In my life I had the opportunity to tend to a few elderly friends with relatively serious short- and medium-term memory problems underlying the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. What these experiences taught me is that without memory, life is limited to the “now”. In normal conditions, every single second of our life is tracked by our brain which collects data, elaborates them, sends feedback and stimuli to our body and ultimately, designs our future. If our brain can’t properly carry out these tasks, thereby preventing us from actively being part of our own life, and creating opinions, hopes, fears and desires, then we risk losing even the true essence of who we are.
Fortunately, nature, once again, comes into play providing a powerful tool, that is coconut oil, that can help us keep our brain in excellent shape. Coconut oil and memory loss have a deep connection that after years of personal research I finally have the opportunity to share with you.
The current situation is alarming
More than 50 million people in the world have memory issues connected to either dementia or Alzheimer’s disease today. Each year 10 million new cases occur worldwide, most of which occur among low and middle class. Millions more suffer with other neurodegenerative disorders. The most concerning thing is that the number of people affected by these highly debilitating diseases continues to increase every year. What we need to understand is that dementia and other forms of neurodegeneration should not be considered part of the normal aging process. In fact, the brain is perfectly capable of functioning efficiently, regardless of how long a person lives. Aging is normally included as one of the main risk factors for neurodegeneration but it’s certainly not the cause. Just like most health conditions, prevention and early intervention are of utmost importance. When we talk about the brain, this is even more important because of the particular nature of the brain that unlike other organs, is able to regenerate its cells (neurons) through a process called neurogenesis, only in certain nutritional and environmental conditions that we’re going to discuss.
I remember looking into my grandma’s eyes. They were deep pine green and beautiful. In the family we all noticed that a few months after my grandpa’s death, she started showing the first signs of memory loss that became more and more evident and frustrating both for her and us as time went by. After thorough tests, doctors confirmed that there were clear signs of dementia. They prescribed drugs that are normally given to elderly with mild cognitive problems, hoping to slow down the progress of neurodegeneration. Even though these drugs had some temporary positive effects, my grandma’s conditions continued to get worse to the point that she needed a caretaker 24/7. She couldn’t recognize friends and some family members but fortunately, she was still able to have small talks that would eventually repeat themselves every couple of minutes or so. On the other hand, she ended up assuming a constant aura of peacefulness and happiness. Why? She couldn’t live anywhere but in the present. That’s when I realized once more the actual “power of now”, such a sought-after goal in meditation. Besides this, that’s also when my chemist’s mind started to wonder about what was going on in my grandma’s head. A new journey had just started.
Delving into the complexity of the brain
By now it has been more than a decade since I started looking at the world through the lenses of (bio)chemistry. I often have the feeling that molecules speak to me in the same way I speak to them. I feel lucky to be able to have this relationship with them because this allows me to adopt a reductionist approach to the resolution of problems by breaking them down, no matter how complex they might be, and delve deeper into their root causes.
Well, an unexpected problem that a few years ago I couldn’t ignore at all and that ended up taking a lot of my time was called “grandma”. What had been happening in her brain and how could I help her? I needed to learn more about it. Fortunately, the mechanisms underlying dementia and Alzheimer’s disease (AD) are known. As for AD, the main biochemical phenomenon that takes place leading eventually to neurodegeneration is the accumulation of small proteins called amyloid beta along the neuronal connections (axons). As this happens neurons die and memory loss progresses. Although there is no definitive explanation as to what triggers this series of events, one of the leading hypotheses has to do with the development of insulin-resistance of the brain cells, which led the medical community to refer to AD as type 3 diabetes (insulin resistance is also the main cause of type 2 diabetes in adults). Essentially, neurons become incapable of utilizing glucose as their energy source. These are the hungriest cells in the organism, in fact the brain consumes ~20% of glucose-derived energy, yet accounts for only ~2% of the body weight. Consequently, It doesn’t take long before these cells start to starve to death, making the incredibly complex neuronal network gradually but inexorably fall apart. What is very compelling is that this condition is extremely common also in non-Alzheimer patients affected by dementia, in whose neurons’ death occurs as a direct consequence of the impossibility to transform glucose into energy inside the brain.
“Drugs don’t work”
No, drugs don’t work. It’s not me saying this but Dr. Randall Bateman, a neurologist at Washington University in St. Louis, in an interview to the NY Times after disclosing the results of a large clinical trial, called DIAN-TU, on the most promising drug for Alzheimer’s disease. The trial was sponsored by Washington University in St. Louis, two drug companies that supplied the drugs — Eli Lilly and Roche, with a subsidiary, Genentech — the National Institutes of Health and philanthropies, including the Alzheimer’s Association. All big names with big money.
Pharmaceutical companies along with academic research labs for decades have been trying to find an effective treatment to AD. They have been spending billions of dollars in research that mainly focuses on the hallmark of AD we mentioned earlier (amyloid beta plaque accumulation). Currently, every single drug on the market seems to show only temporary beneficial effects, if any. Drugs like donepezil (Aricept), rivastigmine (Exelon), galantamine (Razadyne), and memantine (Namenda) that are currently used in the US to treat Alzheimer’s are largely ineffective past 1 year of treatment and completely useless for dementia. For the latter, the situation isn’t that different. A few years ago the prestigious journal CMAJ screened 15,554 titles and abstracts and 1384 full-text articles as well as eight randomized clinical trials and 3 companion reports finding no significant effects of the main class of drugs currently used to treat dementia, referred to as cognitive enhancer on cognition.
