October 19, 2012

Coconut Oil vs. Curcumin: The Verdict

After months researching the claim that coconut can treat Alzheimer's disease, I posted a wrap-up report yesterday. Most of the hype comes from anecdotal reports, not careful science. Even the Alzheimer's Association concludes that the coconut oil assertion is bogus.

I've highlighted before the stark difference between the unsubstantiated hype for coconut oil and the proven -- but unheralded -- benefits of curcumin, the active ingredient in the Indian curry spice turmeric. For milliennia, curcumin has played a role in ayurvedic medicine, and in recent years nearly 5,000 peer-reviewed studies have confirmed its usefulness in treating many conditions. (The case for curcumin isn't without its weaknesses, too, which I explain below).

But in today's media-obsessed world, a slick video about Dr. Mary Newport's personal story of treating her husband's Alzheimer's has generated much more interest in coconut oil than thousands of scientific studies have done to promote the potential benefits of curcumin.

In yesterday's post, we reviewed the coconut oil claims using the helpful guide developed by Dr. Dominic Carone in Five Ways To Evaluate Suspicious Medical Treatment Claims. Coconut oil flunked all five tests. How does curcumin fare?

Testing the Claims for Curcumin
Here are Dr. Carone's five criteria:
  1. Search the peer-reviewed medical literature.  I first checked a key scientific reference site, NIH's PubMed. If you enter "curcumin" into the search box, you get over 4,000 links to peer-reviewed studies involving curcumin. If you narrow the search using "curcumin Alzheimer's," you get over 400 hits. (In sharp contrast, a search using "coconut oil Alzheimer's" generated ZERO hits.) As I did with coconut oil, I set up a Google alert about six months ago so I'd receive a daily email recap of news about curcumin. I've been amazed to see all the regular reports of new curcumin studies. In all that time, I haven't seen a single study involving coconut oil.
  2. Evaluate the quality of peer-reviewed medical literature.  The main issue with curcumin studies so far? They involve rodent subjects, not humans. Eager to match rodent results in humans, researchers found a problem with curcumin's ability to pass the blood-brain barrier, i.e., there were problems getting the compound's active ingredients into the human brain. But recently, scientists have found ways to combine curcumin with other compounds to greatly enhance its "bioavailability" for humans. See http://bit.ly/KGGpx3
  3. Research who is promoting the treatment.  Popular TV and internet boosters of supplements, like Dr. Oz and Dr. Mercola, have mentioned curcumin but haven't promoted it the way they did coconut oil. It's no wonder scientists have dubbed curcumin "the unsung hero."
  4. Be skeptical of suspicious claims.  More than any other supplement, curcumin has been studied and deemed to have scientifically-demonstrated potential health benefits. It's been used without ill effects for over 6,000 years in India, where it is called the "holy powder."
  5. Research what respectable organizations devoted to the condition say about the treatment.  When I put "curcumin" into the search box on the Alzheimer Association's website, I got one hit, a profile of an AA nutritionist who is studying curcumin. 
A similar search on the National Parkinson's Foundation's website also yielded only one hit, a list of "Ten Nutrition Tips To Living Well with Parkinson's Disease." Number 4 on the list was:
TURMERIC - Contains a substance, curcumin,which has been recommended by some groups as useful in treatment of diabetes, heart disease,cancer, and liver damage; it is currently being investigated as a possible treatment for PD.
The Michael J. Fox Foundation website has provided a funded grant to study how to get curcumin more effectively from the blood and into the human brain.
The American Cancer Society's site provided references to several studies involving curcumin and cancer. I got no hits about curcumin on the American Diabetes Association's website.
The Verdict and The Big Question
The curcumin vs. coconut verdict:  Curcumin is the clear winner. Its use is supported by thousands of peer-reviewed studies, and by 6,000 years of use as a "holy power." In stark contrast, the case for coconut oil depends on limited anecdotes, not science. Some of coconut's oil most vocal proponents -- like Mary Newport -- have financial stakes in the issue. The more the anecdotal hype grows, the more books Newport sells. Sadly, for Alzheimer's sufferers whose hopes are greatly raised by the hype (then horribly dashed by the scientific reality), the more books she sells, the more the unfounded hype grows.

A personal note:  I regret raising the hopes of others when I rapturously described the many benefits I'd experienced using 5-HTP (a product in which I have ZERO financial interest). It worked for me but had no similar effects on others I know who tried it because of my recommendation. I only meant to share my own experience -- as Mary Newport might also say -- but I'm sorry for creating false hope, and I have certainly STOPPED promoting 5-HTP, as a result. If there's one thing on this blog I wish I could "take back," that's it. I wonder if Mary Newport -- in moments of quiet reflection, wondering about the gigantic hopes she has raised -- has similar thoughts.

