Coconut Oil and Health Part 3: Possible Health Benefits

In this, my final post on coconut oil, I’ll discuss some purported benefits of consuming the oil. This will include its effects on bacteria, viruses, cancer, the liver, and oxidation. Alright!

Antibacterial and antiviral properties:

The idea that coconut oil has antibacterial and antiviral properties is a pretty common opinion, but most of the evidence for this is based on in vitro studies. Unfortunately, putting coconut oil in an agar dish with rabbit cells and some bacteria and observing the growth is not quite the most convincing evidence of how coconut oil consumption is protective against pathogens. Still, let’s look at some studies that have been performed:

In vitro, components and metabolites of coconut oil (including glycerol monolaurate, lauric acid, and capric acid), inhibit the growth of:

  • H.pylori, the primary cause of ulcers (33,102)
  • S.auerus (33,34,102)
  • B.anthracis stern (33), though not always (102)
  • Vesicular stomatitis virus(46)
  • Cytomegalovirus (65)
  • Candida albicans (66)
  • Listeria (100)
  • Herpes simplex virus type 1 (67,112)
  • Haemophilus influenzae (67)
  • Group B streptococcus (67)
  • Respiratory syncytal virus (68)
  • Human parainfluenza virus type 2 (68)
  • M.terrae (102)
  • Visna virus (108)

Some of these same compounds may also decrease of prevent resistance to beta lactams (like penicillin) in Staphylococcus aureus (36,40) and resistance to vancomycin in E. faecalis (41).

Furthermore, these coconut oil compounds may also prevent toxicity of:

  • Staphylococcal a-hemolysin and b-hemolysin (34,36,37)
  • Endotoxin (37,38)
  • Anthrax toxin (37)
  • Toxic shock syndrome toxin-1 from S. aureus (34,36,39)

However, studies have shown that not only do compounds in coconut oil not inhibit E.coli (33,34,112), glycerol monolaurate may even increase E.coli hemolysin release (34).

Of course, none those studies examined effects inside the body, so their application is limited. We have no idea how metabolism of coconut oil, pH (111), or other conditions in the body might have an affect. As far as reducing infection, the only study measuring this is I could find is from 1948, in which rats fed coconut oil survived tuberculosis at a higher rate than rats fed olive oil and flaxseed oil (43).

In several other studies, coconut oil consumption in animals greatly reduced various negative responses to endotoxin (104,105,106). However, these studies also noted a direct relationship between increased dietary linoleic acid and increased negative effects from endotoxins. This is likely due to linoleic acid inducing greater permeability of the intestines to endotoxin (107). Thus, such studies could be reflective of this and not the unique effect of coconut oil on decreased toxicity to endotoxins.

So there you go. I definitely think the effects of coconut oil derived compounds on bacterial infections (especially Staphylococcus aureus) and viruses (109) deserve more attention, but as of right now I don’t think we have enough data with practical application to suggest anything definitive.

Verdict: Coconut oil definitely may have antibacterial and antiviral properties, but the proof is in the pudding. And we need some more pudding.

Cancer:

It can be hard to study the effect of diet on cancer clinically. One way of attempting to do it has been to feed rats different diets, give them all a carcinogen, and see who gets the most cancer. Not really the most fun study to be a part of if you’re a rat.

The first study we’ll look at fed rats about 20% of calories as corn oil, fish oil, or coconut oil. Then the rats got a nice dose of DMBA, a carcinogen. Ultimately, the corn oil group experienced a much higher rate of mammary tumors than the other two groups, which were essentially even (1). Another study used azoxymethane to induce colon tumors in rats fed a number of different diets. Corn oil and safflower oil did promote tumor growth, while olive oil and coconut oil didn’t (all at 23.35% of calories) (2). Another study found coconut oil was better than soybean oil at preventing cancer (3). Finally, this study (4) found that coconut oil was protective against DNA damage in the liver.

In a study by Cohen et al. various oils were fed to rats and cancer was initiated using N-nitrosomethylurea. In the first study, consistent with the other studies we looked at, there was a correlation between linoleic acid content of the diet and cancer prevalence (5) and coconut and olive oil produced the least number of tumors while corn and safflower produced the most. A follow up study produced the same results, with coconut oil resulting in the least tumors (6). The authors speculated that linoleic acid’s role as a prostaglandin precursor may explain its effects on cancer, though other’s have suggested each fat’s effect on blood cholesterol is the important element (7).

Personally, I think linoleic acid is likely playing the biggest role in these studies and thus, coconut oil is only cancer preventative via its low content of LA. There are human interventions that support this idea (8), but it would be presumptuous to say we know linoleic acid causes cancer.

Verdict: Coconut oil may be better for cancer development than oils with more linoleic acid, but such evidence is in its infancy.

Liver Disease

There is some evidence that coconut oil is beneficial to liver health. Rats fed coconut oil don’t develop fatty liver disease (9), but there is a large amount of evidence suggesting that rats fed corn oil develop fatty liver disease readily (10,11,12). In methionine and choline deficient diets, coconut oil protects against the development of fatty liver and corn oil does not (13).

In this study (14), rats fed 15% of their diet as coconut oil had significantly less lipid peroxides in their livers than rats fed the same amount of fish oil. In this and another study I looked at during part 2 (15) rats fed fish oil develop lower blood lipids (cholesterol and triglycerides) than coconut oil, but at the expense of their livers. Another study examined lipid peroxidation in the livers of rats fed different oils (with vitamin E levels constant); olive oil and coconut oil produced the least.

However, it appears that saturated and possibly monounsaturated fats in general (like beef fat, palm oil, and coconut oil) are protective against fatty liver disease under varied conditions and polyunsaturated oils (like corn oil and fish oil) are not (16,17,18).