When at the end of my investigation into the current state of the art regarding dementia and AD I realized that years of research and billions of dollars didn’t lead to anything promising, I decided to turn to nature.
Why Coconut Oil
In 2014 scientists found that after birth the brain of newborns grows at an average rate of 1% per day, doubling its size after 90 days. This is very impressive if you consider that no other organ grows that fast after birth. What is also surprising is that even though glucose is neurons’ main fuel source, breast milk provides most of its calories to the newborn not through sugars (lactose, mainly) but through fats. About 30% of those fats consist of so-called saturated medium chain triglycerides (saturated MCTs) in which lauric acid is the most abundant. The term “medium chain” refers to the number of carbon atoms present in these molecules that is between 8 and 12.
If you have been wondering what coconut oil has to do with all this, here is the answer: coconut oil naturally contains more than 60% of saturated MCTs.
For decades, it’s been known that the brain can utilize MCTs as an alternative source of energy. MCTs are broken down and absorbed in the stomach, unlike long-chain fats present in most foods we normally use, such as olive oil, vegetable oil, butter, etc., that follow a completely different and lengthier digestion process. MCTs are metabolized in the liver where they’re converted into so-called ketone bodies (ketones are a class of molecules where a carbon atom is linked to two other carbon atoms and one oxygen atom). Unlike long-chain fats and similar to glucose, these ketone bodies (especially acetylacetone and 3-beta-hydroxybutyrate (3HB)) can take advantage of specialized transporters called MCT1 to cross the blood-brain barrier, a highly selective membrane that separates the brain from the rest of the body (without it toxins, bacteria, and other potentially harmful things could wreak havoc in your brain). Once these fats enter brain cells, they’re readily converted into glucose and used as fuel. Alternatively, because of their smaller size compared to long-chain fats, MCTs have also been shown to be able to enter the brain unchanged and be metabolized and turned into energy directly by specific brain cells, called astrocytes.
The take-home message is quite simple: if glucose is not there or can’t be used by neurons, MCTs are a valid alternative source of energy.
In pursuit of glucose
When might the brain risk running into potentially harmful lack of glucose? One possible answer is fasting. It’s true that the body has glucose reservoirs that it can tap into as soon as glucose is needed but if fasting is further extended, glucose reservoirs are depleted and fat reservoirs are accessed. At this point, fats are converted into ketone bodies which are primarily sent to the brain (the brain always has the priority among all organs). If this mechanism didn’t happen, brain cells would run out of fuel and die within minutes (read more here).
Earlier we mentioned that it’s commonly accepted that both Alzheimer’s disease and dementia underlie a condition whereby neurons can no longer take glucose in (type 3 diabetes) and use it as a fuel source, which inevitably leads to cell death. You might wonder why then the organism doesn’t access the fat reservoir to make up for it, as we just discussed. Well, first of all, depending on the individual, fat reservoirs might be very limited; secondly, the adipose (fat) tissue allows the utilization of its fats only if the blood glucose is low and insulin is high for several hours. In normal nutritional conditions, this is very unlikely to occur.
Give the brain what it needs
If you haven’t got lost yet in this journey of biochemistry and neuroscience, you probably agree with me that if the brain becomes unable to use glucose, then the only option to keep its cells all alive are either MCTs or ketone bodies. If MCTs can’t be obtained from the fat tissue because the organism is not in “fasting mode”, then the only reasonable solution consists of getting MCTs from the diet. The best natural food that is rich in MCTs is coconut oil.
The scientific literature contains clear evidence about the effectiveness of coconut oil at increasing ketone levels in the blood and providing energy to brain cells. In 2015 a review article published in the British Journal of Nutrition discussed the most important research related to coconut oil and neurodegenerative diseases (AD and dementia). Here are the main conclusions:
- Coconut oil has been shown to provide a reliable alternative energy source to glucose to sustain brain cell viability upon its metabolization into ketone bodies, both in vivo and in vitro
- Both in vitro and in vivo studies show that coconut oil and ketone bodies protect towards toxic amyloid beta plaque formation (the hallmark of AD), even though the mechanism is still unclear
- The high ketone levels observed upon coconut oil consumption seem to promote neuron growth and sustainment. The mechanism behind this might be related to enhanced neurotransmission (better intercellular communication), increased ATP production (ATP is the main energy currency for most biochemical transformations) and higher expression of brain cell-growth factors (neurons receive beneficial stimuli to grow)
- Coconut oil-rich diet can favor the uptake of glucose into the brain, therefore restoring, at least in part, the access to glucose itself as another possible energy source.
- A few studies demonstrated that coconut oil could significantly improve glucose level stabilization, reducing metabolic imbalance and insulin resistance
- The natural antioxidants present in coconut oil (especially polyphenols) might have a protective action against amyloid beta formation and reduce neuroinflammation, a typical condition of people affected by dementia.
