As a naturopathic doctor, when there is research available regarding dietary therapies which could influence cognitive health, I take note. Proper nutrition is a foundational cornerstone of the philosophy of naturopathic medicine and critical to our brain health. If overlooked, it will often result in pathological processes which become recalcitrant no matter the intervention.
Insulin Resistance and Cognitive Health
Insulin resistance is an exponentially growing concern in industrialized nations, and there is perhaps no better example of a disease process which results directly from over-abundance than the dementia which occurs as a result. While severe dietary deficiencies of nutrients such as folate, essential fatty acids, and choline may play a strong role in the development of dementia, the vast number of calories consumed and the time between consumption of these calories have both been shown to impact the physiology of brain neurons.[i]
Based on the “thrifty gene hypothesis,” our bodies have developed in such a way as to be able to thrive even when faced with extreme famine. In our modern society, where facing famine is not a daily reality for the majority of people, the result of this mismatch of environment and genetics is that we are effectively consuming far more than our bodies require for sustenance and optimal function. Although Alzheimer’s disease is a multi-factorial disease process, there is a clear link between the development of elevated insulin and Alzheimer’s.[ii] [iii]
Calorie restriction, under the direction of a trained physician, provides a means to limit and even reverse the deleterious effects of elevated insulin levels on the human brain. However, as this may not be feasible for everyone, it is important to assess alternate means for improving cognitive health.
The Ketogenic Diet and Coconut Oil
The ketogenic diet is one such alternate therapy, and its effects can be achieved by adding something called Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCT) – which are naturally occurring and found in high amounts in coconut oil – to the diet. The consumption of MCT leads directly to an increase in plasma “ketone bodies” which support cognitive health by reducing inflammation and breaking up plaques. One study evaluated the effect of MCT on cognitive performance in 20 subjects with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease. This study showed that a single 40g dose of MCT induced a significant elevation in beta-hydroxybutyrate (the most potent and clinically useful ketone body we produce) two hours after consumption. Improvement was rapid (90 min after eating), significant, and was reproducible when extended to dosing over 90 days.[iv]
As rates of Alzheimer’s and the response to ketone bodies are both higher in those with insulin resistance, they provide a potentially useful clinical tool.[v]
The most practical and health promoting way to increase consumption of MCT in patients is through the use of coconut oil, 66% of which is made of MCT. The typical therapeutic dose studied to show benefit is 20g of MCT, which is the amount obtained from approximately 2 tablespoons of coconut oil per day. As some people’s digestion may be sensitive to this amount, starting at 1 teaspoon and increasing the dosage over several weeks may be a safer approach.
It Always Comes Back to Nutrition
Whole foods, in their original unadulterated form, must forever be the foundation of a healthy lifestyle. As far as we have progressed in the field of nutritional biochemistry, we will simply never be able to isolate or encapsulate the true essence of the foods which come from nature. Our earth, however, has been depleted and its animals have been mistreated to the extent that extra effort (unique only to our time) via food-based supplementation is now often required to supply our bodies with what they need to maintain optimal function. So, speak to your doctor about the utility of sustainable caloric restriction or a ketogenic diet, and whether adding coconut oil may provide you with some much needed brain fuel.
Martin B, Mattson MP, Maudsley S. Caloric restriction and intermittent fasting: two potential diets for successful brain aging. Ageing Research Reviews 2006; 5:332-353.
Ott A, Stolk RP, van Harskamp F, Pols HA, Hofman A, Breteler MM. Diabetes mellitus and the risk of dementia: The Rotterdam Study. Neuroglogy 1999;53:1937-1942.
Park CR. Cognitive effects of insulin in the central nervous system. Neurosci Biobehav Rev 2001;25:311-323.
Reger MA, Henderson ST, Hale C, et al. Effects of beta-hydroxy-butyrate on cognition in memory-impaired adults. Neurobiol Aging 2004;25:311-314.
Robinson AM, Williamson DH. Physiological roles of ketone bodies as substrates and signals in mammalian tissues. Physiol Rev 1980;60:143-187.