Is A Diet With Coconut Oil Really Very Risky For Your Brain?

Maybe is the short answer, and so worrying are the data that I’m risking writing this blog. I’m not sure of what answer will emerge, but I’ve been concerned when friends and patients tell me they have followed another doc’s diet and nutritional choice recommendations to choose coconut oil as a preferred cooking fat and a fat to add into their coffee and other liquids like smoothies.  So concerned that when a new abstract came out confirming a recent article that showed coconut oil addition to a normal diet caused a really bad problem, it reminded me to tell you about my concern.  Concerned for three reasons:

  1. That these patients may be misled because the data indicate coconut oil may accelerate a horrible problem;
  2. I worry this doc hasn’t read the older literature which indicates that coconut oil may accelerate brain dysfunction (I did send this doc some of those old articles several years ago—maybe 10 years ago when I first heard him mention coconut oil-- in an attempt to get him to study coconut oil in humans before advocating it in many blogs and books, and even selling it on a related web site). 
  3. I worry this doc’s recommendation --that this oil is a healthy cooking fat--will be advocated and accepted as a religious truth and not as the BS (bad science) I believe it may be--by other young docs who are unaware to the 1970’s scientific literature (these articles appear on pages 12 and higher of Google and Google Scholar searches as they are so old, and who wades thru that many pages and citations on Google when the marketers of coconut oil and articles of short term benefits—see below--make the first 11 pages seem to indicate coconut oil has too many benefits to keep wading). The reason to study it in humans—he has enough of a following that many people may develop accelerated brain dysfunction--is that all the data I have seen are only in animal models of brain dysfunction and of MS. And I have seen another doc pick that choice of coconut oil up and advocate it for decreasing brain dysfunction.  Scientific study needs to be done in humans after animal and computer models are used for the same reason why basketball games are played (how could the CAVs come back from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA finals last year?). Humans do not always follow the most likely scripts.  But in the meantime, and until it is proven safe for your brain and nervous system, I’d suggest you select only fats that have been shown to love your body back.

So in this blog, I hope to inform you why I am so cautionary about coconut oil; it has nothing to do with fats in your blood leading to heart disease or not, but rather that researchers in the lab next to mine at NIH in the early 70’s 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 recently 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 are.

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% of US women developing serious degrees of memory problems at age 83, that 14% 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 US an additional 100 billion dollars a year in medical costs by 2024 if just 35% of Americans chose to use coconut oil as their main fat. That mistake to use coconut oil would lead also to too much personal and family costs to even consider. Hopefully 35% 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.  But I consider it my duty to inform you of the science in as understandable way as possible.  That’s why I wrote the RealAge, YOU books, and now AgeProof books, and put the RealAge test and action items and data on the internet free for you to use—to help you understand the science and make choices informed by data and not just marketing that help you live longer younger (or as we say AgeProof with a younger RealAge—shameless marketing plugs).

I’ll give you the evidence about this dark side of this white fat and let you see why I try to avoid coconut oil like it is a plague. Until better data are available, I’ll continue to encourage my patients to avoid it, because I believe it may cause a plague of too early dementia. Yes, I will reveal a cautionary, scientifically based tale for supporters, and marketers of, and users of coconut oil who 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 in the belief it will decrease heart disease or stroke or cancer or even dementia.  In animals it does the opposite—it causes dementia to develop much faster cause it breaks down your blood-brain barrier 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.

So first let’s do some basics discussion, what is the blood-brain barrier:  it is a barrier that keeps big molecules like things that cause inflammation away from your brain….it is like a filter that allows sugar and small nutrients in and keeps things that are bad out. 

Now due to the scientific articles I want to inform you about, this article would run the normal length of eight articles (as it is, it will run 2 to 3 time longer than I want).   So I will abstract much data here.  

I’ll try to work backwards from current studies but just look at the data and articles that give me concern—so this is a biased look, biased by science that shows the hazards.    