Even though behind this scientific effort there are no big pharma companies sponsoring the research, more and more knowledge is being accumulated about the beneficial effects that coconut oil and MCTs have to aid people with either AD or dementia (more info here). On top of this, there is an increasing number of people that decide to opt for coconut oil or MCT oil, after realizing that the drugs their beloved ones are given aren’t working, or in some cases, are worsening their conditions.
A big hurdle to overcome
Since coconut oil is a natural and inexpensive food and coconut oil-derived MCT oil can also be easily found, pharma companies wouldn’t have any benefit in devoting their resources in this direction. What sounds absurd to me is that the evidence I listed in this article plus all the others I couldn’t mention is as sound as, if not more sound than any other data that has been collected on dozens of drugs developed in the past or under development. Pharma companies need to have a molecular target in order to come up with a drug or a class of drugs (this is how current research works). Even though this approach is exceptional in many cases, a more holistic approach is certainly more suitable especially when highly promising alternatives, with clear scientific evidence and with little to no side effects, such as coconut oil or MCT oil, are at our disposal. If pharma companies show scarce interest in at least considering such alternatives for economic or other reasons, then it’s of the utmost importance that we individuals don’t stop moving forward on our own.
The “grandma” problem
I firmly believe that we are all capable of making a change in our life. What this takes, though, is determination, curiosity and positivity. These three qualities are key for learning and understanding the problems we want to solve. Among all the times in my life when I had the chance to put this to the test is the story of my grandma. Once I suggested my relatives to supplement her treatment with (odorless) coconut oil, they were all quite skeptical but over the course of a few weeks of constant supplementation of coconut oil into her food, the first clear signs of cognitive improvement started to show: she had greater mental clarity, more physical strength, improved short-term memory and better mood. Though her health will never completely recover because of the substantial neurodegeneration that occurred by the time she started assuming coconut oil, she seemed to have been born again and I couldn’t be happier about it.
Easy tips to assume coconut oil and MCT oil
- Coconut oil or MCT oil? It’s better to have them both and use coconut oil for high-temperature cooking (pan-frying, sautéeing, etc) and MCT for any other use, such as salad dressing, smoothies, etc.
- Start slowly. The guts need to get used to an increased amount of (healthy) fats in the diet. As for coconut oil, start with 2-3 teaspoons a day for the first week and increase gradually to eventually reach 3-4 tablespoons a day. As for MCT oil, start with 1-2 teaspoon to increase up to 1 tablespoon a day.
- Be creative by adding coconut oil/MCT oil to your dishes and partially replacing other oils you might be using. For my grandma I made a 50:50 mixture of olive oil and (odorless) coconut oil that her caretaker uses for pretty much any type of cooking (pan-frying, sautéeing, etc.) but also as salad dressing.
- Opt for odorless coconut oil if you are not crazy about the smell of coconut oil. Coconut oil smell might not be ideal for certain types of cuisines, Italian, for example, but it’s quite palatable when used with fish, meat, sweets, yogurt, smoothies, etc.
- Keep track of the evolution of the conditions (cognitive behavior, mental clarity, balance, etc.), how long any improvement lasts and how much time and what dosage it takes to reach that point. The brain is such a complex organ that the extent of the results and the time it takes to see those results may vary for each person. Don’t be afraid to experiment.
- Believe in what you do. I know of doctors who want to discredit the properties of these oils saying that most of their beneficial effects in preventing memory loss are linked to placebo effect, (i.e. a positive effect due to the patient’s belief in the treatment and not to the treatment itself). I would reply saying: “If that’s the case, then let the placebo effect take place!”. Even if these oils were merely an effective medium to improve the conditions of patients affected with AD or dementia through the placebo effect, that would be fantastic. In any case, as I tried to explain, there’s a lot of science behind the molecules contained in these oils, therefore the placebo effect would be nothing but a nice addition.
- Let the doctor who’s following you or your loved one know about your decision to experiment with coconut oil/MCT oil. Most likely he/she will be skeptical about it but don’t give up. Instead, keep him/her up to date about any improvement you observe upon starting assuming the oils.
- Where to get the best coconut oil and MCT oil?
Here are my selected brands:
Pure coconut oil: Nature’s way (US) and Bulk Powders (Europe)
Odorless coconut oil: Nutiva (US) and Cocopacific (Europe)
MCT oil: Wild Foods (US) and Nutiva (Europe)
MCT powder: Nutricost (US) and Bulk Powders (Europe)
In conclusion, besides taking coconut oil or MCT oil, never underestimate the importance of staying active as much as possible. The brain needs to be continuously stimulated. Therefore, manual activities (like gardening, origami making, playing music, cooking, etc), card games, being surrounded by kind people, dancing, walking, biking, and so on, are a very effective and very fun way to keep your brain in shape.
Please share this article with anyone you think might benefit from this information. Likewise, don’t be shy and please share your thoughts, concerns and experience with the Wise in Motion team.
Live wise. Live in motion.