Coconut Oil: Can It Help Normalize Thyroid Function?
By Marcel J. Hernandez, N.D.
Before I talk about the thyroid, let's take a look at some misconceptions. As I have mentioned in previous columns, the natural health marketplace is riddled with misinformation, unproven claims and snake-oil hype. Here's a scenario of mistaken information I see all the time: I tell one of my patients about the nutritional and therapeutic properties of coconut oil and then somebody (usually a another health professional) tells them that it will raise their cholesterol and lead to heart disease, so they stop taking it. A number of excellent studies done on traditional tropical populations that consume large amounts of coconut oil show just the opposite to be true.
In one of the studies published in the "American Journal of Clinical Nutrition," the populations of two South Pacific islands were examined over a period of time starting in the 1960s, before western foods were prevalent in the diets of either culture. The study was designed to investigate the relative effects of saturated fat and dietary cholesterol in determining serum cholesterol levels. Coconuts played an essential role in the diets of the islanders, with up to 60% of their caloric intake coming from the saturated fat of coconut oil. The study found very healthy people who were relatively free from the modern diseases of western cultures, including obesity, diabetes and heart disease. The researchers' conclusion: "Vascular disease is uncommon in both populations and there is no evidence of the high saturated fat intake having a harmful effect in these populations."
Another study performed in India in 1988 showed an "alarming" increase in the prevalence of diabetes and heart disease in Indians who replaced traditional cooking fats, like coconut oil, with refined vegetable oils promoted as 'heart-friendly' because of their polyunsaturated fatty acid content.
Dr. Mary Enig, one of the leading coconut oil researchers, explains that the misconceptions about coconut oil started in the 1940's when researchers fed animals hydrogenated coconut oil that was purposely altered to make it completely devoid of any essential fatty acids. The animals who were fed the hydrogenated coconut oil as their sole fat source naturally became deficient in essential fatty acids and their serum cholesterol increased. Dr. Enig added, "diets that cause an essential fatty acid deficiency always produce an increase in serum cholesterol levels as well as in increase in the atherosclerotic indices. The same effect has also been seen when other highly hydrogenated oils such as cottonseed, soybean or corn oils have been fed; so it is clearly a function of the hydrogenated products, either because the oil is essential fatty acid (EFA) deficient or because of trans fatty acids." Interestingly, animals who were fed unprocessed coconut oil had up to six times less cholesterol deposited in their livers and other parts of their bodies than the other animals in the study.