconut hold the answer to cancer, AIDS and some other serious diseases? Picture courtesy of Origins Pacific (www.originspacific.com.fj)
By ANNE MOORHEAD
Could the humble coconut hold the answer to cancer, AIDS and some other serious diseases? These claims have been made for virgin coconut oil, but what is the truth? This article, the second in a series about virgin coconut oil, explores the science behind the claims to find out what this so-called 'miracle oil' can really do for your health.
There seems to be no doubt that the chemical composition of coconut oil – when unrefined or 'virgin' – gives it a host of beneficial properties. According to scientists, one reason for this is the high concentration of medium-chain fatty acids in coconut oil, and in particular one called lauric acid. Lauric acid converts to monolaurin in the body, and monolaurin is also a critical ingredient of breastmilk. In breastmilk it helps protects babies from infection, and it seems that monolaurin derived from coconut oil works in the same way. There are very few foods that contain lauric acid, so most people do not benefit from monolaurin after the first few months of their lives.
Dr Mary Enig, a biochemist and probably the world's leading expert on coconut oil, writes, 'Monolaurin inhibits the growth of many pathogenic microorganisms.' One of the ways it does this is by disrupting the lipid membranes of viruses, and Enig lists HIV, herpes and influenza as examples of viruses that have been shown to be destroyed by monolaurin. She also describes similar effects against disease-causing bacteria, including 'superbugs' such as antibiotic-resistant 'golden staph' (Staphylococcus aureus). So coconut oil, it seems, has the potential to prevent and perhaps treat certain illnesses caused by infection. A few medical practitioners in Fiji and New Zealand have been recommending virgin coconut oil to their patients for several years, and they believe this potential can become reality. One of them, Dr Epeli Nailaitakau of Fiji says, 'Diabetic abscesses are one of the hardest infections to treat – but I have seen them heal when patients follow the recommended diet.' The diet he recommends is based on raw foods, mainly fruits and vegetables, as well as virgin coconut oil. He believes that this natural diet can have powerful results, and has himself trialled it with HIV-positive patients. 'After just a few weeks on the diet, their CD4 cell counts improved,' he says.
Less controversial perhaps are the benefits of coconut oil for so-called lifestyle diseases. Take heart disease for example. The confusion over whether coconut oil (as a saturated fat) might contribute to heart disease has now been clarified. The answer is: it does not. In fact, it is now clear that the opposite is true – some studies show that people who have a lot of coconut oil, and other coconut products, in their diet are less likely to suffer from heart disease. Again, lauric acid is one of the reasons – it acts to reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol, and to increase HDL (good) cholesterol in the blood. Some doctors are now recommending coconut oil to both prevent and treat heart disease.
Diabetes and obesity are two more lifestyle diseases that coconut oil can treat. Diabetes is essentially a problem with the regulation of sugar in the blood, and certain foods add to the problem by causing big swings in blood sugar level. Coconut oil, however, helps to regulate blood sugar while at the same time providing energy. The evidence is mounting that doctors should be recommending that their diabetic patients use coconut oil instead of other oils, as part of a balanced diet and along with regular exercise.
Using oil or fat to promote weight loss seems counterintuitive, yet there is scientific evidence that it works. We will look at this in more detail in a later article on weight loss – but again, the medium chain fatty acids are the key. These are rapidly absorbed and not converted to stored fat in the body.
But what about cancer? The temptation to seek 'natural' cures is high when faced with conventional treatments (surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy), and this has led to a plethora of 'discoveries', most of which offer little more than false hope. Does virgin coconut oil offer more than this?
Dr Nailatikau is convinced that his recommended diet can have positive results in cancer patients. 'It boosts the immune system, and so helps the body fight the cancer,' he says.
It is known that some other cooking oils which are less stable when heated can cause cell damage that may lead to cancer, so replacing these with coconut oil is also a way to reduce the risk of cancer.
We do not claim virgin coconut oil is a cure for cancer, or other major illnesses. However there does seem to be a growing body of evidence that it has at least a protective role against many diseases. Medical science would do well to look carefully at this natural product and delve deeper into its biochemistry. The Asian Pacific Coconut Community has a proposal to conduct clinical studies in order to validate the above anecdotal medical testimonies.
Anne Moorhead is a science writer and editor. She was commissioned by the European Union-funded Facilitating Agricultural Commodity Trade (FACT) project for this series of articles on virgin coconut oil. Implemented by the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC), the FACT project works to increase the volume, value and diversity of Pacific Island agricultural and forestry export products.