August 10, 2012

Coconut Oil vs Curcumin as Remedies for Alzheimer's and other Ailments -- Part 1

The two things that have surprised me the most this year in my blogging and health-related research are:
  • The coconut oil craze. I first became aware of this in February when I put up my first post about the  reports I'd seen touting coconut oil as a remedy for Alzheimer's. That post took off like a skyrocket in terms of the hits it got and it kept on going. It has attracted five times as much traffic as any other post I've  published. Yet all the research I've done on coconut oil has yet to turn up a valid study to substantiate the claims made for it.
  • Curcumin -- the "unsung hero." Curcumin is the active ingredient in turmeric, the curry spice that Indians call the "holy powder." I had never heard anything about curcumin until I began researching dietary supplements, and I was startled to find it has been the subject of over 500 scientific studies, almost all of which verify its potential for treating not just Alzheimer's but also other neurological disorders like Parkinson's and MS, as well as cancer, diabetes, arthritis, cardiovascular disease, depression... and the list goes on.
The contrast between the much-hyped coconut oil and the little-known curcumin says a lot about how we let ourselves get seduced by internet hype, YouTube videos, anecdotal stories of miracle drugs, and our reluctance to check the validity of the claims.

So, let's take a closer look at both. Today, let's consider:


The Basis for Claims About Coconut Oil as a Remedy for Alzheimer's
The claim for coconut oil as a remedy for Alzheimer's has to do with substances called ketones. The damage caused by Alzheimer's disrupts the brain's ability to use its primary energy source, glucose. The brain naturally gets a portion of its energy from ketone bodies when glucose is less available (e.g. during fasting or after strenuous exercise or in newborns). Ketones may provide an alternative energy source to the brain's cells to moderate the damage caused by Alzheimer's disease. The body produces ketones when it metabolizes coconut oil and similar fatty acid substances.

That's the theory behind the claims for coconut oil. But the Alzheimer's Association says, "Unfortunately there just isn't any creditable science to support this idea."

The Alzheimer's Association notes that one study was begun on caprylic acid, a substance derived from coconut oil. That small study, funded by the manufacturer, showed promise in phase II clinical studies (which are designed to check on safety and dosage of experimental treatments, not to prove that it works). But the maker of the supplement opted to stop researching it prior to phase three trials that would have tested its effectiveness. The maker decided to use the substance instead as the basis for a product it named Axona and promote it as a "medical food." Medical foods do not require phase III studies or other clinical testing. The report on this study concludes:
The Alzheimer’s Association Medical and Scientific Advisory Council has expressed concern that there is not enough evidence to assess the potential benefit of medical foods for Alzheimer’s disease.  
I checked out Axona on the Mayo Clinic's site on "Drugs and Supplements" and here's what I found:
Axona is marketed as a medical food. Medical foods are dietary supplements that help manage a disease or condition that causes nutritional deficiencies. The Alzheimer's Association, however, disputes the notion that Alzheimer's disease causes nutritional deficiencies and requires a medical food. Medical foods are given only under the supervision of a doctor. But the Food and Drug Administration doesn't approve medical foods, nor does it test medical foods for safety or effectiveness. 
Until more is known, the Alzheimer's Association doesn't recommend the use of medical foods, including Axona, for the treatment of Alzheimer's disease
Dr. Mary Newport's Story
The source for much of the hype for coconut oil and Alzheimer's comes from the story told by Florida pediatrician Mary Newport, who experimented with putting several tablespoons of coconut oil in the oatmeal of her husband, who was seriously afflicted with Alzheimer's. He experienced a remarkable turnaround that is recounted in a video produced by the Christian Broadcasting Network. I included the video in a blog post last year (initially and mistakenly attributing the video to the more well-known CBS).  I'll admit that I was initially so taken with this that I went right to and ordered some coconut oil (when I still thought the video came from  CBS).

Newport spread the word on coconut oil's potential as an Alzheimer's cure through the YouTube video, her blog, a new book she published last year, and by lobbying scientists and politicians. Unfortunately, the evidence doesn't support the level of Newport's enthusiasm. 

National Institutes of Health researcher Richard Veech has worked with the Newports. He notes that early in diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, the brain starts to lose its ability to produce glucose, which leads to a kind of starvation of the brain. But the brain can still use ketones. He explains: "If we could get the level of ketones in the brain high enough in Alzheimer's patients, the hope is that they can use this for energy in place of glucose and we may be able to restore some of the brain's mental function."

