One of the toughest parts of being a natural health researcher and writer is that I sometimes have to report disappointing information. Many pleasurable foods and lifestyle choices just aren’t healthy no matter how much we wish they were. On the other hand, sometimes the opposite is true. For instance, it may surprise you to know that a once maligned, tropical fruit can actually benefit your health in multiple ways. You can bake with it, rinse your mouth with it and even use it as a skin moisturizer. That tropical fruit is Cocos nucifera, otherwise known as the coconut.
Perhaps the healthiest way to enjoy coconuts is to eat the fresh fruit itself. However, not many people are able or willing. But, that’s okay. Minimally-processed coconut products provide the same components as fresh coconuts in a more convenient form. My top coconut choices are coconut flour, coconut water and virgin coconut oil. Today’s blog focuses on virgin coconut oil (VCO). Part Two will address the benefits of coconut flour and coconut water.
The last several years have heralded a golden age of coconut appreciation in the scientific community. Three peer-reviewed summaries note that virgin coconut oil can be a valuable resource in promoting wellness in many arenas.
The authors of these papers acknowledge the potential of coconuts in conditions such as Alzheimer's disease, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. Additionally, numerous animal studies have found that supplementing with VCO affords protection against arthritis, hypertension, osteoporosis and even psychological stress.
As you may have noticed, I’ve been using the term “virgin coconut oil” instead of plain old coconut oil. These days, this isn’t such an obscure reference, as most people are familiar with extra virgin olive oil (EVOO). Much like EVOO, virgin coconut oil undergoes less refinement than deodorized/refined coconut oil. VCO is produced from raw coconuts and, as such, retains potent antioxidants that are lost in the refining process. Also, some coconut oil is derived from dry coconuts instead of the raw fruit. The resulting product is commonly identified as “copra oil”. The importance of this distinction is one of differing health benefits. Simply put, copra oil is not a healthy alternative or replacement for fresh coconut oil.
Coconut Oil: Inside and Out
For some, there is still a lingering concern about the cardiovascular effects of VCO. It’s true that VCO contains a high percentage of saturated fat. In a previous blog, I discussed the saturated fat issue and my belief that this fear is largely misplaced. As far as coconut oil is concerned, the best way to evaluate its cardiovascular impact is to carefully examine the scientific literature. Two recent studies investigated VCO’s influence on arterial plaque and blood clotting. In both instances, VCO was not found to be a cause of unhealthy alterations in blood “stickiness” or plaque formation. A 2011 trial linked coconut oil use in premenopausal women to higher levels of “good” HDL cholesterol and a more favorable lipid profile. What’s more, these findings were validated by another human study from 2009.
As a side note, the August 2014 issue of Lipids in Health and Disease reveals that VCO may be a helpful adjunct to cancer treatment. In the research, women undergoing chemotherapy reported improvements in appetite, fatigue, sleep quality and other “quality of life” symptoms after receiving daily doses of VCO.
Interestingly, unrefined coconut oil doesn’t have to be ingested to promote good health. Massaging your gums or “oil pulling” with VCO can dramatically improve oral health. Oil pulling involves swishing oil in your mouth for about 15 - 20 minutes daily. Certain components in coconut oil, namely lauric acid, improve gingival health by reducing levels of harmful bacteria and discouraging plaque formation. Outside of the mouth, VCO can be used a natural moisturizing agent. Two recent studies reveal that applying VCO topically can lower the risk of infection in “high-risk preterm infants” and alleviate symptoms of atopic dermatitis in children. This attests to coconut oils applicability in even the most sensitive individuals.
John Paul Fanton, based in Los Angeles, California, is a consultant, researcher and writer with over 20 years of experience in the field of natural medicine. He designs unique nutritional plans, mind-body (meditation, mindfulness, etc.) and vitamin/supplement programs for individual clients who are interested in improving overall health, weight and wellness. You can find his weekly column on the Healthy Fellow.Main Photo Credit: Lusie Lia/Shutterstock.com; Second Photo Credit: kim7/Shutterstock.com; Third Photo Credit: Africa Studio/Shutterstock.com