Coconut Oil Facts | Myths and Miracles

Coconut oil has been a recent buzz word in the holistic health world, with fingers pointing toward native islanders of the Philippines as living examples of its wonderful health benefits. You’ve likely come here because you want to sort out the facts from the miracle ‘myths’ about this oil and see if it’s worth your time and money.

The good news is that many of the ‘miracle’ functions of coconut oil are actually true.

It’s time for you to get the facts, and we’ve sorted them out here for you here with sources. Any source used is a valid peer-reviewed source unless otherwise indicated.

If you’re short on time and generally trust us, here’s a summary:

Definite functions:

  • Prevents/combats heart disease
  • Assists with weight loss
  • Moisturizes skin and hair (better than other oils)
  • Antimicrobial/antibiotic, antiviral, antibacterial and antifungal
  • Strengthens the immune system
  • Anti-carcinogenic (combats free radicals and other carcinogens)
  • Anti-inflammatory (eases arthritis pain)
  • Provides essential vitamins and other nutritional components
  • GREAT massage oil
  • Reduces or eliminates dandruff
  • Cooking oil – safe even at high temperatures and is the healthiest to use
  • Butter alternative (excellent for baking)
  • Boosts metabolism
  • Improves health of gums and teeth (and whitens teeth) through ‘oil pulling’
  • Deodorizes

What it can do in some cases and might do for you:

  • Treats eczema, psoriasis and related skin disorders
  • Anti-aging properties that reduce fine lines and wrinkles
  • Heals sunburns more quickly
  • Repels insects
  • Soothes itchiness
  • Eases symptoms of depression or anxiety (when ingested)
  • Natural underarm deodorant (it DOES deodorize but may not be strong enough as a deodorant for everyone, particularly those of us who need an antiperspirant as well)
  • Eases allergy symptoms
  • Prevents sun damage (aside from its supposed SPF in the next list)
  • Boosts energy (when ingested)
  • Reduces/prevents acne
  • Used in naturopathic treatment of a large number of health issues, including but not limited to:
    • Dental cavities, ulcers, enlarged prostate, Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, cancer, herpes, hepatitis C, HIV/AIDS, arthritis and many modern degenerative diseases

What it supposedly does (but needs further research):

  • Pulls toxins from the body through ‘oil pulling’
  • Acts as a natural SPF 4 (approx.) sunscreen
  • Reduces appearance of scars
  • Reduces appearance of varicose veins
  • Prevents stretch marks or reduces appearance of existing stretch marks
  • Improves sleep when ingested – taking it early during the day helps you sleep well later.

Cautions:

coconut oil as a sunscreenDo not trust topically applied coconut oil as a sunscreen, particularly for periods longer than 30 minutes, and particularly if you have fair skin that burns easily. There is little evidence behind the SPF 4 claim, and Organic Gods deems it insufficient, particularly as the claim largely comes from non-sourced internet articles providing personal testimonials. However, as will be discussed, it does protect from sun damage in a different way, acting more to increase sun tolerance and prevent free radical damage than to block actual rays.

Some women report experiencing hot flashes when ingesting concentrated amounts of coconut oil. This is supposedly due to the spike in metabolism after consumption, in which case it is recommended to reduce your intake amount and the sensations will subside with regular ingestion. This and other symptoms may occur temporarily during the body’s detoxification process.

DO NOT discount coconut oil because of its saturated fat content. Saturated fats in high quality virgin coconut oil are non-hydrogenated, meaning they have not been chemically altered (into unhealthy fats, AKA trans fat) in order to increase shelf life. Coconut oil naturally has a long shelf life. This type of saturated fat, which is also found in olive oil, nuts and avocados, is actually good for your heart and your whole body.

Terms defined

VCO – virgin coconut oil. Has undergone minimal processing, thereby ensuring the greatest amount of retained nutrients. Some moderate heating is normal and will not affect the oil’s integrity.

RBD – Refined, Bleached and Deodorized. Oil is extracted from coconut meat that is dried rather than raw and fresh. In the drying process, some of the meat becomes yellow and moldy, necessitating refinement and bleaching in order to make the oil suitable for consumption. This results in less nutrients, but would be preferable for anyone who does not like the smell or taste of coconut, as neither of these is to be found in RBD coconut oil.

‘Extra virgin’ – a marketing ploy! Extra virgin coconut is the same as virgin, but many companies use the term extra virgin to make their coconut oil more attractive to consumers. The important terms to search for when looking for the highest quality are unrefined, virgin and cold pressed.