But don't expect that to happen from consuming coconut oil, Veech cautions. While cells produce ketones when they metabolize the saturated fat in coconut oil (which has over 90 percent saturated fat, much more than most other oils and fats), "that doesn't lead to levels anywhere near high enough in the brain to do much good," he says. "It's great that Dr. Newport's husband has made such progress, but it is the story of one patient. It's not verified and it hasn't been duplicated in other patients with Alzheimer's." 

I'm reminded of my own experience with the serotonin-boosting supplement 5-HTP, which I  found was almost a miracle drug for me in dealing with insomnia and depression. I began touting it much as Newport did with coconut oil. Although I stopped short of making a video and writing a book, I did initially title this blog "Parkinson's and 5-HTP and Me." Unfortunately, family members and friends who tried it did not experience anything like the results I did. Extensive internet searches have not turned up any other "miracles" like mine.

The dramatic improvements in Dr. Newport's husband should be relatively easy to replicate. But it hasn't happened.

Other Claims for Coconut Oil
There are a lot of them out there. Here are several I've checked on:
Weight loss: TV's popular Dr. Oz says "the first of the health benefits of coconuts -- the one you're going to care about a lot -- is weight loss." By eating more coconut oil, "you might slim your waist in one week," health guru Joseph Mercolo says. (Mercola sells coconut oil for $65 a gallon on his website). The evidence behind their claims is pretty slim. Only one published study, a master's thesis in Brazil, has tested whether coconut oil could help people lose weight. It didn't.
"The Coconut Oil Miracle."  That's the title of a book by Bruce Fife. Its subtitle says "Use nature's elixir to lose weight, prevent heart disease, cancer and diabetes, strengthen the immune system, beautify skin and hair." Fife is president of the nonprofit Coconut Research Center (but the book is being sold for profit). I bought the book. At first glance, the claims made in the book seem to be substantiated by the number of studies cited in the many footnotes. But I looked at the footnotes and most of them did not relate to coconut oil. Virtually all of the ones that dealt with coconut oil came from coconut producing countries like India, the Philippines, and Malaysia, most of them done under the auspices of organizations such as the Asian and Pacific Coconut Community, or the Coconut Development Board. I found only one footnote with a study dated after the year 2000. 
For the past several months, I've set up a Google alert on coconut oil and one on curcumin. These alerts notify me each day of any news coming in on the alert topics. None of the daily coconut alerts have dealt with scientific studies or findings substantiating any of the health claims for coconut oil. Meanwhile, I've been amazed at the number of alerts I'm getting on new and promising study results on curcumin -- the subject of my next post.

"Welcome to the Land of Oz"
That's the title of an editorial in the November, 2011 issue of the Wellness Letter published by the School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley. It notes that many TV talk show hosts give out health advice but that no host has had more influence than Oprah. The editorial continues:
Unfortunately, when it came to health and medicine, at least, much of the advice on her show was quackery.... It's hard to imagine how much money viewers wasted on useless or potentially harmful supplements and other products promoted on her show -- and how many people missed out on the medical treatments they really needed as a result. In 2009, Newsweek's hard-hitting cover story about Oprah's  pedaling of modern-day snake oil was an eye-opener.
But Oprah may have affected the nation's health most by making Dr. Mehmet Oz her resident health expert.
Dr. Oz, the editorial acknowledges, is a well-regarded cardiac surgeon and professor at Columbia University.  But on TV, he suggests treatments for everything from endocrine disorders to cancer, and gives guidance about nutrition, weight loss, psychological well-being, and sexual  health -- just about everything. Often that advice, especially when it comes from some of his guests, is dubious at best. Even psychics and shamans show up, and their assertions are presented as plausible.

And, the editorial continues, every week Dr. Oz gives airtime to unproven supplements and the latest "super food."  His touting of coconut oil for weight loss is just one example.

The editorial advises that if you're intrigued by some tip or product from Dr. Oz's show (or any other TV guru, I'd add), research it yourself AND not just on the websites marketing the product. It's also advisable to be dubious when those touting a product have a vested interest in their product's "efficacy," like Dr. Newport and Bruce Fife in the books they've written.


Peter Dunlap-Shohl said...

Bravo, John. This is exactly the type of careful thinking that we need in the blogging world. With PD, the placebo effect can also be strong which can confuse the interpretation of data. I used to spend a great deal of money on CoQ10. As soon as I started it, I felt more alert and energetic. Eventually I became skeptical of its value and quit taking it. No change in the way I felt. So I was either enjoying the placebo effect when I was taking the supplement, or am now that I have quit. But the CoQ10 placebo is way more expensive than the no-CoQ10 version :)

gleeson1929 said...

