Whenever an email with a subject line like, “Coconut oil watch to the end – A Real Eye Opener!” shows up in my inbox, I grimace – especially when it’s sent by a friend. This particular email contained a link to a five-minute video that proposes that coconut oil is a overlooked natural remedy for Alzheimer’s disease.
It sounds so appealing. I’d love to know that there’s a simple, natural cure for Alzheimer’s disease. If eating a little coconut oil could stave off Alzheimer’s disease, well, I’d be the first to pay homage to Dr. Newport. But I’m afraid you won’t find me prostrating myself soon. Here’s the truth about Alzheimer’s disease and coconut oil.
The video uses Steve Newport, who was diagnosed with moderate-to-severe Alzheimer’s disease at age 53, as a case study. Newport began taking coconut oil at the suggestion of his wife, Dr Maryann Newport, who is medical director for the neonatal intensive care unit at Spring Hill Regional Hospital in Florida. According to the video, after 37 days of supplementing his diet with coconut oil, Mr. Newport experienced a dramatic turnabout in symptoms.
The video has made the rounds of the internet since it appeared in January. It was produced by the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), a fundamentalist Christian television network begun by Pat Robertson in 1961. The network is best known for the 700 club, a live weekday television program.
The Truth About Alzheimer’s Disease
Alzheimer’s is a grim and devastating disease, and its impact on individuals and societies is immense. More than 5.2 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease. It is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Global estimates are staggering: In 2010, according to Alzheimer’s Disease International, an estimated 35.6 million people had dementia; that number is expected to reach 115 million by 2050.
Alzheimer’s disease is an incurable, progressive disease marked by memory loss and loss of reasoning ability. While the exact mechanism of the disease is not understood, researchers have found an accumulation of beta amyloid plaques and tangled masses called “tau” in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. As these plaques and tangles form, messages between brain cells are interrupted. Eventually, brain cells are destroyed. Autopsies of people who have died from the disease show shrunken brains riddled with these plaques and tangles.
Of leading causes of death, Alzheimer’s is the only one we don’t know how to prevent, manage, or cure. Some medications have been shown to temporarily slow the disease’s progress in some people, at least during early stages of the disease. But the disease always worsens, eventually leading to death.
On Glucose, Ketones, and Brain Cells
Some researchers have suggested that the changes seen in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease are the result of a problem with the way the brain uses glucose. Glucose is a form of sugar, which is the brain’s chief energy source. According to this theory, nerve cells die when they lose the ability to process glucose – basically, they starve to death even though glucose is abundantly available. And there is some support for this theory: Imaging studies show reduced glucose use in brain regions affected by Alzheimer’s.
And that, according to Dr. Newport, is where coconut oil comes into play. Caprylic acid – a medium-chain fatty acid – is made by processing coconut or palm kernel oil. In the body, capryilic acid is broken down into substances called “ketone bodies.”
Dr. Newport bases her claim on research performed by the manufacturers of a “medical food” called Axona. Caprylic acid is the active ingredient of Axona. Axona’s manufacturers – and Dr. Newport – propose that the ketone bodies produced when someone consumes caprylic acid may provide another form of energy that the glucose-resistant brain cells can use.
Why I’m Not Convinced
Sounds pretty convincing, doesn’t it? Steve Newport seems to be living testimony, at least according to the video. But it fails all tests for scientific credulity:
Who is making the claim? Is the person a disinterested and trained observer? Is there a solid body of well designed, peer-reviewed research to back up the claim? Is the claim grandiose, or does it contradict known facts about the disease or condition?
Let's look at these criteria one by one:
Who is making the claim? Is the person a disinterested and trained observer?
Dr. Newport is anything but a disinterested observer. Visit Dr. Newport’s website, and you'll find that she is selling a book, published in 2011, titled What if there was a Cure for Alzheimer’s Disease – And No One Knew. The publication of the book coincided with her comments in an article for the Alliance for Natural Health website -- which starts with the premise that drug companies are only out to make money. The organization – and the article – demonstrate a clear bias toward alternative medicine. Whether you agree with that bias or not, it's still a bias -- which has no place in objective studies.
