E-Mail Edition  Volume 3   Number 3

Originally published Summer, 2006

Published by Piccadilly Books, Ltd., www.piccadillybooks.com.

Bruce Fife, N.D., Publisher, www.coconutresearchcenter.org

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  • Ask Dr. Coconut

  • Low Cholesterol Linked to Parkinson's Disease

  • The Truth About Good and Bad Cholesterol



Ask Dr. Coconut TM 

Dr. Bruce Fife a.k.a. "Dr. Coconut" answers two of the most often asked questions about coconut oil.


Does coconut oil cause heart disease? I came across a study in which coconut oil was used to induce atherosclerosis. How can this be if coconut oil is heart friendly?

Hardly a week goes by that I don't read in a newspaper, magazine, or book or hear on the television or radio that coconut oil promotes heart disease. So many people have the opinion that coconut oil causes heart disease that you would assume that there are numerous studies to substantiate this belief. The fact of the matter is that there are no studies that show that coconut oil promotes heart disease. You can search until you are blue in the face but you won't find a single study that can prove that coconut oil causes heart disease.

I'm talking about natural, non-hydrogenated, non-adulterated coconut oil, the type that is normally eaten every day by millions of people worldwide as part of their normal diet. Some people have pointed out studies using hydrogenated or fractionated coconut oil combined with experimental (i.e., unnatural) diets as proof that coconut oil is harmful. These studies don't show anything of the kind, they only show that oils that are chemically altered and combined with experimental diets lacking certain nutrients can possibly lead to health problems. That is no surprise. When you manipulate foods and alter their natural nutritional profiles anything can happen.

I recently had an experience that illustrates how these studies can be misinterpreted. I was speaking at a university on the merits of coconut oil. During my presentation I discussed the unfounded claim that coconut oil contributes to heart disease and referred to several studies backing my position. I explained how natural coconut oil does not have a harmful effect on blood cholesterol levels and that populations that use coconut oil as their primary source of fat have a remarkably low incidence of heart disease.

At the end of the talk I answered questions from the audience. In attendance were people who sincerely wanted to learn about coconut and a few who were skeptical, including some who were even oppositional. One member of the audience claimed to be a medical researcher. He was of the opinion that coconut oil caused heart disease. To back up his position he stated that researchers induce atherosclerosis in lab animals using coconut oil—proving that coconut oil causes heart disease and that I was wrong.

I don't know if he was truly ignorant of the facts or was just trying to create opposition, but he brought out an interesting point that can cause confusion. It is true that researchers often incorporate coconut oil into diets used to induce atherosclerosis in lab animals. But it is not the coconut oil that causes the plaque buildup in the animal's arteries. Atherosclerosis in these cases is caused by oxidized cholesterol fed to the animals. Oxidized cholesterol is not the same as the cholesterol we generally get in our foods or the type that is manufactured in our bodies. Oxidation chemically alters the cholesterol, making it toxic. When researchers feed oxidized cholesterol to animals, it damages artery walls causing atherosclerosis to develop in a relatively short amount of time, generally just weeks. Researchers dissolve powdered oxidized cholesterol in oil before feeding it to animals. The oil serves as a carrier. That's its purpose. The reason why coconut oil is preferred is because coconut oil is an excellent carrier oil and oxidized cholesterol dissolves easily in it. Any oil combined with oxidized cholesterol will promote atherosclerosis, even soybean oil or olive oil. Coconut oil is used primarily because it is easier to work with. It is the oxidized cholesterol that causes damage to arteries, not the carrier oil it is combined with.

When people read an abstract to a study and see that a combination of cholesterol and coconut oil was used to initiate atherosclerosis they could mistakenly interpret that to mean that coconut oil promotes heart disease. These studies do not demonstrate that coconut oil causes atherosclerosis. It is the damaged cholesterol that is the culprit here. If coconut oil really did cause atherosclerosis, people eating the oil would develop heart disease. But there are no studies that can show a relationship between coconut oil consumption and heart disease. Every single published study on this topic shows a reverse relationship.

The Pukapuka and Tokelau island study provides a good example. Virtually the entire populations of both islands participated in the study. Researchers discovered that these people were getting as much as 50 percent of their daily calories from the consumption of coconut oil, yet they had no signs of heart disease. Even though their diet contained massive amounts of coconut oil, they were free of atherosclerosis.

Studies in the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Papua New Guinea, India, and elsewhere show that populations that rely on coconut oil as their primary source of fat have extraordinarily low incidence of heart disease. As these people abandon coconut oil in favor of other oils, heart disease increases. If coconut oil promotes heart disease, why does heart disease increase when coconut oil consumption decreases? This pattern is seen throughout the world where coconut oil has traditionally been used. You can't say it is the diet in general that is always at fault because in many of these populations the diets have remained virtually unchanged except for replacing coconut oil with processed vegetable oils and margarines.

Historically, heart disease was unheard of in most populations that rely heavily on coconut oil. Heart disease has only become an issue here as coconut oil has been replaced by other oils. For instance, in Papua New Guinea, where coconut oil has been a primary source of fat in the diet, the very first heart attack death occurred in 1964. Prior to that, heart disease was unheard of. It was only after the introduction of processed vegetable oils that heart disease surfaced.

