Coconut Oil, Ketones and Alzheimer's

Wednesday, July 26, 2017


There is a tiny worm that may tell us a big story about ketones. Called Caenorhabditis elegans, or C. elegans for short, this is a transparent free-living nematode (roundworm) less than 1/8 inch long (1 mm) that moves like a snake. The worm lives only about 2 to 3 weeks and emits a blue fluorescence when it dies.  It is one of the simplest organisms that has a nervous system, consisting of 302 neurons (brain cells) and has been used extensively since 1963 in medical research.  Every type of cell in this worm has been thoroughly studied and its entire genome has been mapped out.  C.elegans is a regular passenger on space flights and on the space station and actually survived the space shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003.  It has been used to study conditions like nicotine addiction, effects of zero gravity on muscle atrophy, sleep and aging. 
So, what does this have to do with ketones?  A recent research study using C.elegans strongly suggests that ketones extend lifespan and have anti-aging effects.  As we age, our cells deteriorate, often leading to chronic medical conditions and brain diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Dietary restriction of calories slows the process of aging down and increases the lifespan of many organisms including primates and C.elegans. Dietary restriction is known to increase ketone levels and this could at least partly explain its effects on prolonging life.  Researchers in the anti-aging field look for substances that mimic dietary restriction and lead to longer lifespan and delay the onset of diseases of aging.  It turns out that the ketone betahydroxybutyrate, found in ketone salts (marketed by the Pruvit company), is one of those anti-aging substances. Medium-chain triglycerides (MCT) found in coconut oil, palm kernel oil and MCT oil, partly convert to betahydroxybutyrate as well.
In 2015, researchers at the University of South Florida published their study in which they found that high levels of D-betahydroxybutyrate extended the lifespan of C.elegans by 26% and that this effect was likely due, at least in part, to suppressing certain enzymes involved in inflammation and damage from reactive oxygen species. They then studied the effects of betahydroxybutyrate on models of the worm that were engineered to represent Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.  They further found that betahydroxybutyrate delayed the onset of signs of Alzheimer’s in the worm by 15% and also delayed the formation of clumps of the abnormal protein found in Parkinson’s disease by 35%.    The bottom line here is that betahydroxybutyrate prolonged the lifespan and was found to protect brain cells in the worm.
In an article published in 2017, Dr. Richard L. Veech and his associates at the National Institutes of Health further explain how these findings in C.elegans might be translated to prolonging human lifespan and delaying effects of aging on the brain.  The likely ketone effects involved include anti-inflammatory effects, reduction of damage from reactive oxygen species, and reducing levels of glucose and insulin.  My summary here is just a simple explanation for the very technical, complicated biochemistry involved.
We gigantic humans share many of the same chemical pathways as C. elegans, including those studied in the University of South Florida experiments. Do ketones have anti-aging effects?  Based on the latest information from studying this little worm, the answer to this question appears to be yes!


Edwards C, J Canfield, N Copes, et al. D-beta-hydroxybutyrate extends lifespan in C. elegans. Aging Vol. 6 No. 8 (2014):1-24.
Edwards C, N Copes, PC Bradshaw. D-beta-hydroxybutyrate: an anti-aging ketone body. Oncotarget Vol. 6 No. 6 (2015): 3477-8.

Veech RL, PC Bradshaw, K Clarke, et al. Ketone bodies mimic the life span extending properties of caloric restriction. IUBMB Life Vol. 69 No. 5 (2017):305-314.

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Thursday, July 6, 2017


The media has irresponsibly taken viral a fragment of information purporting that coconut oil may be bad for your heart from an article published in the medical journal "Circulation" 2017, 135:e1-24, as a presidential advisory committee report from the AHA, "Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease". The coconut oil industry on the other side of the world, mainly comprised of small farmers who grow and sell their coconuts, is reeling from the effects of this latest careless media campaign. They have only recently been recovering from the previous advisory put forth by the AHA.

There are some serious problems with the conclusions of the advisory committee. The four "core studies" this committee relied on were all conducted in the 1950s, were relatively small groups of "men only" in three of the four studies, were conducted in populations that almost certainly were not consuming coconut oil on any regular basis, and were studies comparing diets with ANIMAL saturated fats to diets with polyunsaturated fats. Animal and human fat is well known to store hormones, pesticides, antibiotics and other environmental substances, which could be factors in heart disease, whereas vegetable fats such as coconut oil would not be so likely to contain these potentially harmful substances.

