Friday, August 10, 2012

Coconut Oil vs Curcumin as Remedies for Alzheimer's and other Ailments -- Part 1

The two things that have surprised me the most this year in my blogging and health-related research are:
  • The coconut oil craze. I first became aware of this in February when I put up my first post about the  reports I'd seen touting coconut oil as a remedy for Alzheimer's. That post took off like a skyrocket in terms of the hits it got and it kept on going. It has attracted five times as much traffic as any other post I've  published. Yet all the research I've done on coconut oil has yet to turn up a valid study to substantiate the claims made for it.
  • Curcumin -- the "unsung hero." Curcumin is the active ingredient in turmeric, the curry spice that Indians call the "holy powder." I had never heard anything about curcumin until I began researching dietary supplements, and I was startled to find it has been the subject of over 500 scientific studies, almost all of which verify its potential for treating not just Alzheimer's but also other neurological disorders like Parkinson's and MS, as well as cancer, diabetes, arthritis, cardiovascular disease, depression... and the list goes on.
The contrast between the much-hyped coconut oil and the little-known curcumin says a lot about how we let ourselves get seduced by internet hype, YouTube videos, anecdotal stories of miracle drugs, and our reluctance to check the validity of the claims.

So, let's take a closer look at both. Today, let's consider:


The Basis for Claims About Coconut Oil as a Remedy for Alzheimer's
The claim for coconut oil as a remedy for Alzheimer's has to do with substances called ketones. The damage caused by Alzheimer's disrupts the brain's ability to use its primary energy source, glucose. The brain naturally gets a portion of its energy from ketone bodies when glucose is less available (e.g. during fasting or after strenuous exercise or in newborns). Ketones may provide an alternative energy source to the brain's cells to moderate the damage caused by Alzheimer's disease. The body produces ketones when it metabolizes coconut oil and similar fatty acid substances.

That's the theory behind the claims for coconut oil. But the Alzheimer's Association says, "Unfortunately there just isn't any creditable science to support this idea."

The Alzheimer's Association notes that one study was begun on caprylic acid, a substance derived from coconut oil. That small study, funded by the manufacturer, showed promise in phase II clinical studies (which are designed to check on safety and dosage of experimental treatments, not to prove that it works). But the maker of the supplement opted to stop researching it prior to phase three trials that would have tested its effectiveness. The maker decided to use the substance instead as the basis for a product it named Axona and promote it as a "medical food." Medical foods do not require phase III studies or other clinical testing. The report on this study concludes:
The Alzheimer’s Association Medical and Scientific Advisory Council has expressed concern that there is not enough evidence to assess the potential benefit of medical foods for Alzheimer’s disease.  
I checked out Axona on the Mayo Clinic's site on "Drugs and Supplements" and here's what I found:
Axona is marketed as a medical food. Medical foods are dietary supplements that help manage a disease or condition that causes nutritional deficiencies. The Alzheimer's Association, however, disputes the notion that Alzheimer's disease causes nutritional deficiencies and requires a medical food. Medical foods are given only under the supervision of a doctor. But the Food and Drug Administration doesn't approve medical foods, nor does it test medical foods for safety or effectiveness. 
Until more is known, the Alzheimer's Association doesn't recommend the use of medical foods, including Axona, for the treatment of Alzheimer's disease
Dr. Mary Newport's Story
The source for much of the hype for coconut oil and Alzheimer's comes from the story told by Florida pediatrician Mary Newport, who experimented with putting several tablespoons of coconut oil in the oatmeal of her husband, who was seriously afflicted with Alzheimer's. He experienced a remarkable turnaround that is recounted in a video produced by the Christian Broadcasting Network. I included the video in a blog post last year (initially and mistakenly attributing the video to the more well-known CBS).  I'll admit that I was initially so taken with this that I went right to and ordered some coconut oil (when I still thought the video came from  CBS).

Newport spread the word on coconut oil's potential as an Alzheimer's cure through the YouTube video, her blog, a new book she published last year, and by lobbying scientists and politicians. Unfortunately, the evidence doesn't support the level of Newport's enthusiasm. 

National Institutes of Health researcher Richard Veech has worked with the Newports. He notes that early in diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, the brain starts to lose its ability to produce glucose, which leads to a kind of starvation of the brain. But the brain can still use ketones. He explains: "If we could get the level of ketones in the brain high enough in Alzheimer's patients, the hope is that they can use this for energy in place of glucose and we may be able to restore some of the brain's mental function."

