Coconut is one of my favorite superfoods. I recommend it to all those that aren’t allergic for a long list of reasons. During this time of year, it’s a staple in my “medicine” cabinet to help keep my immune system healthy and ward off infections
In fact, coconut oil has a long history of use by many cultures around the world to remedy a wide variety of ailments, including the common cold, the flu, bronchitis, earaches, gingivitis, nausea, skin rashes, sore throats, stomachaches, and wounds to name a few. Plus, there’s even science to prove what our ancestors already knew.
What is Coconut?
To start, you might be wondering what a coconut is. Is it a nut, a fruit, or a seed?
Well, technically, coconuts are considered dry drupes, which are described as fibrous stone fruits with one seed and three layers. The outermost layer is hard and green or brown when ripe. It’s typically removed before you even see a coconut in a market. Many stores remove the brown and hairy husk as well to make it easier for you to eat. So, what you are usually left with is the innermost layer, which is hard and woody and surrounds the seed. Thus, the white portion that we eat is essentially part of the seed. It’s actually the food that the “baby” plant would consume during germination and sprouting.
Nutritional Profile of Coconut
Before I dive into the antimicrobial benefits, let’s take a closer look at all the goodness packed inside the seed of each coconut. It’s important to note that coconut comes in a variety of forms, and each form has its own nutritional composition.
A quarter cup of raw and dried coconut “meat” contains approximately:
- 70 calories
- 7 grams of fat
- 1 gram of protein
- 1 gram of sugar
- 2 grams of fiber
Coconut meat is also an excellent source of minerals, including manganese, iron, selenium, potassium, copper, phosphorus, and zinc. Plus, it contains a moderate concentration of B-vitamins.
Coconut water is most often extracted from young, green coconuts. A one cup serving size contains approximately:
- 45 calories
- 0.5 grams of fat
- 1.7 grams of protein
- 6.3 grams of sugar
- 2.6 grams of fiber
It’s also a good source of electrolytes, such as potassium, sodium, and magnesium. This is why many people turn to it as a natural alternative to chemical-laden sports drinks.
Coconut milk is made from mature coconuts. First, the meat is washed, blanched, and finely shredded and mixed with water. Then the coconut milk is squeezed out and strained. What you are left with is full fat coconut milk (with some water) that you buy in cans, which is what I always recommend using as opposed to the coconut milk sold in cartons which undergoes much more processing and contains nasty additives.
One third cup of canned coconut milk contains approximately:
- 140 calories
- 14 grams of fat
- 1 gram of protein
- 1 gram of sugar
While coconut milk doesn’t contain fiber, it still contains an abundance of minerals as well as some B-vitamins.
Last, but not least, there’s coconut oil. The type of coconut oil you use matters.
Refined coconut oil is often made from dried coconut, which in its natural state is labeled as not fit for human consumption. Because the way the meat is dried isn’t sanitary. Thus, it must be purified. This process involves bleaching and deodorizing as well as further refining to help prolong shelf-life. Whether or not these steps are performed mechanically or chemically depends on the manufacturer. And most likely you would never know. For these reasons, I always recommend raw or virgin coconut oil.
Virgin coconut oil is made simply by squeezing (sanitary) dried coconut meat or fresh coconut meat. Thus, there are no chemicals used and no refining. However, unlike coconut meat, water, and milk, coconut oil is almost entirely fat. A one tablespoon serving size contains approximately 14 grams of fat.
Most (85%) of the fat content is saturated. And when coconut oil is consumed, it is broken down into fatty acids and monoglycerides. These include:
Caprylic acid (8%) + Monocaprylin
Capric acid (7%) + Monocaprin
Lauric acid (49%) + Monolaurin
Myristic acid (18%) + Monomyristin
Palmitic acid (8%) + Monopalmitolein
Oleic acid (6%) + Monoolein
Stearic acid (2%)
Linoleic acid (2%)
What’s interesting is that some of these fatty acids and their associated monoglycerides are what contribute most to coconut’s antibacterial, antimicrobial, and antifungal properties that I alluded to previously.
It’s worth noting that all parts of the coconut and the coconut palm tree, including the husk, leaves, and roots, are used medicinally by many cultures throughout the world. And excellent health has been documented in some cultures, such as the Tokelauans and Kitavans that get a significant portion of their calories from coconuts.
Evidence-Based Health Benefits of Coconut Fatty Acids and Monoglycerides
The antimicrobial activity of fatty acids and monoglycerides is nothing new. Dating back to 1942, researchers discovered that free fatty acids naturally found in human sebum played a role in preventing skin infections.