The authors do not mention whether age and smoking were controlled for in these studies; smoking, which was very prevalent in the 1950s compared to the 2010's is a major contributor to heart disease. The raw numbers of how many people in each group had cardiac events was not presented, making the summaries difficult to evaluate. The clincher in this article is that they state on page e13, under the section on coconut oil, "Clinical trials that compared direct effects on CVD [cardiovascular disease] of coconut oil and other dietary oils have not been reported." They rely on studies of individual saturated fatty acids that show a miniscule increase in LDL (so called "bad") cholesterol but rationalize away a similar small increase in HDL (so called "good") cholesterol and an improved LDL to HDL ratio. For example, lauric acid (50% of coconut oil) resulted in a less than 1 mg/dl point increase in both LDL and HDL cholesterol, with typical LDL values ranging from less than 100 to 160 mg/dl. Could a change of less than 1 mg/dl really have that much impact?

In addition, the problem here is that natural fats such as coconut oil and even lard do not come as individual fatty acids but rather as combinations of many fatty acids with different properties, which may balance each other out. Completely ignored in this report are the saturated fats in coconut oil known as medium chain triglycerides that could balance out the longer chain fats. Coconut oil also contains some mono- and polyunsaturated fats, tauted as healthy by this committee. One of the most important details that the AHA is missing here is that 70% of the saturated fats in coconut oil are medium chain triglycerides (C6 through C12) which are either converted to ketones or burned immediately as fuel by muscle and other organs and not stored as fat. Lauric acid has some properties of medium chain and longer chain fatty acids. Ketones come from breakdown of fat and provide an alternative fuel to the brain and most other organs during starvation or fasting or to cells that are insulin resistant. In a recent study conducted in Japan, lauric acid was found to potently stimulate ketone production in astrocytes in cultures; astrocytes are brain cells that nourish other brain cells. By comparison, butter, lard and animal fat contain minimal medium chain triglycerides and medium chains are not found in soybean, olive, corn, safflower and most other oils. There are hundreds of studies of potential benefits of coconut oil; for example, lauric acid, which makes up about 50% of coconut oil, is antimicrobial - there are numerous studies showing that lauric acid kills many bacteria, viruses, fungi like candida and protozoa. Lauric acid is not found in any significant amount in soybean, corn, canola and olive oils.

A few small cholesterol studies looking at coconut oil were conducted decades ago in animals or a few men over short term and used hydrogenated coconut oil - any hydrogenated oil will increase cholesterol. Also, the diets were deficient in omega-3 fatty acids which can also increase cholesterol levels. There are studies of entire populations for whom coconut oil provides 1/3 to 2/3 of the diet showing that they were of normal height and weight, had normal blood pressure, triglycerides and cholesterol levels at all ages.

The committee surmises that people who eat saturated fats likely have other bad eating habits without any proof. These days, many, if not most, of the people who embrace coconut oil are likely embracing healthier foods as well and a healthier lifestyle in general and eating fish and/or taking omega-3 fats, which weren’t on the radar in the 1950s when the so-called “core studies” for this report were conducted.

The folks in the AHA and other organizations who perpetuate these myths about coconut oil need to really do their homework and learn more about medium chain triglycerides and study the other beneficial effects of coconut oil, which they choose to ignore. The point that some people may benefit from eating more polyunsaturated fat in place of animal fat may be very valid. However, coconut oil is not animal fat and, nevertheless, the bottom line that came out of their lengthy report is that “coconut oil is bad for your heart”, which has now been perpetuated by media who jumped on this conclusion that is not even based on direct research of coconut oil and heart disease. This message has gone viral worldwide. The impact of this could take a devastating toll on the economies of countries that produce coconut oil, mostly made up of individual farmers and their families trying to make a living. These economies were devastated in the 1960s and have been slowly recovering from the initial similar AHA statement on saturated fats in 1961 based on the same four “core studies". It is irresponsible and unconscionable for this advisory committee to make such sweeping claims without direct proof that coconut oil causes heart disease.

The AHA advisory committee should consider the negative impact their report has already had on the communities on the other side of the world, and issue a clarification that there is no direct proof that coconut oil has a negative effect on the heart. Then the committee needs to figure out how to make the clarification statement go viral.

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