Unrefined – cold pressed, not heated.

Cold pressed – coconut milk is pressed from the raw coconut meat at low temperatures and then allowed to ferment in a tank for one to two days. The oil (in its semi-solid form due to the low temperature) rises to the top like a cream and is separated. This process yields the most flavor and aroma and retains the highest amount of nutrients.

Expeller pressed – mechanical method of extracting coconut oil from the meat of the coconut. Yields more oil but less aroma, flavor and nutrients.  This includes hand-operated expeller machines, which can cause some heating due to physical dynamics, machines that apply heat for extraction and machines that apply both high heat and high pressure. In this process, the heating of the oil results in the loss of heat-sensitive nutrients such as antioxidant vitamins E, A and C.

What you do NOT want under any circumstances is coconut (or any) oil that is extracted via chemical means, i.e. the use of solvents.

Coconut Oil’s Composition

In lipid biochemistry terms, a ‘fat’ is composed of triglycerides, which are molecules consisting of three fatty acid molecules linked to a glycerol molecule. Fatty acids are categorized as saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. What’s important for you to know here is that regardless of an oil or fat’s saturation (all oils consists of a mixture of these three types of fats), the benefit or harm comes from the actual type of fatty acids of which it is composed. Some fatty acids are harmful, whereas some are actually extremely beneficial.

coconut oil compositionThat being said, yes, it’s true that coconut oil can contain as much as 92% of saturated fat. But the actually fatty acids of which it consists are all beneficial (and listed below). Additionally, a fat’s saturation is simply determined by the bonds of hydrogen atoms to carbon atoms, which comprise the fatty acid molecules. Because of this, the saturation in and of itself is not what will cause harm.  We will not go into all of the details of the lipid biochemistry here, but medium-chain fatty acids and short-chain fatty acids (chain being the length of the carbon atom chain) are the best for us because they are digested and broken down more quickly than long chain and used for energy production. They are also (surprise) relatively more rare in dietary foods. Coconut oil, however, is an excellent source for both, the best actually, along with palm kernel oil in second.

The MCFAs in coconut oil are so quickly and predominantly used for energy production that they rarely build up as deposits in arteries or as body fat. And it’s actually coconut oil’s saturation that leads to its strength and stability against oxidation and free radical formation in the body.

Free radicals are caused by ingested chemicals and toxins, UV damage and other harmful substances and elements in our environment.  A free radical is a molecule with a bond cleaved by damage from external stimuli (UV rays, cigarette smoke, etc.), resulting in electron movement between atoms in order to create temporary stability. But then that molecule quickly steals an electron from another molecule, creating another free-radical that will also steal an electron, and the cycle goes on, resulting in newly formed less stable and volatile molecules.

Saturated fatty acids have the maximum number of hydrogen atoms per carbon atom in the chain, which leads to stability in the molecule and less susceptibility to oxidation. In monounsaturated and poly-unsaturated, the molecules form double bonds between carbon atoms where the maximum amount of hydrogen atoms are not present. These double bonds are weak and more prone to oxidation. Producers often hydrogenate (force hydrogen atoms into fatty acid molecules by a chemical process) monounsaturated and poly-unsaturated vegetable oils in order to increase their shelf life, but the resulting fatty acids are trans fat, which has been shown to have extremely negative effects on the body. But then, producers package them in clear bottles, where they are prone to oxidation and free-radical damage. A vegetable oil can be completely rancid and full of free-radicals by the time you purchase it, but there is no distinguishable flavor, smell or coloring when these oils go rancid. Even olive oil, long touted for its health benefits, can be prone to harmful oxidation when stored in a clear container and exposed to high temperatures during transport.

So coconut oil, as a stable saturated fat, can be exposed to a variety of factors without undergoing oxidation and free-radical formation. This includes heat, light and oxygen exposure. Because of this, it’s the safest cooking oil to use and has a high smoke point.

MCFAs in coconut oil

So that’s why it’s NOT harmful. Its actual MCFA composition is why it IS really good for us.

Coconut oil is a medium-chain triglyceride oil, meaning that each of its three fatty acids is a medium-chain fatty acid (MCFA). Each of the MCFAs in coconut oil has different health benefits, but they complement one another for an impressive overall health effect.

The following MCFAs in coconut lend it its extraordinary antimicrobial properties:

Lauric acid

Lauric acid

  • Lauric acid (48%)
  • Myristic acid (18%)
  • Caprylic acid (8%)
  • Capric acid (7%)
  • Caproic acid (.5%)

The most powerful of these by far is lauric acid, which comprises the largest proportion of coconut oil’s fatty acids.

