SUPERFOODS Series: Coconut Oil

Coconut-oil-460x322The health benefits of coconut oil include hair care, skin care, stress relief, cholesterol level maintenance, weight loss, boosted immune system, proper digestion and regulated metabolism. It also provides relief from kidney problems, heart diseases, high blood pressure, diabetes, HIV, and cancer, while helping to improve dental quality and bone strength. These benefits of oil can be attributed to the presence of lauric acid, capric acid and caprylic acid, and their respective properties, such as antimicrobial, antioxidant, anti-fungal, antibacterial and soothing qualities.Coconut oil is used extensively in tropical countries especially India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Philippines etc., which have a good production of coconut oil. At one time, the oil was also popular in western countries like the  United States and Canada, but there was a strong propaganda campaign in the 1970s spread by the corn oil and soy oil industry against coconut oil. Coconut oil was considered harmful for the human body due to its high saturated fat content until the last decade (2000s) when people began to question the claims of the propaganda. Next, let’s look into some more details of how coconut oil works in our body.

CoconutHow is lauric acid used by our body?

The human body converts lauric acid into monolaurin, which is supposedly helpful in dealing with viruses and bacteria that cause diseases such as herpes, influenza, cytomegalovirus, and even HIV. It also helps in fighting harmful bacteria such as listeria monocytogenes and helicobacter pylori, and harmful protozoa such as giardia lamblia. As a result of these various health benefits of coconut oil, although its exact mechanism of action was unknown, it has been extensively used in Ayurveda, the traditional Indian medicinal system. The Coconut Research Center has compiled a list of potential benefits of coconut oil in both traditional and modern medicine.

Before we move on to the benefits of coconut oil in detail, we should first understand its composition.

Composition of Coconut Oil:

More than ninety percent of coconut oil consists of saturated fats (Don’t panic! It’s not as bad as it sounds, read to the end of this review and your opinion may change), along with traces of few unsaturated fatty acids, such as monounsaturated fatty acids and polyunsaturated fatty acids. Virgin coconut oil is no different from this.

Saturated fatty acids: Most of them are medium chain triglycerides, which are supposed to assimilate well in the body’s systems. Lauric acid is the chief contributor, representing more than forty percent of the total, followed by capric acid, caprylic acid, myristic acid and palmitic.

Polyunsaturated fatty acids: Linoleic acid.

Monounsaturated fatty acids: Oleic acid.

Poly-phenols: Coconut contains Gallic acid, which is also known as phenolic acid. These polyphenols are  responsible for the fragrance and the taste of coconut oil and Virgin Coconut Oil is rich in these polyphenols.

Certain derivatives of fatty acid like betaines, ethanolamide, ethoxylates, fatty esters, fatty polysorbates, monoglycerides and polyol esters.

Fatty chlorides, fatty alcohol sulphate and fatty alcohol ether sulphate, all of which are derivatives of fatty alcohols.

Vitamin-E, vitamin K and minerals such as Iron.

Health Benefits of Coconut Oil

Hair care:

Coconut oil is one of the best natural nutrients for your hair. It helps in healthy growth of hair and gives your hair a shiny quality. It is also highly effective in reducing protein loss which can lead to various unattractive or unhealthy qualities in your hair.

Coconut oil is extensively used in the Indian sub-continent for hair care. Most of the people in those countries apply coconut oil on their hair every day after bathing or showering. It is an excellent conditioner and helps the re-growth process of damaged hair. It also provides the essential proteins required for nourishing and healing damaged hair. Research studies indicate that coconut oil provides better protection to hair from damage caused by hygral fatigue.

By regularly massaging your head with coconut oil, you can ensure that your scalp is free of dandruff, even if your scalp is chronically dry. It also helps in keeping your hair and scalp free from lice and lice eggs.

Coconut oil is therefore used as hair care oil and is used in manufacturing various conditioners and dandruff relief creams. Coconut oil is normally applied topically for hair care.

Skin care

Coconut oil is an excellent massage oil for the skin as well. It acts as an effective moisturizer on all types of skin, including dry skin. The benefit of coconut oil on the skin is comparable to that of mineral oil. Fortunately, unlike mineral oil, there is no chance of having any adverse side effects on the skin from the application of coconut oil. Coconut oil therefore is a safe solution for preventing dryness and flaking of skin. It also delays the appearance of wrinkles and sagging of skin which normally accompany aging. Coconut oil also helps in treating various skin problems including psoriasis, dermatitis, eczema and other skin infections. For that exact reason, coconut oil forms the base ingredient of various body care products like soaps, lotions, and creams that are used for skin care. Coconut oil also helps in preventing premature aging and degenerative diseases due to its well-known antioxidant properties.

