The health community has been stirred by reports of coconut oil being a cure-all for Alzheimer’s disease. Many report it is simply “anecdotal evidence.” Is there really any scientific evidence for the notion that late-stage Alzheimer’s disease can be reversed by coconut oil? Surprisingly, yes, but the evidence also points to an important caveat.
The YouTube videos and book by Dr. Mary T. Newport regarding Coconut oil and Alzheimer’s have captured the attention of the health community. After her husband Steve was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease, Dr. Newport discovered the link between medium chain triglycerides and dementia.
In 2001, at the age of 51, Steve Newport began making memory mistakes. His memory and cognitive functions spiraled downward over the next eight years. By 2008, Steve’s Alzheimer’s had become severe.
So Dr. Newport developed a dosage of coconut oil to mimic the 60% middle chain triglyceride (MCT) product used in a study called AC-1202. She gave Steve seven teaspoons of coconut oil per day – or 3-4 servings per day of MCT oil. During the first month, Steve’s tremors resolved and his cognition difficulties improved. His cognitive test scores increased dramatically during the first few weeks of the coconut oil. And over the next few years, Dr. Newport reported that her husband “came back.”
And his scores proved it. His cognition scores improved by six points of a 75-point scale on cognitive, and 14 points of 78 on daily living activity tests.
Dr. Newport has since collected about 250 testimonies, about 90% of which were positive – though admittedly improved people would most likely write a testimony.
So is there any scientific evidence for taking coconut oil for Alzheimer’s disease?
Dr. Newport’s personal research established that Steve’s early Alzheimer’s disease was related to the inability of his brain cells to process glucose, or its alternative, ketones, for energy.
And shutting down that energy supply naturally shuts off those brain cells – spiraling a person into Alzheimer’s disease.
But does this happen for everyone who is experiencing Alzheimer’s disease? In a word, no.
The Ketonogenic Diet
Yet the ketonogenic diet – replacing glucose with ketone esters – has been shown to help epilepsy and other nervous disorders among those who have difficulty processing ketones from foods such as breast milk or dairy milk.
Breast milk, for example, contains 10 to 17% medium chain triglycerides (MCTs), which are converted to ketones in the form of Beta-hydroxybuterate. This is why MCTs are now added to any good baby formula.
Enter Dr. Samuel Henderson – who patented a product called AC-1202, made up of primarily medium chain triglyceride oil processed from either palm oil or coconut oil.
Like coconut oil, AC-1202 is taken up by the liver and released as ketones, which can be identified in the bloodstream as beta-hydroxybutyrate.
Research over the past 20 years has shown that beta-hydroxybutyrate reduces symptoms of Parkinson’s, epilepsy and other nerve-related disorders, because these ketones are utilized for energy by glucose-starved brain and nerve cells.
One study of children with epilepsy showed that a beta-hydroxybutyrate-rich ketogenic diet reduced seizures by as much as 75%.
A Genetic Variant
The relationship between Alzheimer’s and the need for ketones in brain and nerve cells has been related to a genetic variation, the epsilon-4 (E4) variant of the apolipoprotein E gene – also referred to as ApoE4. Because this variation seems to block the ability of the body to convert fats to ketones, the brain and nerve cells can become starved for energy.
Having a genetic variant of the ApoE4 does not always result in Alzheimer’s disease, but having one E4 allele can increase the risk of AD by three times and having two E4 alleles can increase the risk of AD by 12 times.
Yet Alzheimer’s is not always the result of the ApoE4 gene variant, but it has been seen among those with vascular damage – damage to the tiny blood vessels in the brain. As we’ve discussed with other AD research, diet is one of the greatest determinants for Alzheimer’s. And vascular damage is also seen without the E4 gene variant.
But this E4 variation has provided the key to unlocking – at least for those who have this genetic variation and have some issue with processing ketones in the liver – the potential link between Alzheimer’s disease and coconut oil.
The science is related to neurons being powered by ketones in the form of beta-hydroxybuterate, being taken up by brain cells that are starving for energy. For those who have difficulty producing ketones and/or have glucose resistance, mild ketosis has been shown to improve cognition, not only in animal and laboratory studies, but also in clinical research.