These fatty acids only provide antimicrobial benefits, however, when the triglycerides molecules are broken apart into monoglycerides and diglycerides . So the monoglycerides monolaurin and monocaprin, for instance, are what actually kill harmful microorganisms (viruses and bacteria) in or on the body. The triglycerides are broken down in topical application by the skin’s pH or internally via the digestion process.

These MCFAs also act as antibiotics to kill many harmful bacterium groups without killing the good bacteria in your body that is necessary for immune balance natural protection against infection.

Caprylic acid in particular is a powerful antifungal that kills the common occurring candida fungus, which can cause serious a range of symptoms. By extension, it is extremely effective against systemic and vaginal yeast infections, whether ingested or applied topically (though ingestion will ensure a more thorough cleansing of the fungus’ presence in the body).

Antiprotozoal, coconut oil’s MCFAs also prevent and to an extent kill parasitic infections. It is very effective in treating giardiasis, which can be spread by contaminated water, poor hygiene, unwashed hands, feces (from diapers, pets or shoes even) or physical contact. This is a common parasitic infection even in developed countries and has a range of symptoms that are often misdiagnosed as other illnesses or disorders.

Energy and metabolism

This is where we talk about coconut oil’s ability to improve cardiovascular health and assist with weight loss.

When trying to lose weight, the most common diet change is to decrease fat intake, particularly highly fatty foods. This is because these foods are high in calories, and if we eat more than is required for energy and metabolic processes then the excess is stored as fat. Physical activity must outpace energy reserves in order to burn this stored fat.

Long chain fatty acids, the most common kind, are converted into lipoproteins and carried in the bloodstream to be deposited into fat cells. Carbohydrates and protein are immediately used to build tissues or create energy, but when they exceed the necessary amount they are also converted into and stored as fat.

MCFAs, however, are sent directly to the liver after digestion and converted into energy, like a carbohydrate. However, because they are converted into energy so quickly, you can eat much more of them before they’re stored as a fat. Fat composed of MCFAs therefore has a lower effective calorie content. As we’ve discussed, coconut oil is the best natural source of concentrated MCFAs. 

But it gets even better. This rapid conversion of MCFAs into energy increases the body’s metabolic rate, as the energy is quickly used for metabolism. Research shows that this increased activity actually even burns LCFAs, so MCFAs are a further agent for fat loss. After one MCFA-rich meal, the body’s metabolism is elevated for a 24-hour period. In one study, energy expenditure from metabolic activity was increased by 48% in normal-weight adults who has just consumed MCFAs and by 65% in obese adults, so the effect in greater on individuals with more body fat.

Of course, the effects of coconut oil on your metabolism and fat loss will be greatest with a healthy balanced diet and regular physical exercise. We cannot stress this enough – no matter how great your diet when trying to lose weight, you are not likely to have lasting effects unless you incorporate a sufficient amount of physical exercise in order to burn fat stores.

Additionally, coconut oil is a known aid in nutrient absorption. As a valuable nutritional aid, it helps you achieve your optimal weight, meaning if you are malnourished and underweight, it will help you gain it in a healthy, sustainable measure.

Why coconut oil is a good moisturizer

coconut oil moisturiserWhen you allow room temperature, solid coconut oil to sit in your palm, you’ll notice that it melts by the second. You’ll also notice that it feels thinner and lighter than other oils because it has a small molecular structure. This allows it to be absorbed into the skin quickly.

Commercial lotions contain a large amount of water, which only temporarily expands skin tissue. This water is quickly either carried away by the blood stream or evaporates. Commercial lotions will also generally contain chemicals and highly processed vegetable oils that have been stripped of naturally occurring antioxidants, which are necessary for long term skin health, suppleness and elasticity.

Coconut oil is extremely beneficial to connective tissues in the skin, keeping connective fibers strong, elastic and supple. It prevents free radical formation, thereby protecting connective tissues from free radical damage. Additionally, a combination of its make-up and the massaging application process helps remove layers of dead skin and stimulates new cell growth.

To obtain maximum moisturization from the oil, massage a thin layer into the skin, allow it to absorb completely and repeat. Your skin should look smooth and glowing with a bit of a sheen, but not very shiny and oily. If it looks like this, you’ve put too much, so go easier next time.