Heart diseases

There is a misconception spread among many people that coconut oil is not good for heart health. This is because it contains a large quantity of saturated fats. In reality, coconut oil is beneficial for the heart. It contains about 50% lauric acid, which helps in actively preventing various heart problems like high cholesterol levels and high blood pressure. The saturated fats present in coconut oil are not harmful as you commonly find in vegetable oils. Coconut oil does not lead to increase in LDL levels, and it reduces the incidence of injury and damage to arteries and therefore helps in preventing atherosclerosis.

Weight loss

Coconut oil is very useful for weight loss. It contains short and medium-chain fatty acids that help in taking off excessive weight. It is also easy to digest and it helps in healthy functioning of the thyroid and endocrine system. Further, it increases the body’s metabolic rate by removing stress on the pancreas, thereby burning more energy and helping obese and overweight people lose the weight. Hence, people living in tropical coastal areas, who use coconut oil every day as their primary cooking oil, are normally not fat, obese or overweight.

Digestion

Internal functions of coconut oil occur primarily due to it being used as cooking oil. Coconut oil helps to improve the digestive system and thus prevents various stomach and digestion-related problems including Irritable Bowel Syndrome. The saturated fats present in coconut oil have antimicrobial properties and help in dealing with various bacteria, fungi, and parasites that can cause indigestion. Coconut oil also helps in the absorption of other nutrients such as vitamins, minerals and amino acids.

Immunity

Coconut oil is also good for the immune system. It strengthens the immune system because it contains antimicrobial lipids, lauric acid, capric acid and caprylic acid which have antifungal, antibacterial and antiviral properties. The human body converts lauric acid into monolaurin which research has supported as an effective way to deal with viruses and bacteria that cause diseases like herpes, influenza, cytomegalovirus, and even HIV. Coconut oil helps in fighting harmful bacteria like listeria monocytogenes and helicobacter pylori, and harmful protozoa such as giardia lamblia.

Candida

Coconut has been shown to prevent and even cure candida. It provides relief from the inflammation caused by candida, both externally and internally. Its high moisture retaining capacity keeps the skin from cracking or peeling off. Further, unlike other pharmaceutical treatments for candida, the effects of coconut oil is gradual and not drastic or sudden, which gives the patient an appropriate amount of time to get used to the withdrawal symptoms or Herxheimer Reactions (the name given to the symptoms accompanying body’s rejection of toxins generated during elimination of these fungi). But, in the treatment of this condition, people should systematically and gradually increase their dosages of coconut oil and shouldn’t initially start with a large quantity.

Candida, also known as Systemic Candidiasis, is a tragic disease caused from excessive and uncontrolled growth of yeast called Candida Albicans in the stomach. This yeast is more or less present in everyone’s stomach, but it doesn’t manifest any adverse effects since its growth is controlled by the beneficial bacteria which also resides in our stomach. There are many reasons for this uncontrolled growth of yeast. For example, if other destructive bacteria or the use of antibiotics which ultimately end up in eliminating these bacteria, there can be an imbalance of bacteria and a problem like Candida can develop. Also, bleaching or washing of your stomach with medicines or excessive use of chemical laxatives or ingestion of poisonous material can cause the yeast or fungi to start growing very fast and can lead to Candida.

Symptoms of candida: The symptoms of Candida include infection in the genitals, urinary tract and bladder, stomach & intestines, ear, nose and throat, itchy and dry skin, inflammations in internal organs and skin, patching & peeling off of skin (particularly in scalp), digestive and excretory disorders and problems with your hair and nails.

This disease is very common in Europe and America, possibly due to the cold and moist climate and general food preparation, storage, and comsumption habits. In these places, a large portion of their food is comprised of food stuffs which, in some way or the other, are processed with yeast or fermented. For example, these cultures heavily rely on foods like bread, other baked items, cheese and above all, wine and other alcoholic drinks. These things also assist growth of Candida Albicans in the body. The various fatty acids found in the coconut oil are beneficial in counteracting the effects of these habits and can be used to treat Candida.

Capric acid is a medium chain fatty acid (a Saturated Fat) present in coconut oil has antimicrobial, antiviral and antifungal properties. This is the same fatty acid present in breast milk and it protects the baby from bacterial, viral and fungal infections. In the body, it reacts with certain enzymes secreted by other bacteria, which subsequently convert it into a powerful antimicrobial agent, monocaprin. In the systematic use coconut oil as a treatment for Candida, the capric acid has also been found very effective in killing the yeast.

