Coconut oil is a fatty substance that is extracted from the flesh of coconuts. Not to be confused with coconut milk or coconut cream, the oil is often white and hard and has a pleasant “coconutty” odor. You should be able to find it at your local health store or on Amazon but don’t be alarmed if it’s not white and solid because, in warmer weather, it can also be clear and liquidy.
The type of fat present in coconut oil is known as saturated fat. Saturated fats have for many decades been seen as “bad” fats by the medical world. But new research on saturated fats from coconut oil is making doctors take a second look.
What makes the fat in coconut oil unusual is that most often, saturated fats (also found in butter, cheese, and cream) are derived from animal sources. Coconut, palm fruit and cacao are among the few plant-based sources of saturated fat.
The main advantage of saturated fats is that they are less likely to oxidize or turn rancid and require less processing than unsaturated fats, obtained from nuts and seeds. During oxidization and processing, oils and fats can be altered or damaged and have less than desirable health effects.
Virgin, cold pressed coconut oil is a more versatile fat and better to cook with than other oils because it has a mild taste, is a solid at room temperature (but still spreadable), it has a low melting point (melts quickly if you need it) and is heat stable (high temperatures don’t damage the oil) for frying/ sauteing.
Coconut oil, as part of a healthy diet, is also said to have numerous health benefits – a claim that scientists and researchers are eager to explore.
Comparative studies show that coconut-eating cultures in the tropical island chains have much healthier cholesterol levels compared to western cultures elsewhere in the world. Follow-up studies which tracked the health of these coconut-eating groups, found when these native cultures relocated to New Zealand, began eating less coconut oil and adopted a more western diet, they experienced detrimental changes in their cholesterol levels and within a short time had the same risk of heart disease as fellow westerners.
Research regarding the effect of coconut oil on cholesterol levels is mixed. Some sources say that coconut has a neutral effect on cholesterol levels and others say it noticeably lowers cholesterol levels.
One study done on rats, to observe the effects of coconut oil added to their diet, found a definite decrease in the levels of total cholesterol, triglycerides (blood fats), LDL and VLDL (the bad cholesterol) and an increase in levels of HDL (the good cholesterol). Another study done in people with hypercholesterolemia (high cholesterol due to genetic reasons) found that supplementing with coconut oil, did in fact, reduce serum cholesterol levels found in the blood.
It is believed that because coconut oil has antimicrobial and antioxidant properties it may help to reduce the risk of heart disease. Atherosclerosis is a process in which the blood vessels of the body become hard due to a build-up of fatty plaque. This condition can be triggered by a viral infection which is why coconut oil is thought to be beneficial by preventing this viral activation. In those with existing atherosclerosis, the condition can worsen when the fatty material of the plaque becomes oxidized as it can cause bigger plaques to form or result in clot formation. Again, due to the antioxidant properties, coconut oil can reduce this oxidation and has even been found to help in dissolving blood clots.
Whether you are using coconut oil internally or applying it externally, it is excellent for a healthy skin. By eating the oil as part of your diet, it provides the body with healthy fats that have anti-aging and antioxidant effects to slow the aging process and keep the skin looking young. The oil can be used as is, straight out the jar for external use as well.
Applied topically, it moisturizes the skin by adding oils and creates a protective barrier that locks in moisture – great for the whole body. Coconut oil is naturally antimicrobial and aids healing, which makes it ideal for applying to cuts and scrapes. It also has antihistamine-like effects so it is useful for skin irritations with itching and redness. Coconut oil also provides the skin with some protection from damaging UV rays. It has a natural SPF of 4 – perfect if you are just going to be in the sun for a short amount of time.
Toned and Trim
Coconut oil is being accessed for its potential as a weight loss agent. People report that it stimulates the metabolism and gives an energy boost by supporting thyroid health. It can also help reduce sweet cravings and if taken 30 minutes before a meal can help you to eat less by giving a feeling of fullness.
Unlike other saturated fats which contain long-chain triglycerides, coconut oil contains short chain and medium chain triglycerides. This means that the fat is broken down much quicker by the body to be used for energy and is much less likely to be stored.
It has been found that coconut oil can also help balance hormones. Not only can it help with symptoms of PMS (premenstrual syndrome) and menopause because of its supportive effect on the thyroid gland but also because it has a role to play in the assisting the ovaries to produce progesterone.
It has also been found to have beneficial effects in stabilizing the blood sugar levels in people with diabetes as it is thought that the oil regulates the production and action of insulin.
Stellar Immune Function
Coconut oil is being investigated as an immune booster that can increase your resistance to infection and kill a whole host of pathogens known to cause disease. Coconut oil has found to be active in fighting viruses, bacteria (e.coli), fungi and yeasts (candida).
In cases of cytomegalovirus, herpes simplex, and even HIV infection, there is a hope that coconut oil can help fight these infections and improve the patients’ outcome by boosting immune function. There also studies which have seen that coconut oil might have anti-cancer effects specifically in cases of colon and breast cancer. It is theorized that this is because coconut oil improves immune function and contains antioxidants.
Scientists are also keen to discover if coconut oil would also have a positive effect on autoimmune diseases like Lupus or rheumatoid arthritis because of its anti-inflammatory properties.
Coconut oil is also useful in medical conditions that cannot handle large amounts of food but rather require small amounts of energy-dense food. In cases such as short bowel syndrome, after bypass surgery or in premature babies, coconut oil is a solution to provide high nutrient volume without the bulk that may cause other health concerns.
Coconut oil is also rich in phospholipids which the body can use to make choline – food for the brain (which is mostly made up of fat) to improve cognitive function and help in neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease.
It is also been found that in cases of poisoning with aluminum phosphide, coconut oil was able to negate the toxic effects of the poison. Perhaps suggesting that coconut oil may also help the liver in detoxifying harmful substances.
A little here, there and everywhere
There is a multitude of other uses for this do-it-all oil.
It can be used as a make-up remover, a hair mask, and defrizzer. If mixed with baking soda you can use the combination as a deodorant and toothpaste. Other ways to use it are as a moisturizer, eye cream, or as a pre and after-shave. It is also safe on baby’s skin for diaper rash or cradle cap. Even consider using it for a massage oil or as a lubricant (but note, it is not condom compatible). And the list does not stop there!
What variation of coconut oil and how much?
The best kind of coconut oil to look for, especially if it is for internal use, is an organic, virgin and cold-pressed coconut oil that is food grade. This is important as oil that is not organic and virgin pressed will not have as many health-promoting effects and if it is a toxic and highly processed form of the oil, it may even be harmful to your health.
Recommendations for how much coconut oil should be consumed vary from source to source. But aim for at least 1 to 2 tablespoons of good quality coconut oil a day, in your food. Replace other types of fat you use for cooking with coconut oil as they finish and try to experiment with recipes that incorporate coconut oil and you may just find it to be the next best thing!