How coconut oil prevents sun damage

Rather than providing a barrier against UV rays, coconut oil builds up your skin’s natural tolerance to the sun. It prevents free radical damage and, through increasing metabolism, increases cellular activity, which includes replacing damaged cells with new ones. The antioxidants discussed below also aid in UV protection via combat of free radical damage and neutralization of free radical cells.

A tolerance is best built up from the inside out by ingesting coconut oil, though applying it topically also helps. It also is a gradual build up process, so do not expect to slather it on and be safe for 5 hours the first time you use it. You’ll need to build up protection for at least a few weeks with gradually increased sun exposure (not necessarily every day). However, because our bodies are so unique, its difficult to say when would ever be safe to use only coconut oil as sun protection. For many of us, our skin pigmentation and natural genetics are not like islanders of the Philippines, so it’s still best to use an SPF as well, particularly after a couple of hours (after having of course built up to this level of exposure).

Antioxidants

antioxidant processWhile coconut oil does contain some vitamins such as E, K and choline, it is not considered a significant source of these. Its primary antioxidants are the phytonutrients (organic phytochemical compounds) ferulic acid and p-Coumaric acid.

Ferulic acid is a phenolic acid commonly found in seeds, leaves, fruits and vegetables. It is more easily absorbed by the body and stays in the blood longer than many other antioxidants (including vitamin C). It can repair damaged cells, neutralize free radicals (in organs and muscles) and alleviates oxidative stress in organs. It has been shown to be anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, antiarrhythmic, anti-thrombosis and protective against UV radiation. It lowers blood glucose levels, lowers blood pressure by dilating blood vessels, improves good cholesterol while lowers bad (LDL) cholesterol and slows down the aging process by preventing cell degeneration.

P-Coumaric acid is a hydroxycinnamic acid that is found in fruits, vegetables and tea. It has also been shown to lower LDL cholesterol, prevent plaque buildup in arteries and is highly antibacterial.

While coconut oil is not a significant source of vitamin E (tocopherols), it does aid tremendously in the absorption of this essential vitamin through the skin and in its transport to the organs. So is essential increases vitamin E’s potency and effectiveness when the two are taken or applied together.

Dosage

Coconut oil can be directly ingested or taken in concentrated pill form. The amount of coconut oil necessary for maximum benefits varies among individuals, but the generally effective amount has been stated as around 2 tablespoons daily. That being said, you may find you experience positive results from just one tablespoon, and likewise having over 6 won’t hurt you (unless you are consuming too many calories for your recommended diet). If you take it in concentrated pill form, most pills are the equivalent of about one tablespoon, but you should convert the concentration of your pills to tablespoons to be sure.

If you experience hot flashes, try taking less. As stated, most pills will contain the equivalent of one tablespoon, so in order to ingest less than this, freeze smaller amounts of jarred coconut oil and take them at different times of day (but not just before bed, as the energy boost will keep you awake).

This being said, pill forms will have undergone additional processing, so it would be best to ingest it directly by the spoonful.

Conclusion

Coconut oil is a fantastic addition to your daily routine, as a diet addition/replacement and as a topically applied moisturizer and protective barrier. It could be the answer to many of your own health problems or those of your friends and family, so please share these facts. Also, check out our many posts related to coconut oil that give a more detailed analysis of its specific benefits and functions.

Sources

  1. Bruce Fife, The Coconut Oil Miracle, Penguin Group, 2013. (Originally published as The Healing Miracles of Coconut Oil in 1999 by Piccadilly Books)
  2. James Young, What is the difference between expeller pressed coconut oil & cold pressed coconut oil? Livestrong, August 2013. http://www.livestrong.com/article/287991-what-is-the-difference-between-expeller-pressed-coconut-oil-cold-pressed-coconut-oil/
  3. Prinjaporn Tee-ngam, Namthip Nunant, Poomrat Rattanarat, Weena Siangproh and Orawon Chailapakul. Simple and Rapid Determination of Ferulic Acid Levels in Food and Cosmetic Samples Using Paper-Based Platforms. MDPI; Sensors (Basel, Switzerland). Oct 2013; 13(10): 13039–13053.
  4. Lara Alspaugh, Vitamins in Coconut Oil, Livestrong, December 2013. http://www.livestrong.com/article/310233-vitamins-in-coconut-oil/
  5. Dr. Linda Kennedy, Antioxidants in Coconut Oil, June 2011.
  6. 4-coumaric, PubChem, http://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/summary/summary.cgi?cid=637542.
  7. Eds. OI Aruoma and B Halliwell, Free radicals and food additives , London: Taylor and Francis, 1991.