Caprylic acid, caproic acid, myristic acid and lauric acid are all found in coconut oil and have antimicrobial and antifungal properties which aid in the elimination of candida albicans. Lauric acid is a saturated fat and a medium chain fatty acid that forms a compound called monolaurin when it reacts with enzymes. This monolaurin is a potent germ and fungus killer.

Healing and infections

When applied to infected areas, coconut oil forms a chemical layer that protects the infected body part from external dust, air, fungi, bacteria and viruses. Coconut oil is highly effective on bruises because it speeds up the healing process of damaged tissues.

Infections: Coconut oil is very effective against a variety of infections due to its antifungal, antiviral, and antibacterial properties. According to the Coconut Research Center, coconut oil kills the viruses that cause influenza, measles, hepatitis, herpes, SARS, and other serious health risks. It also kills bacteria that cause ulcers, throat infections, urinary tract infections, pneumonia, and gonorrhoea. Finally, coconut oil is also effective in the elimination of fungi and yeast that cause ringworm, athlete’s foot, thrush, and diaper rash.

Other

Coconut oil is strongly recommended for a number of other benefits that are explained below. Using coconut oils has been shown to mildly help the following:

Liver: The presence of medium chain triglycerides and fatty acids helps in preventing liver diseases because those substances are easily converted into energy when they reach the liver, thus reducing the work load of the liver and also preventing accumulation of fat.

Kidney: Coconut oil helps in preventing kidney and gall bladder diseases. It also helps to dissolve kidney stones.

Pancreatitis: Coconut oil is also believed to be useful in treating pancreatitis.

Stress relief: Coconut oil is very soothing and hence it helps in removing stress. Applying coconut oil to the head, followed by a gentle massage, helps to eliminate mental fatigue.

Diabetes: Coconut oil helps in controlling blood sugar, and improves the secretion of insulin. It also promotes the effective utilization of blood glucose, thereby preventing and treating diabetes.

Bones: As mentioned earlier, coconut oil improves the ability of our body to absorb important minerals. These include calcium and magnesium which are necessary for the development of bones. Thus, coconut oil is very useful to women who are prone to osteoporosis after middle age.

Dental care: Calcium is an important component of our teeth. Since coconut oil facilitates absorption of calcium by the body, it helps in developing strong teeth. Coconut oil also stops tooth decay.

HIV and cancer: It is believed that coconut oil plays an instrumental role in reducing a person’s viral susceptibility for HIV and cancer patients. Preliminary research has shown an indication of this effect of coconut oil on reducing the viral load of HIV patients (Reference).

Finally, coconut oil is often used by athletes, body builders and by those who are dieting. The reason behind this being that coconut oil contains less calories than other oils, its fat content is easily converted into energy, and it does not lead to accumulation of fat in the heart and arteries. Coconut oil helps boost energy and endurance, and generally enhances the performance of athletes.

Coconut oil and Alzheimer’s disease: The research conducted by Dr. Newport states that coconut oil is useful in treating Alzheimer’s disease. Apart from this there is no scientific evidence or traditional knowledge of coconut oil being used for treating Alzheimer’s. In fact, it is not traditionally thought that coconut oil helps in boosting the function of the brain in any form.

Why is coconut oil solid?: Unlike most other oils, coconut oil has a high melting point – about 24 to 25 degrees Celsius or 76-78 Fahrenheit. Therefore it is solid at room temperature and melts only when the temperature rises considerably. Hence, if you buy a bottle of coconut oil and find it solid, don’t immediately assume that there is some problem with it. Coconut oil is often in this form, and obviously, don’t keep it in your refrigerator.

How to use coconut oil?: If you are using coconut oil for topical purposes, especially hair care, just melt the oil (if it is solid) by keeping the bottle in the sun or soaking it in warm water. You can also take some coconut oil out and put it in a small bowl and heat the bowl over a flame (don’t use a microwave). Then, take the oil on your palm and apply it to your hair. If you want to use it for internal consumption, simply replace butter or vegetable oils with coconut oil in your recipes. Remember, you don’t need to completely switch to coconut oil, because then you will lose the other benefits of more traditional oils and dairy products.

Can I use coconut oil for cooking?: Yes, in most of the tropical coastal regions, people use coconut oil for cooking.

I don’t like the taste of coconut oil. What should I do?: Try using coconut oil in a variety of different recipes. However, if you get nauseated after eating coconut oil, don’t force yourself to eat it. As can happen with any food item, your body may be allergic to coconut oil and it is best not to consume it.

Varieties of Coconut Oil

There are primarily 6 varieties of coconut oil that you will find on the market. These are pure coconut oil, refined coconut oil, organic coconut oil, virgin coconut oil, organic virgin coconut oil and extra virgin coconut oil.