Thanks Peter. I had an almost identical run with CoQ10. BTW, great seeing you at the DC book signing for "Cartoonists Draw The Line At Parkinson's." I enjoyed the cartoons, your's in particular. The book is on my living room coffee table for all to see. Give a holler if you're in DC again. -- John

Mahendra Rana said...






gleeson1929 said...

Namaste Mahendra -- Thanks for your kind words and for reminding me to take another look at the Divya Yog Sadhna DVD you sent me. Always good hearing from you. -- John

Mike said...

Interesting article thanks John. Yes Coconut Oil and Alzheimers are often mentioned in the same breath these days, and as you point out there may be no valid reason for this.
However Coconut Oil may have other attributes (or may not). We use it daily for cooking as apparently the oil can reach higher temps without breaking down, but again I have no proof of this. But using a natural oil sure beats the crap out of using one of the manufactured varieties.

The use I found for Coconut Oil is oil pulling. Sounds a bit weird at first but I have been doing it for 12 months and all my gum issues have cleared up. My dentist recently confirmed that for the first time in almost 20 years I didn't need any work. More on this at

Keep up the good work,


gleeson1929 said...

I'm glad you posted this comment, Mike.. I wanted to say something about the potential coconut oil has to help when used externally rather than internally, but I thought the post already was too long. In my research on coconut oil, I kept running across sites like this one -- -- on "122 ways to use coconut oil" in cooking, skin and hair care, etc. I may well try some of these suggestions! -- John

Jon said...

Some perspective: if you will wait for the medical establishment to give its seal of approval for an Alzheimer's treatment you'll probably be a zombie or dead before then. Commentary adopting the medical establishment slant makes a big deal about how coconut oil is not clinically proven to work for Alzheimer's—so much so that you might miss the rather important fact that it is not disproven either.

Another thought to ponder: for a long time the medical establishment has shunned saturated fats. Similarly for a long time the medical establishment has had no answers for Alzheimers. If saturated fats in the end turn out to lead to an answer for Alzheimer's one could argue it is the medical establishment's current prejudice and hostility to saturated fats that has delayed the finding of those answers.

Remember the case of the recommendation for pregnant women to avoid eating fish because of possible mercury poisoning? It was later reversed because babies were being born with lower IQs due to a lack of oils usually gotten from fish. How do we know the current increase in Alzheimers and other ailments like the current obesity, diabetes and autism epidemics are not also due to faulty dietary advice? Already the once derided Atkin's diet is respectable due to a series of tests wherein it showed it results in the most pounds lost. Doesn't stop the medical establishment from sniping and raising questions about how it is unknown if it is healthy or not in the long term. It's clearly a double standard being applied when you consider the medical establishment did not answer that same question when they recommended the low fat diet in the first place when there was no evidence to show it was healthy over the long term.

When it comes to medicine and health people are right to have high
standards but there is a point at which it simply does not make any
common sense. Coconut oil is a common food ingredient used for
thousands of years. It is also used in traditional medicine. The
medical establishment shuns coconut oil because it is high in saturated
fat while at the same time saying human breast milk is best for babies.
What makes human breast milk so special? It has the same saturated
fats in coconut oil. Those fats are also used in feeds to feed patients
on feeding tubes but they don't call it coconut oil they call it MCT
oil. Almost the same thing and for the purposes of the argument used
to discredit coconut oil they all apply to MCT oil as well.

I don't know about you but ingesting recently concocted synthetic drugs does not strike me as safer than ingesting a common cooking ingredient with thousands of years of history behind it just because it is guaranteed by a handful of clinical trials.

By all means monitor the cholesterol levels but don't take leave of your senses just because an authority figure says so. They are human and they can be wrong. Just look at those bankers and economists on Wall Street, they have as many PhDs as doctors.

John said...

I agree with much of what you say but I see nothing to warrant touting coconut oil as a possible help for those with Alzheimer's. Since Dr. Newport's report on how it helped her husband, thousands of people have rushed out to buy coconut oil. I've yet to see a report of any similar outcome.I'm leery when the only people making these claims have a monetary interest in doing this. BTW, I take a spoonful of coconut oil with my morning coffee and I use it as a hair conditioner. But I don't see any evidence that it's going to do any about AD. As for curcumin, see this recent report -- -- summarizing the thousands of research reports on its potential benefits. Just as you said about coconut oil, curcumin involves "ingesting a common cooking ingredient with thousands of years or history behind it" but, unlike coconut oil, it's efficacy is supported by thousands, not "a handful." of clinical trials.I'm opposed to raising hopes based on nothing more than hype.

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