Over a decade ago Dr. Samuel Henderson patented a product called AC-1202 – a medium chain trigliceride oil. The AC-1202 product contains glycerin with caprylic acid – a middle chain triglyceride, with a chemical name of 1,2,3-propanetriol trioctanoate.
The AC-1202 product underwent a clinical trial published in the medical journal Nutrition and Metabolism in August of 2009. This study followed 152 Alzheimer’s patients for 90 days using randomized, double-blind and placebo controls.
The Alzheimer’s patients took the AC-1202 or the placebo for 90 days, and were given cognitive tests at 45 days and after the trial period. This included the gold standard ADAS-Cog test.
The research found that the AC-1202 significantly increased levels of beta-hydroxybutyrate, meaning they now had ketone-rich blood. As a whole, the AC-1202 group scored significantly higher in cognitive test scores compared to the placebo group. But this significant improvement took place primarily among those patients who had the ApoE4 variant. Those E4 variant patients saw a 5.73 point difference between the placebo group on the ADAS-Cog testing, while there was little difference among those patients without the ApoE4 gene variant.
“While the cognitive effects were not significant in the overall sample, a pre-defined examination of cognitive effects stratified by genotype yielded significant effects in E4(-) [ApoE4 variant] participants,” wrote the researchers in their discussion of the study.
The results of this clinical study clearly indicates that the potential for dramatic positive effects of coconut oil or any other source of MCT should take place primarily for those with the ApoE4 variant – or those having another form of glucose or insulin resistance that affects brain cells receiving glucose or ketones from our diet.
This later condition – having glucose or insulin resistance – may well be a looming issue that relates the ApoE variant to our diet. There is a growing epidemic of type 2 diabetes in modern society, due to the ravages of the western diet.
Yet jumping to the conclusion that coconut oil is a cure-all for Alzheimer’s Disease is short sighted. It is important to understand the science and the physiology of the process and see the relationship between the ApoE4 variant and the need for inducing mild ketosis with MCT or coconut oil.
In their discussion of the MCT study, the researchers said:
“The positive effects of AC-1202 in E4(-) [ApoE4 variant] subjects is further supported by analysis of serum beta-hydroxybutyrate levels and cognitive performance. AC-1202 resulted in significant elevation of serum beta-hydroxybutyrate relative to Placebo at all study visits when investigational product was administered. In addition, a correlation between circulating beta-hydroxybutyrate levels at the two-hour time point and improvement in ADAS-Cog score was noted in E4(-) subjects at Day 90. No significant correlation was found in E4(+) [non-ApoE4 variant] participants. Hence, higher levels of ketosis appear to confer greater benefit in the E4(-) group.”
In other words, while coconut oil or MCT oil might help someone experiencing mild cognitive impairment due to glucose or insulin resistance, it’s more likely benefit to Alzheimer’s disease will be for those with the APOE4 gene variant and thus cannot process triglycerides in the liver normally – combined with a diet that produces glucose and/or insulin resistance among brain cells.
This last point is the likely key that ties the diet link between AD and the ApoE4 variant. Those with the ApoE4 variant who also develop glucose or insulin resistance through poor dietary habits may experience cognitive issues and Alzheimer’s due to their brain cells becoming energy-starved – having no energy source from either ketones or glucose. The research evidence illustrates that these folks (poor diet plus ApoE4) may have the greatest likelihood of benefiting from supplementing the diet with coconut oil and/or MCT oil.
Food sources of middle chain triglycerides (MCTs) include palm kernel oil, ghee, coconut oil, and the milk fat of goat milk, cow’s milk and breast milk. Note that non-fat milk has had the MCTs removed. Supplemented MCT oil is a source for concentrated MCTs.
This is not to say that coconut oil is not a great nutritional food for everyone – it provides a myriad of other nutritional benefits. As Dr. Newport suggests, “what do we have to lose?”
Case Adams is a California naturopath who has authored 25 books on the science of natural healing together with numerous published online and print articles.
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