Verdict: Coconut may be good for your liver, but I’m waiting for studies done on humans. Mostly, it looks more like polyunsaturated fats (like linoleic acid) are just bad for the liver. I’m noticing a trend here.

Some Final Benefits:

The following discuss studies done on rats:

Coconut oil, especially virgin, produces lower levels on lipid peroxides in rats than high polyunsaturated oils(19,20,21,23).

Virgin coconut oil increases antioxidant levels (20,21,22).

Virgin coconut oil increases vitamin A levels compared to fish oil and sunflower oil (20,23).

Coconut oil increases vitamin E levels compares to corn oil and fish oil (22,23).

Virgin coconut oil may be good for the testicles (24,21).

Verdict:Virgin coconut oil seems to be good at reducing oxidation in the body. This will likely translate to numerable benefits, but not enough studies have been done to elucidate the extent of this.

Conclusion:

Coconut oil may have antibacterial and antiviral properties (I would bet on it), but much remains to be studied to before we can discuss this as a benefit. Coconut oil is clearly good for the liver, but more likely this is due to low quantities of linoleic acid. It also appears to be one of the least cancer promoting oils, again likely due to low linoleic content. Finally, virgin coconut oil seems to be good at preventing oxidation in the body. This is certainly a good thing.

I think the take away message from this series is that coconut oil may not be the magical, super powered, god-like oil its sometimes hyped as (its effects on bacteria and viruses not withstanding), but it’s probably fairly healthy. This is likely due to its decent antioxidant content and its low levels of linoleic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid I believe is worth limiting in most diets.

So go out and enjoy coconut oil! Unless you don’t want to. That’s cool too, I’m not forcing you to do anything!

1. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8233985
2. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6583457
3. http://journals.upd.edu.ph/index.php/sciencediliman/article/view/332
4. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0009279705002218
5. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3459924
6. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3459925
7. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/1097-0142(197711)40:5+%3C2455::AID-CNCR2820400911%3E3.0.CO;2-E/abstract
8.http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140673671910865/abstract
9. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1805500/?
10. Deng QG, She H, Cheng JH, et al. Steatohepatitis induced by intragastric overfeeding in mice. Hepatology. Oct 2005;42(4):905-914
11. Baumgardner JN, Shankar K, Hennings L, Badger TM, Ronis MJ. A new model for
nonalcoholic steatohepatitis in the rat utilizing total enteral nutrition to overfeed a high polyunsaturated fat diet. Am J Physiol Gastrointest Liver Physiol. Jan 2008;294(1):G27-38.
12. Lieber CS, Leo MA, Mak KM, et al. Model of nonalcoholic steatohepatitis. Am J Clin Nutr. Mar 2004;79(3):502-509.
13. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/sites/pubmed/20509914
14. http://informahealthcare.com/doi/abs/10.3109/10715769109145779
15. http://jn.nutrition.org/cgi/content/abstract/117/6/1011
16. http://jn.nutrition.org/content/134/4/904.full
17. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1530-0277.2011.01673.x/abstract
18. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7615205
19. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/095528639390018R
20. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1751499107000431
21. http://scihub.org/ABJNA/PDF/2010/6/ABJNA-1-6-1126-1132.pdf
22. http://www.springerlink.com/content/n5lh658671nm152m/
23. http://informahealthcare.com/doi/abs/10.3109/10715769109145779
24. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17637195
33. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16010969
34. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC190568/
35. http://aac.asm.org/content/49/4/1302.full
36. http://jb.asm.org/content/176/14/4204.abstract?
37. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2553893/
38. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8770497
39. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19863450
40. http://jb.asm.org/content/182/9/2668.long
41. http://jb.asm.org/content/180/1/182.long
42. http://jb.asm.org/content/70/4/415.full.pdf
43. http://ebm.rsmjournals.com/content/68/1/106.full.pdf
44. http://aac.asm.org/content/36/3/626.short
45. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2553893/
46. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8113756
65. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10933257
66. http://aac.asm.org/content/45/11/3209.full.pdf
67. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12049996
68. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17891329
69. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17686469
100. http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/jf00030a033
101. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17891329
102. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16010969
103. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC190568/
104. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3545648
105. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2176954
106. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7924162
107. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1530-0277.2011.01673.x/abstract
108. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16388394
109. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1745-4565.1982.tb00429.x/abstract

110. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17891329

111. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17891329

112. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/095528639290037J

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3 thoughts on “Coconut Oil and Health Part 3: Possible Health Benefits

  1. ProudDaddy June 1, 2012 / 3:37 am

    Nicely done series. My only comment would be that cholesterol markers may not be very indicative of cardiovascular health. In particular, elevating HDL via diet or drugs seems to be less beneficial than once thought.

    I look forward to your future posts and plan on reviewing much of your archive.

    • Morgan June 1, 2012 / 9:23 am

      ProudDaddy-
      Thanks for your comments and I’m glad you enjoyed the series. I agree that increasing HDL using medication has been a mostly fruitless endeavor (the drug torcetrapib comes to mind), but I think total:HDL is a very good indicator of atherosclerosis risk and reducing the ratio via dietary intervention will be beneficial to heart disease risk.

      And for the record, in this meta analysis of 60 dietary trials (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12716665?), the authors stated: “Lauric acid had a more favorable effect on total:HDL cholesterol than any other fatty acid”. Lauric acid is of course the main fatty acid in coconut oil.

  2. Ian Flett August 16, 2015 / 12:05 am

    Some Pacific islanders consume large quantities of coconut oil all their lives and are in good general health. This however raises the question of whether middle-aged Westerners who suddenly consume coconut oil will respond just as positively. Learned tolerance is a possible variable here. Some centenarians have very consistent diet routines, which may be just as important as what they eat. We need studies that compare consistency with variability.

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