Can coconut oil boost mental performance?

Virgin coconut oil seems to suddenly have become a ‘health’ food with many people adding it to their coffee. Does virgin coconut oil really have any proven benefits for the brain?

Although we need more studies looking at coconut oil and brain function, the results we have so far seem to indicate that virgin coconut oil may indeed be able to boost brain function and mental performance, if the brain is struggling with low energy levels or drops in blood sugar.

A large portion of virgin coconut oil consists of a type of ‘medium’ length fat known as Medium Chain Triglycerides or MCTs. MCTs are a unique type of fat in that they rapidly get oxidized and result in the formation of a type of molecule called a ‘ketone’.

(Virgin coconut oil will contain a large portion of MCTs but processed coconut oil may not, so it is better to use virgin coconut oil if you are after MCTs.)

Ketones can be used by the brain as an alternative source of fuel to glucose and may help to keep mental function sharp, in the setting of falling blood sugar levels. The glucose circulating in the blood needs to pass through a 'gate' (which insulin opens) when it wants to enter cells around the body. No matter how much glucose there is circulating within the blood, if insulin is unable to open the gates, glucose cannot enter liver cells, muscle cells, etc. In contrast, glucose does not need to pass through such a gate to reach the brain. The higher the level of glucose in the blood, the higher the amount of glucose reaching the brain.

The ability of ketones to allow brain cells to continue to perform despite low glucose levels, was strikingly demonstrated in one recent study where insulin was used to induce a fall in blood sugar levels. This decrease negatively affected mental performance as measured with a series of well-established cognitive tests. This decline in mental performance was prevented when the study's participants were given ketones. In those given ketones, cognitive performance remained unaffected as blood sugar levels declined during verbal memory tests and cognitive performance was enhanced during tests involving map reading and digit symbol coding.

The results of emerging studies seem to suggest that not only can the brain use ketones instead of glucose as fuel, ketones may actually become a 'preferred’ fuel for brain cells in certain contexts.

One example of such a context is Alzheimer’s Disease. In light of emerging evidence, some neurologists are considering the potential of using coconut products for managing Alzheimer’s Disease. Some early studies on animals have even suggested that the brain may start to prefer ketones over glucose as we age, even in the absence of disease.

Following a lifestyle where you are consuming highly refined carbohydrates at multiple points during the day may induce surges in insulin production as your body uses insulin to keep your brain tightly within controlled levels of glucose. Although your body is well-equipped to maintain homeostasis, in the setting of dysregulated insulin function or the excessive and frequent consumption of sugary meals, there may be a greater fluctuation in glucose reaching the brain. In theory, as glucose levels fall due to this fluctuation, your mental performance may be affected.

If you are in a high-octane cerebral job and find yourself constantly reaching for a sugar rush to power you through, why not try to use a little virgin coconut oil instead and see if it makes any difference?

N.B.

This site is for discussion only and should not be used as a source of medical information. Please consult your medical doctor before making any changes to your diet, lifestyle or medications.

References

Page KA, Williamson A, Yu N, McNay EC, Dzuira J, McCrimmon RJ, Sherwin RS. Medium-chain fatty acids improve cognitive function in intensively treated type 1 diabetic patients and support in vitro synaptic transmission during acute hypoglycemia. Diabetes. 2009 May;58(5):1237-44.

Castellano CA, Nugent S, Paquet N, Tremblay S, Bocti C, Lacombe G, Imbeault H,Turcotte É, Fulop T, Cunnane SC. Lower brain 18F-fluorodeoxyglucose uptake but normal 11C-acetoacetate metabolism in mild Alzheimer's disease dementia. JAlzheimers Dis. 2015;43(4):1343-53.

Fernando WM, Martins IJ, Goozee KG, Brennan CS, Jayasena V, Martins RN. The role of dietary coconut for the prevention and treatment of Alzheimer's disease: potential mechanisms of action. Br J Nutr. 2015 Jul 14;114(1):1-14.

Yin F, Yao J, Sancheti H, Feng T, Melcangi RC, Morgan TE, Finch CE, Pike CJ, Mack WJ, Cadenas E, Brinton RD. The perimenopausal aging transition in the female rat brain: decline in bioenergetic systems and synaptic plasticity. Neurobiol Aging. 2015 Jul;36(7):2282-95.

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