The Big Question:  In light of the science and history behind curcumin, I wonder why more isn't being done to turn all the promise into reality. The question brings into play some heavy hitters, including Big Pharma, the Food and Drug Administration and -- as always -- $$$$.



Bette Jane said...

Hi John!
About six months ago, I was sent the CBN video featuring coconut oil, Alzheimer's and Dr. Newport's related findings. Excited (as I'm sure most people in these circumstances feel), I immediately sought out an affordable yet pure (extra-virgin) jar of coconut oil (incidentally, the stuff is cheap at Trader Joe's for $6, but I saw several for $15 in much less amounts). My dad was diagnosed with Young Onset PD about 15 years ago (he was, I believe, 39); his discipline in cooking, exercising and socializing is minimal, so I thought his love for coconut and need for ease-of-use simply made Newport's findings a home-run for him. He since has yet to consume it regularly, however, and I've considered stocking his cupboards with it. I now realize that these things just aren't progressive cures-in-a-can, and if they do show improvement, it is very relative. I would like to suggest 5-HTP to him, too, upon reading your blog as well as turmeric. Through all of my digression, can you make recommendations in regards to incorporating turmeric (curcumin) into the diet of a slightly lazy but (deep-down) willing PD patient?
Thank you, and my apologies for the novel here!
Bette Jane

Eric Thurston said...


Thanks for the blog.

I’m 64 and diagnosed with Parkinson’s 4 years ago. I started reading up on
everything I could find about the condition. My wife is an RN and she helped
out with access to medical web sites she had access to at work.

I’m lucky to have a neurologist who encourages me to do this
research and experiment with treatments that are a bit out of the mainstream
but still considered safe. Early on, I came across natural sources of levodopa.
I started taking mucuna pruriens, or ‘kaunch’ as it is called in Ayurvedic
terminology. Taken with my normal dose of carbidopa/levodopa (generic Sinemet)
it seems to even out the ups and downs of the daily doses. I also take N-acetyl
cysteine based on a pub-med article.

At about the same time I was diagnosed with PD, I had been
reading up on diet in general, especially the controversy over fats vs carbs. The
first book I read was Gary Taube’s ‘Good Calories, Bad Calories.’ (I recommend
it highly). To make a long story short, I have become convinced that the govt. recommended
‘food pyramid’ diet is way wrong and that a high fat low carb diet is the
healthier way to go. I also believe that statins are thoroughly bad news. I
have read enough independent studies (not connected with Pharma) to convince me
of this. There is an immense moral hazard there in that the pharmaceutical
companies do, or fund the overwhelming majority of the research.

Then I came across an article
in ‘Neurology’ “Treatment of Parkinson disease with diet-induced hyperketonemia:
A feasibility study” (PDF available

http://www.direct-ms.org/pdf/NutritionNonAuto/Parkinson%27s%20and%20ketagenic%20diet.pdf )

I wish there were more studies like this because it sounds
very promising. At any rate, I think that coconut oil fits in here because it
metabolizes into ketones regardless of the carb level in the rest of the diet
(at least this is my interpretation of this particular fat metabolism) raising
the possibility of maintaining a therapeutic ketone level without the extreme
hyper-ketogenic diet.

So the upshot is that I’m including roughly 3 or 4
tablespoons of coconut oil a day in my diet and I do believe it helps. I can’t
rule out a placebo effect, but, as my neurologist says, the placebo effect is
not necessarily only in the mind, but quite real. I do agree with you about the
wide variation in how different treatments will affect different people.

I don’t know how I missed turmeric as a treatment. I will
definitely check it out and I appreciate your sharing the information.

gleeson1929 said...

Thanks Eric. I'm going to print out your comment and check out some of your recommendations and findings. But I'm still in agreement with the Alzheimer's Assn. that, given all the hype coconut oil has gotten and the hundreds of thousands of people who must have tried it as a result, If it worked we'd have heard a lot more reports of success. But I'm keeping an open mind on all potential treatments. I agree that Big Pharma controls too much of the research because it has the big bucks and it has little interest in looking at relatively inexpensive treatments like curcumin. But I also hate to see people getting their hopes up and wasting time, energy, calories and dollars on something as unproven as coconut oil and that s being promoted mostly by those with a financial interest in itl.