Pure Coconut Oil: This oil is our most well-known old friend. It is extracted from dried coconut kernels, which are also called copra. It is crude, unrefined and without any additives. It is mainly extracted by compression of copra in a mill, either driven by bullocks or by power. However, the variety extracted by bullock driven oil mills is preferred. Pure coconut oil has multiple uses such as edible oil, massaging oil, hair oil, cosmetic usage, as well as medicinal and industrial use.

Refined Coconut Oil: This is sometimes also called the RBD coconut oil, which is an abbreviated form for refined, bleached & deodorized coconut oil. As the name suggests, this type is obtained by mechanically and chemically refining, bleaching and deodorizing the crude coconut oil, to make it thin, colorless, odorless and without any type of particle (such as proteins) suspended in it. What we then get is only pure saturated fats.

Virgin Coconut Oil: Virgin coconut oil is derived from the milk obtained from fresh coconut meat, and not from copra, by processes like fermentation, centrifugal separation and enzyme action. Care is taken to use no or as little heat as possible in the extraction of this oil. Produced in this way, the oil tastes and smells the best and is laden with antioxidants and medium chain fatty acids. It also has remarkable anti-microbial properties. This is one of the most respected and trusted varieties of coconut oil.

Organic Coconut Oil: The coconut oil that has been extracted from coconuts obtained from coconut palms raised only on organic manure and no synthetic fertilizers or insecticides. The production of organic coconut oil is also completed without involving any chemical in its extraction or processing. This is another well-respected variety of coconut oil.  Organic coconut oil forms an integral part of a number of organic cosmetic products such as organic soaps, organic skin creams and lotions, organic snacks and thousands of other similar products. Some of the organic programs and authorities that certify organic coconut oil include Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS), USDA National Organic Program (NOP), European Organic Regulations (EU 2092/91), Export Certificates for Japan (JAS Equivalent), Indian National Programme for Organic Production (NPOP), Quebec Organic Reference Standard (CAAQ), Bio Suisse Standards, IOFAM Basic Standards, ECOCERT.

Organic Virgin Coconut Oil: This type of oil is basically virgin coconut oil produced from the organic coconuts, in an organic way. This is perhaps the best and purest form of coconut oil one can imagine, but it is rare.

Extra Virgin Coconut Oil: Among all the varieties of coconut oil, this is the most challenged and controversial variety, as its very existence is doubtful and the name hardly makes any sense. Furthermore, there are no set standards for virginity of coconut oil. Moreover, reputed firms and governmental bodies are still hesitant to say anything on the matter, nor are they selling it. Basically, further research is definitely required.

The properties of coconut oil do not differ much with their varieties and remain more or less the same. So, think well and make a wise decision before you decide to purchase one of the varieties.

Coconut Oil as a Carrier Oil: Coconut oil can be very efficient as carrier oil. Carrier oils hold a place of high importance in Aromatherapy, Ayurveda, Chinese Medicine and all other systems of treatment that involve massaging. Carrier oils are those oils which easily penetrate or absorb into the skin and thus facilitate seepage or absorption of other oils (such as essential oils) and herbal extracts through the skin when mixed into it. Coconut oil is easily absorbed through the skin’s pores and thus is used as a carrier oil. Furthermore, being one of the most stable oils, it doesn’t go rancid, nor does it let the other oils, herbal extracts, or medicines spoil inside of it. Due to its anti-fungal and anti-microbial property coconut oil keeps the oils, herbal extracts and medicines that are mixed in it protected from microbial or fungal interactions. It also does not alter the properties of the oils and herbs mixed within it. Coconut oil is expensive in several countries; however, in tropical countries its cost is low enough to make it affordable as a carrier oil.

Coconut oil extraction

Cold pressing is one of the preferred methods for the extraction of coconut oil.The quality of coconut oil depends a lot on the method of its extraction. Basically, there are two main methods of extraction of coconut oil. The first is cold pressing of copra (dried coconut kernels) and the second is boiling of fresh coconut milk. Since boiling or heating destroys many nutrients and valuable components, coconut oil obtained this way is not considered as good as that obtained by cold pressing, since cold pressing retains much of oil’s goodness. Machine pressing and bullock/manual pressing are two methods of cold pressing.

Machine pressing: In this cold pressing is done with the help of an electrically or diesel-engine driven oil mill.  Most of cold pressed oil used in the world is obtained this way.

Bullock/manual pressing: The oil obtained this way has a better taste and fragrance and is more expensive since the production is smaller, it consumes more time and energy, and wastage is higher. In short, it has a higher price, lower availability and better quality.

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George M
Fitness Instructor
Certified Personal Trainer by I.S.S.A., CPR

Source: Ori Hofmekler with Marc Salzman

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Categories: Nutrition

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