More recently, a study found that naturally occurring oleic acid in the skin was able to disrupt the cell wall and essentially kill MRSA, an antibiotic resistant strain of staph bacteria. What’s even more interesting is that these free fatty acids are presumably derived from fats broken down by beneficial bacteria on your skin. This is one of the many reasons why excessive washing isn’t advised. It strips your skin of sebum as well as disrupts your skin’s microbiome.
Researchers have also discovered that lauric acid and monocaprin are effective against streptococci and staphylococci skin infections. Plus, studies have suggested that lauric acid applied topically can combat the bacteria associated with acne vulgaris as well as the bacteria associated with inflammatory acne. Thus, the theory that facial oils cause breakouts doesn’t quite always hold up.
But the benefits aren’t limited to protecting your skin. Coconut fatty acids also help fight against internal pathogens.
Beginning in 1962, researchers discovered that fatty acids (mostly linoleic and oleic) and monoglycerides in breastmilk were effective in preventing the colonization of harmful bacteria in the gut. This is just one of the ways in which breastmilk helps an infant build innate immunity.
A handful of studies from the 1990s and early 2000s have also shown that lauric acid, capric acid, and monocaprin, were effective against sexually transmitted bacterial and viral infections, including chlamydia, gonorrhea, and herpes simplex 1.
This in vitro study demonstrated that monocaprin and lauric acid were highly effective against viruses that cause respiratory related illnesses.
The primary cause of hospital-acquired antibiotic-associated diarrhea globally is Clostridium difficile. To make matters worse, it is becoming antibiotic resistant. Thus, researchers are looking for alternative solutions. And in this study, they found that lauric acid was able to significantly inhibit the growth of C. difficile. Caprylic and capric acids were also effective, but not as potent as lauric acid.
Lauric acid has also been shown to stop the spread of breast and endometrial cancer cells as well as initiate their death in this recent study. And coconut oil is one of the richest sources of naturally occuring lauric acid.
I could go on and on listing studies showing the antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal effects of fatty acids and monoglycerides found in coconut. You may have noticed, however, that the studies I’ve mentioned so far didn’t use coconut meat, milk, or oil per se. For this reason, some would suggest supplements of purified lauric acid, monolaurin, and/or monocaprin, and I don’t necessarily disagree. But, some studies have used virgin coconut with promising results. Let’s take a look…
Candida albicans is a fungus (a.k.a. yeast) that naturally lives in the gut and is considered opportunistic. Because under certain circumstances, such as a high sugar diet, it will overgrow and cause many problems for your health and sense of well-being. In this in vitro study, researchers found coconut oil to be highly effective against candida albicans as well as other several other strains of candida when compared to the common antifungal fluconazole. This is encouraging considering the emergence of drug-resistant candida.
In this study, swishing with coconut oil was found to be just as effective as using chlorhexidine (a synthetic antimicrobial solution) against the bacteria (S. mutans) most notable for causing dental cavities.
Virgin coconut oil has also been shown to improve discomfort and symptoms associated with chemotherapy among a small group of breast cancer patients in this study. Specifically patients were given 10 ml (approximately 2 teaspoons) twice a day. When compared to the control group that received no coconut oil supplementation, researchers reported better scores for symptoms such as fatigue, loss of appetite, and sleep difficulties.
In this study, 2 tablespoons of coconut oil a day significantly raised HDL cholesterol among healthy volunteers. And this is important because high levels of HDL cholesterol are associated with a lower risk of heart disease. Specifically, it can help rid the body of bad cholesterol (small, dense LDL particles) and prevent it from sticking to the lining of your arteries.
To Sum it Up
Coconut oil has many other health benefits explored by science, including boosting brain health and facilitating fat burning. And those are topics for another day. But for now, it’s very clear that coconut oil contains potent fats that help protect you from pathogens–inside and out. So don’t fear the coconut! Indulge and enjoy instead.
I personally love using coconut in my diet. I add dried coconut or coconut oil in my shakes, and use coconut milk to make soups creamy. Here is a recipe for Coconut Mocha Collagen Fat Bombs that incorporates coconut milk, coconut oil, and dried coconut. Absolutely delicious and positively nutritious!An even easier way to get the health benefits of coconut into your diet is by swapping your usual coconut candy bar for one of my delicious Chocolate Bar with Fiber. They’re a perfect choice for an on-the-go meal, with a blend of fibers and natural sweeteners that are easy to digest.
Keep thinking Big and living BOLD!