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When you consider the things you are most thankful for, do you put your brain health on the top of the list? Not many of us probably would, but the truth of the matter is that without a healthy brain, all of those other things you might be thankful for don’t matter a whole lot. Our bodies are pretty amazing at compensating in the interest of survival. People live happy, healthy lives everyday without limbs and even some organs. But take away your brain and I’d venture to guess not many would carry on so easily. Brain impairment can range from simple absent-mindedness (“Where are those car keys?”), to full on inability to function normally. Protecting and preserving your brain has been and continues to be the holy grail of aging gracefully and now new research is showing that the fats found in coconut may be one of the best tools we have to help our brains age gracefully.
Coconut has been making waves for some time now because it of all of its health benefits. We know that coconut supports immune system function by helping the body to defend itself against a slew of viruses and bacteria. It supports overall health and function by helping to protect the fats in the body from oxidation. It supports thyroid function. And it may even support weight loss and athletic performance. But its greatest role is only now being fully researched as new evidence shows us how it supports brain function, keeping it healthy and thriving into our golden years.
Coconut is rich in saturated fats with the majority of those being Medium Chain Triglycerides or MCTs (sometimes referred to as Medium Chain Fatty Acids), and nearly every health benefit we attribute to coconut comes from these fats. MCTs are shorter in length than other types of fatty acids and their length is what makes them so special. These fatty acids are not readily stored by the body but instead converted quickly and easily to energy by the liver. As the liver converts MCTs to energy it also produces compounds called ketones and ketones are the key to coconut’s brain health benefits. Ketones are a special high-energy fuel produced specifically to fuel the brain, that helps brain cells thrive and appears to even restore normal to near normal function in failing ones. Brain cells, particularly neurons, are very limited, more limited than other cells, in what kinds of fuel they can use to function and to stay alive. Because our modern diet is so rich in carbohydrates, brain cells usually use glucose (sugar) as their source of fuel, but they can also use ketones. There is some evidence that too much glucose is not good for brain cells, causing them to burn out and develop glucose intolerance. If and when this occurs they need an alternative fuel source in order to survive and thrive. Ketones are that fuel. In fact, they can supply the brain with up to 2/3 of its energy requirements.
Ketones have long been researched and recognized for their brain benefits, but in order to achieve a state where the brain could have access to more ketones, a very strict low-carbohydrate diet (or a ketogenic diet) had to be used. This diet is comprised mainly of fat and some protein and is very difficult for people to comply with. But the realization that the liver makes ketones as a by-product of MCT metabolism without having to adhere to a strict ketogenic diet has expanded the potential use of ketones for all sorts of degenerative neurological diseases. The reason more ketones to the brain is so exciting is because ketones are not only a more efficient fuel source than glucose, but they also stimulate the growth and healing of brain cells. That’s right they actually help to repair the brain!
Researchers have started looking at the possible effects of ketones from MCTs on many brain disorders, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease, ALS (a.k.a. Lou Gehrig’s Disease), Huntington’s disease, traumatic brain injury and strokes; and the initial research looks promising. Many animal studies have shown improved performance on memory tasks, increased learning and improved short-term memory. Ketones may actually reduce the plaques that form in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients and they improve mitochondrial function of brain cells. Even modern medicine is on the MCT band-wagon and the FDA just approved a prescription drug for the treatment of Alzheimer’s consisting solely of MCTs. Many individuals looking for an alternative treatment for brain degeneration have started adding coconut oil to their diet, and while largely antidotal, the changes in brain function reported by these individuals is significant.
Our understanding of how MCTs might positively effect brain health is just in its infancy, but it is off to a running start! And remember, that while adding coconut oil to your diet is likely to produce positive changes, the most drastic changes are more likely to come in conjunction with other dietary changes that protect the brain. Decreasing sugars, grains, damaged oils, such as partially-hydrogenated oils, and artificial colors and chemical preservatives is the first step. Swap these brain saboteurs out with quality protein and plenty of brightly colored, non-starchy veggies. Protecting and caring for your brain is probably the best retirement investment you can make so start now and you’ll be thankful you did!
Interested in seeing if adding MCTs to your diet from coconut might make a difference for you or a loved one? Add two to three tablespoons of coconut oil to your diet daily for 35 days and see the difference for yourself. Notice your ability to do puzzles, remember names and recall words. You can use coconut milk as well, just remember that about a third of a cup of full-fat coconut milk supplies the same amount of MCTs as one tablespoon of the oil. You may want to consider working your way up slowly and spreading your servings out with meals since too much, too fast can cause a sense of fullness and may cause diarrhea for some. There are plenty of easy and delicious ways to add coconut and it’s MCT into your diet. Coconut has been used as a staple food in many parts of the world and its possible uses are nearly endless. You can sauté your eggs, meat or veggies in coconut oil, use coconut oil as a replacement for other oils in salad dressings and sauces or any place you might normally use butter. Full-fat coconut milk also supplies high amounts of MCTs and makes a wonderful milk replacement. Pour some in your smoothie or make a ‘creamy’ soup or sauce with it. There are also tons of coconut products flooding the market. While these can be great quick sources of MCTs, be sure to read the labels. Look for products that use full-fat coconut milk and are not highly processed or high in sugars. The goal is get about 35 grams of fat from coconut daily. For those of you not inclined to make a fuss over your eating, it doesn’t have to be complex, just add coconut oil to any warm liquid and drink it up.
References available upon request.
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