Coconut oil, that goopy saturated fat, is having its moment in the superfood spotlight.
Conventional thought used to consider coconut oil unhealthy; now that research is proving otherwise, people are increasingly interested in reaping its benefits. For starters, coconut oil fats contain metabolism-boosting medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) and lauric acid, which has antimicrobial effects and may be able to increase good (HDL) cholesterol in the blood, according to recent studies published by the National Institutes of Health.
Practitioners of Ayurveda, the ancient Indian tradition of medicine, are particularly familiar with the effects of coconut oil.
“Coconut has been part of Indian food and culture for thousands of years and has a natural affinity to heal the body,” said Jay Apte, a doctor of Ayurveda, which focuses on diet and balanced lifestyle to heal the body.
“But now that Dr. Oz and Deepak Chopra talk about it, more people are listening,” said Apte, who holds a master’s degree in pharmacology and sees patients at her Ayurveda and Panchakarma Center in Mountain View, Calif.
The National Institutes of Health studies should prompt more discussion in Western medical circles. One, released in December, shows that virgin coconut oil could help control cases of the stubborn Clostridium difficile, an antibiotic-resistant diarrhea usually acquired in a hospital. Another pilot study, published this year in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, looked at coconut oil’s potential to remove amyloid plaques that build up in the brain.
However, until a randomized, double-blind clinical trial is conducted, it is not possible to know whether coconut oil has any beneficial effect in battling Alzheimer’s disease.
Kim Wallingford Homes, of Alamo, Calif., wasn’t looking for a cure-all, just a way to brighten her complexion. A few years ago, she mustered up the courage to ask her Guatemalan house cleaner how she managed to look “so beautifully young.”
Her answer? Coconut oil. Homes had a tub of the stuff under her bathroom sink, so she dug her fingers into it and thought, “This can’t be right.” Many tubs and dozens of compliments later, she is a convert.
“I put it in my smoothies to give me a boost,” said Homes, now 59. “I put it on toast instead of butter. I fry food in it. I use it all over my body to seal in moisture right after the shower. I think it’s given me radiance.”
Board-certified dermatologist Janet H. Prystowsky recommends coconut oil as a makeup remover and cites a study published in the November-December 2008 edition of the journal Dermatitis that shows its effect on healing dermatitis.
“People who have dermatitis are prone to picking up skin infections, and because lauric acid has some antiseptic and antiviral properties, it (coconut oil) could potentially help them avoid that,” she said. Same goes for dandruff.
“Dandruff is often the result of yeast organisms that love growing in the scalp, so if you can minimize the presence of that organism (with coconut oil), you might notice your scalp is less itchy,” she said.
What intrigues the New York-based dermatologist most about coconut oil is its potential benefits to the hair. She cited a study published in the March-April 2003 edition of the Journal of Cosmetic Science that examined damaged hair pretreated with mineral oil and coconut oil. It found that the strands coated with coconut oil had a decrease in protein loss.
“I think, anecdotally, it can help dry, coarse or curly hair, too,” she said.
After hearing similar anecdotal chatter about “oil pulling,” the ancient practice of swishing oil in the mouth, Pleasant Hill chiropractic nutritionist Gary Yaeger started researching and experimenting with coconut oil himself.
Every morning, he and his wife, a dental hygienist, chew up one tablespoon of the oil and swish it in their mouths for 20 minutes. The benefits? They are numerous, he said, but depend on the person and their health, said Yaeger, who has been in practice for 20 years.
“People may notice teeth whitening and the antimicrobial element could help them get rid of chronic bad breath,” he said. “It has for me.”
Still, Yaeger — and the American Dental Association, for that matter — say that oil pulling is not a replacement for flossing and brushing teeth. “If someone has a dental issue, I will send them straight to a dentist, because we want to get that looked at right away,” he said.
Apte, the Ayurveda expert, recommends oil pulling — though usually with sesame oil, since it is high in calcium — to heal mouth sores, clean the tongue, and kill bacteria. “Practicing it daily can also have a calming effect on the mind,” she said.
Good for teeth
Since Vandana Bali, of San Francisco, started oil pulling a year ago — she sets her timer and swishes while preparing her tea and breakfast — she said she is more alert in the mornings. Also, she no longer wakes up congested. Then — her teeth.
“I went to my dentist this past August and didn’t say anything about the pulling,” said Bali, 45. “The first thing she said to me was, ‘OK, what are you doing? Your gums are pink. Your teeth are white. Your mouth looks super healthy.’ “
Bali admits that she’s always had “good teeth” and that using coconut oil has been part of a larger, total transformation in her health and lifestyle.
“I became a vegetarian and practice yoga and don’t drink alcohol or caffeine anymore,” she said. “I think all of these things, in addition to using coconut oil, allow me to be in balance.”