Is a coconut oil diet risky for your brain?

Maybe.

I have been concerned when friends and patients say they followed the advice of a doctor that recommended using coconut oil as a preferred cooking fat or as an addition to coffee, smoothies and other liquids. A new abstract came out confirming a recent article which showed that added coconut oil caused a problem and I’m worried that the doctor hasn’t read the older literature, which indicates that coconut oil may accelerate brain dysfunction.

Younger doctors could accept this practice as a religious truth and not as the BS (bad science) I believe it may be. That’s because they’re likely unaware of the 1970s scientific literature that uses animal models to show the correlation between brain dysfunction and coconut oil.

Why am I so cautionary about coconut oil?

It has nothing to do with fats in your blood leading to heart disease, but rather that researchers in the lab next to mine at National Institutes of Health in the early ’70s used coconut oil to accelerate brain dysfunction, Alzheimer’s and dementia in animals. And more recently that paper published in a respected peer reviewed journal indicated coconut oil accelerates the inflammatory changes in multiple sclerosis that lead to nervous system dysfunction. Multiple sclerosis is a disease thought to be caused by or accelerated by nervous tissue inflammation, just like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Now, this side effect relating to accelerating the development of dementia caused by coconut oil in mice and rats and guinea pigs oil isn’t a minor acceleration – it is the human equivalent of bringing it on 16 to 20 years earlier. So instead of 14 percent of U.S. women developing serious degrees of memory problems at age 83, that 14 percent would develop them at age 63 to 67 or so if they had used coconut oil as the major fat in their food choices.

This earlier development would cost the U.S. an additional $100 billion per year in medical costs by 2024 (and huge human cost) if just 35 percent of Americans chose to use coconut oil as their main fat. Hopefully, 35 percent don’t and won’t. I realize I am going against the grain of at least two very prominent docs and the marketing might of the coconut oil industry.

Many marketers of and users of coconut oil now advocate or add coconut oil to every dish or to every otherwise healthful smoothie and to every cup of coffee, or even just use it as their preferred cooking oil with the belief it will decrease heart disease or stroke or cancer or even dementia.

Until better data is available, I’ll continue to encourage my patients to avoid it because I believe it may cause a plague of too early dementia.

In animals, it causes dementia to develop much faster because it breaks down your blood-brain barrier (the barrier that protects your brain) and allows the inflammation that most of us have in our bodies (whether from diet or periodontal disease or minor infections or even colds) to invade your brain.

The recent paper that triggered my concern confirms a 2015 publication in the journal Immunity. In that paper, coconut oil added to soybean oil in a typical rat diet made the rat’s equivalent of your immune system attack the protective sheath (myelin) that covers your nerve fibers. That inflammatory attack causes the equivalent of communication problems between your brain and the rest of your body.

In 2015, a study was published in another prestigious and peer reviewed journal, Hippocampus. That study indicates that adding saturated fat to soybean oil required eight weeks and specific tests that depend on the hippocampus in these rats to find important changes in learning from diet. These studies on memory change, even in rats or mice or guinea pigs, require a long time to complete as they need the inflammation to develop and then destroy the neuronal connections that cause what we know as memory or human brain functioning. Your hippocampus is the only organ where size matters in the human body, as size shrinks as memory and learning problems occur in humans.

Another study showed that eight weeks of a diet with hydrogenated coconut oil was associated with inflammation key to memory hippocampal nervous tissues. But they used middle-aged, not young rats, and gave the equivalent of 20 or more years of the diet.

So I urge you if you do your research, or if you are a doctor in the field, before you advocate something like coconut oil, to make sure the studies you are basing your recommendations on are long enough and look for the changes well enough to insure that what they advocate isn’t short term beneficial and long term hazardous.


Dr. Michael Roizen writes about wellness for the Cleveland Jewish News. He is chief wellness officer and chair of the Wellness Institute at Cleveland Clinic.

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