Nor is Dr. Newport a disinterested observer from a emotional viewpoint. May I suggest the possibility that she may have some emotional investment in effecting a “cure” for her husband?
Is there a solid body of well-designed, peer-reviewed research to back up the claim?
In short: No. A quick search on PubMed reveals no studies on coconut oil and Alzheimer’s disease. Au contraire: In 2008, Granholm and colleagues published results of a study in mice showing that a diet high in hydrogenated coconut oil (not the organic, liquid stuff) severely impaired memory.
Nor is Steve Newport’s story a valid trial. Even if he has shown remarkable improvement, one person does not a clinical trial make. To be shown effective, any therapeutic treatment must be tested in thousands of people.
Even then, we often don't know how effective a therapy is until it has been widely used for several years. Sometimes, therapies turn out to be more dangerous than they appear, even after extensive clinical trials have suggested they are safe. The withdrawal of Vioxx from the market in 2004 is just one such example. Conversely, drugs or other therapies may have additional positive effects – for instance, a diabetes drug that is found to also inhibit breast cancer.
Rigorously designed, large clinical trials have not been performed for coconut oil or for capryilic acid. As the Alzheimer's Association explains, a caprylic-acid containing drug called Ketasyn was tested in a small Phase II clinical trial that involved 162 volunteers with Alzheimer's disease. At the conclusion of the trial, the manufacturer reported that people who took the supplement improved their performance on memory tests and overall function.
But the drug never made it to a Phase III trial. The manufacturer instead elected to use Ketasyn as the active ingredient in Axona and began marketing it as a “medical food.” No clinical trials are required for a substance to be approved as a medical food.
To understand the import of the manufacturer’s decision, you need to know the difference in purpose between phase II and phase I clinical trials:
- A phase II trial is designed to prove the safety – not the effectiveness – a potential new therapy. Usually these trials are relatively small, involving at most a few hundred people.
- At least one phase III trial is required to determine whether a therapy is effective. Phase III trials involve hundreds or thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of participants. A well-designed trial allows researchers to determine whether the therapy is linked to a particular outcome – or not.
Is the claim grandiose? Does it contradict what we know already?
As a general rule of thumb: If it sounds too good to be true – it probably is. Almost everything about the claim that coconut oil can prevent or reverse Alzheimer’s disease is contradicted by a large and growing body of research. How large? A PubMed search for the term “Alzheimer’s Disease” yields no fewer than 82,185 results.
The claim that coconut oil can cure Alzheiimer's also contradicts what we know about the physiology of the disease. We know that Alzheimer’s disease causes brain tissue to degenerate. Eating coconut oil does not reverse these changes.
Yes, Harm Done
In sum, there simply is not enough research to back up the claim that coconut oil prevents, cures, or slows the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
One might say, well, no harm done -- does it really hurt anyone to supplement with coconut oil even if it's not effective? But yes, harm is done, both to individuals and to the search for a cure.
Taking coconut oil as a dietary supplement, innocuous as it may seem, may not be entirely safe. At 218 calories and 189 grams of saturated fat per cup, it can contribute a tremendous number of calories and heart-clogging saturated fat to your diet. And at anywhere from $6 to $15 U.S. for a 16 ounce can, it’s also likely to contribute to the degeneration of your wallet.
Alzheimer's is a real disease, and purported "cures" take away from the real work that must be done -- in laboratories, clinics, and homes. We must continue to seek real knowledge about how to prevent and cure most cases of Alzheimer’s disease. To accomplish that goal, we need serious, objective research, honest clinical trials, and an understanding of the complexity of this devastating disease.
There will not be one answer to the Alzheimer's puzzle, but many. Claims such as Dr. Newport’s trivialize the suffering and pain of those affected and detract from the research and resources we need to address the real challenge of Alzheimer's disease.