But don't expect that to happen from consuming coconut oil, Veech cautions. While cells produce ketones when they metabolize the saturated fat in coconut oil (which has over 90 percent saturated fat, much more than most other oils and fats), "that doesn't lead to levels anywhere near high enough in the brain to do much good," he says. "It's great that Dr. Newport's husband has made such progress, but it is the story of one patient. It's not verified and it hasn't been duplicated in other patients with Alzheimer's." 

I'm reminded of my own experience with the serotonin-boosting supplement 5-HTP, which I  found was almost a miracle drug for me in dealing with insomnia and depression. I began touting it much as Newport did with coconut oil. Although I stopped short of making a video and writing a book, I did initially title this blog "Parkinson's and 5-HTP and Me." Unfortunately, family members and friends who tried it did not experience anything like the results I did. Extensive internet searches have not turned up any other "miracles" like mine.

The dramatic improvements in Dr. Newport's husband should be relatively easy to replicate. But it hasn't happened.

Other Claims for Coconut Oil
There are a lot of them out there. Here are several I've checked on:
Weight loss: TV's popular Dr. Oz says "the first of the health benefits of coconuts -- the one you're going to care about a lot -- is weight loss." By eating more coconut oil, "you might slim your waist in one week," health guru Joseph Mercolo says. (Mercola sells coconut oil for $65 a gallon on his website). The evidence behind their claims is pretty slim. Only one published study, a master's thesis in Brazil, has tested whether coconut oil could help people lose weight. It didn't.
"The Coconut Oil Miracle."  That's the title of a book by Bruce Fife. Its subtitle says "Use nature's elixir to lose weight, prevent heart disease, cancer and diabetes, strengthen the immune system, beautify skin and hair." Fife is president of the nonprofit Coconut Research Center (but the book is being sold for profit). I bought the book. At first glance, the claims made in the book seem to be substantiated by the number of studies cited in the many footnotes. But I looked at the footnotes and most of them did not relate to coconut oil. Virtually all of the ones that dealt with coconut oil came from coconut producing countries like India, the Philippines, and Malaysia, most of them done under the auspices of organizations such as the Asian and Pacific Coconut Community, or the Coconut Development Board. I found only one footnote with a study dated after the year 2000. 
For the past several months, I've set up a Google alert on coconut oil and one on curcumin. These alerts notify me each day of any news coming in on the alert topics. None of the daily coconut alerts have dealt with scientific studies or findings substantiating any of the health claims for coconut oil. Meanwhile, I've been amazed at the number of alerts I'm getting on new and promising study results on curcumin -- the subject of my next post.

"Welcome to the Land of Oz"
That's the title of an editorial in the November, 2011 issue of the Wellness Letter published by the School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley. It notes that many TV talk show hosts give out health advice but that no host has had more influence than Oprah. The editorial continues:
Unfortunately, when it came to health and medicine, at least, much of the advice on her show was quackery.... It's hard to imagine how much money viewers wasted on useless or potentially harmful supplements and other products promoted on her show -- and how many people missed out on the medical treatments they really needed as a result. In 2009, Newsweek's hard-hitting cover story about Oprah's  pedaling of modern-day snake oil was an eye-opener.
But Oprah may have affected the nation's health most by making Dr. Mehmet Oz her resident health expert.
Dr. Oz, the editorial acknowledges, is a well-regarded cardiac surgeon and professor at Columbia University.  But on TV, he suggests treatments for everything from endocrine disorders to cancer, and gives guidance about nutrition, weight loss, psychological well-being, and sexual  health -- just about everything. Often that advice, especially when it comes from some of his guests, is dubious at best. Even psychics and shamans show up, and their assertions are presented as plausible.

And, the editorial continues, every week Dr. Oz gives airtime to unproven supplements and the latest "super food."  His touting of coconut oil for weight loss is just one example.

The editorial advises that if you're intrigued by some tip or product from Dr. Oz's show (or any other TV guru, I'd add), research it yourself AND not just on the websites marketing the product. It's also advisable to be dubious when those touting a product have a vested interest in their product's "efficacy," like Dr. Newport and Bruce Fife in the books they've written.

No comments:

Post a Comment