The recent paper that triggered my desire to remind you of my three concerns about coconut oil use is an abstract (from April, 2017) by a different group (a different group means the data are reproducible by others than those who made the original observation—meaning the original observation is much more likely to be real rather than a statistical aberration).  That abstract confirms a 2015 publication in the journal Immunity.  I won’t discuss the confirming abstract cause it is only an abstract rather than a full peer reviewed scientific paper (abstracts are not scrutinized or vetted to even 10% of the degree papers are).  In that memory triggering paper (memory triggering for me) on the effects of dietary coconut oil on MS, entitled “Dietary Fatty Acids Directly Impact Central Nervous System Autoimmunity via the Small Intestine”, 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 (2015; 25:1567-1576), entitled “A high fat diet impairs learning that is dependent on the dorsal hippocampus but spares other forms of learning”.  That study indicates that adding saturated fat to soybean oil required 8 weeks and specific tests that depend on the hippocampus in these rats to find important changes in learning from diet.  You’ll note 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.

That hippocampal size and inflammation reference relates to the 2008 study by Granholm and colleagues in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease (Effect of a Saturated Fat and High Cholesterol Diet on Memory and Hippocampal Morphology in the Middle Aged Rat, 2008;14: 133-145) that showed that 8 weeks of a diet with hydrogenated coconut oil (most coconut oil is hydrogenated or saturated in nature and as you might buy it) added to the normal diet was associated with inflammation in 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 own research, or if you are a doc 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. Short term or poor choice of study variables can be misleading. For example, it is widely verified in scientific study and now generally accepted that sugar and/or insulin inserted up the nose of an Alzheimer’s patient improve mental functioning in the short term but cause long term problems. These docs advocating coconut oil would not advocate long term diets high in sugar.   Were they so careful before advocating coconut oil?

Granholm and her research partner, Linnea Freeman, in a 2012 paper in the Journal of Cerebral Blood Flow and Metabolism (2012; 32; 643-53) indicated that the inflammation associated with hydrogenated coconut oil (like the kind you might use in cooking) causes inflammatory vascular changes and breaks down that key area of the blood-brain barrier in their rat model.  Now they gave the rats 10% coconut oil, the equivalent of 160 calories or less than 3 tablespoons for a human, and found inflammatory and disruptive changes in one of the proteins key for the tight junctions and thereby functioning of the blood-brain barrier. But they changed the diet of the rats for 6 months to see this effect, the equivalent of about 15 year period for you.  But this break down of the blood brain barrier and inflammation in the hippocampus that Granholm and Freeman reported is exactly what the researchers in the laboratory next to mine in 1973-5 found.  The researchers in the laboratory next to ours in the National Institutes of Mental Health at NIH in that period were early in trying to understand dementia. They administered coconut oil after causing an inflammatory stimulus (a bacterial skin infection as I recall). That process led to the mice in their studies not being able to learn maze navigation, as I remember it (not the focus of my research just down the hall; we were trying to understand consciousness and how anesthetics caused anesthesia).  In the meantime genetic models of dementia in rats and mice were developed. That’s why I worry the data are too old for the young docs of today to be aware of that model of accelerated dementia associated with a coconut oil diet plus inflammation.

To summarize, if you've recently looked into topics like ketosis, dementia, medium chain triglycerides, low carb diets, or even thought about detoxing, you've no doubt heard of the what I would term the BS (bad science, again) benefits of coconut oil. Because it is rich in the medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs) it is supposed to be different than other saturated fats that are made of fatty acids with more than 12 or 14 carbons so called Long-term fatty acids (LCFAs).  The LCFA’s largely come with amino-acids such as carnitine (plentiful in red meat, pork, and even some fish like cod), lecithin and choline (cheese and egg yolks) that select for bacteria inside your intestine.  Those bacteria produce inflammation in your arteries, immune system, and brain (to name just a few areas). That inflammation caused by the poop those bacteria produce relates not to the fat changes they produce but to the amino acids that certain bacteria love. Those bacteria then produce poop as they go after the C, H and O’s of the red meat, cheese, egg yolks or peanuts (yes they have problems too) that contains the inflammation stimulating substance.   Soon I am told we will be able to block this red meat, cheese, egg yolk etc. cause of inflammation and dementia by giving you something that prevents this type of bacteria from thriving.  But while you and I are writing for that to happen, stick with fats that you can love and that love you back like the odd omegas® in avocados, chia seeds, walnuts, and canola oil (all omega3’s), or in extra virgin olive oil (omega-9) or in salmon or ocean trout ( both a lot of omega-3’s and 7’s). And if your doc advocates coconut oil, ask to see the long term studies that look at learning and inflammation in the brain.  And then send em to me.

Karlo Dieron