Experimental diets that induce atherosclerosis in lab animals combine oxidized cholesterol with coconut oil amounting to about 5-10 percent of total calories. Studies generally last only a few weeks. In this time the oxidized cholesterol has caused enough damage for a measurable amount of atherosclerosis to build up in the animal's arteries. In other words, these special diets initiate atherosclerosis in a matter of weeks. If coconut oil was the primary cause of this condition, anyone who consumes coconut oil would die of heart disease in just a few years. Yet people as old as 96 years of age who have consumed coconut every day of their lives have shown no evidence of atherosclerosis.

The saturated fats in coconut oil are unique. They are known as medium-chain triglycerides. Besides coconut and palm kernel oils the next best dietary source of these special saturated fats is breast milk—nature's perfect food. If the saturated fats in coconut cause hardening of the arteries and heart disease, why does nature put them in mother's milk? It is completely illogical to believe that nature has formulated the perfect food to contain a deadly poison that would cause disease in a matter of weeks.

Human breast milk contains the same amount of saturated medium-chain triglycerides as the lab diets designed to produce atherosclerosis, but without the damaged cholesterol. Instead, it has natural or non-oxidized cholesterol, the type found in most of our foods. Infants who can breast feed for up to three years, do not develop atherosclerosis. Obviously, these saturated fats aren't the cause of heart disease. If they were, the human race would have become extinct ages ago.

Some people because of preconceived prejudices fail to see the obvious. I challenged my critic to cite any studies that could show that coconut oil, without oxidized cholesterol, caused heart disease. He could not. So he reversed the challenge and asked me to show him studies that proved that coconut does not cause heart disease. I told him that I have already done that during the lecture and referred again to the Pukapuka and Tokelau island study which showed that even very large amounts of coconut oil in the diet has no harmful effect on the heart or circulatory system.

His reply was that he didn't accept these studies because they were in opposition with his belief. He stated that he believed more in the studies using oxidized cholesterol. This was an interesting statement because the diets in these studies are developed artificially in a laboratory and are designed to promote atherosclerosis in mice, monkeys, and other animals. The studies I presented represented real life in human populations. His refusal to recognize these studies demonstrated how prejudice can override common sense and scientific fact. I think the only way this type of individual will come around is when the media changes position and begins to broadcast that coconut oil is heart friendly. But I don't see that happening any time soon. In the meantime, we need to be leery of anyone who claims to have read studies that show that coconut oil promotes heart disease; it just isn't so.




Low Cholesterol Linked to Parkinson's Disease:

Low cholesterol not so good after all


Is it possible to have too low a level of cholesterol? A new study shows that low cholesterol may increase the risk for Parkinson's disease. Previous studies have revealed that low cholesterol adversely affects mental function resulting in an increased risk of suicide, stroke, depression, and violence. Now Parkinson's disease can be added to the list.

The link between low cholesterol and mental function isn't so far-fetched. Our brains are made largely of cholesterol. Contrary to popular belief, cholesterol is not a deadly poison. In addition to forming brain and nerve tissue, cholesterol is also utilized by the body to make hormones such as estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone as well as vitamin D. Cholesterol is needed in cell membranes to stabilize them so that they function properly. In essence, cholesterol is vital to every cell and every organ in your body. A deficiency in cholesterol can lead to health problems.

Our bodies need a certain amount of cholesterol in order to function properly. The amount each person requires appears to vary depending on heredity and perhaps even lifestyle and environment. For some people a total cholesterol level of 200 mg/dl is healthy, for another this figure may be low or high. There are people who have cholesterol levels twice this high who live long lives free of heart disease. If the body is deprived of needed cholesterol from the use of drugs or by the diet, hormone balance as well as mental balance can be upset.

Dr. Xuemei Huang and colleagues from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill measured the lipid levels of 124 Parkinson's patients and a group of 112 similar people free of Parkinson's disease. Huang reported that, after adjusting for age, smoking, and use of lipid-lowering agents, men with low total and low LDL (bad) cholesterol levels had an increased risk of Parkinson's.

For example, compared to men with LDL cholesterol levels higher than 135, those with levels between 91 and 135 were 6 times more likely to have Parkinson's, and those LDL levels below 91 were 4 times more likely. The association was stronger among men than it was with women.

Huang proposes several possible mechanisms to explain the link between low cholesterol and risk of Parkinson's disease. One is that cholesterol helps rid the body of environmental toxins that might trigger Parkinson's.

"Another possible mechanism underlying our finding," says Huang "is the role of cholesterol as a precursor for hormones/chemical modulators that are involved in central nervous system function in a variety of ways."

According to Huang and other researchers, LDL cholesterol levels below 135 significantly increase risk for Parkinson's disease and many other neurological disorders. Yet, the American Heart Association and their friends in the pharmaceutical industry tell us that LDL cholesterol should be below 130 and ideally below 100. LDL cholesterol levels above 130, they tell us, indicate an increased risk of heart disease. If this is true, then a person may extend their life a few years by not having a heart attack, but these will be years suffering from neurological disorders. What has been gained? Why live a few extra years if you're going to be sick during this time?

Take heart, the cholesterol recommendations for heart disease risk are guesses, not absolute indicators. What is considered high or low cholesterol is somewhat arbitrary. The pharmaceutical industry would like the definition of high cholesterol to be as low as possible and have been campaigning to have it lowered. That way more people fit into the high risk category and doctors will prescribe more cholesterol-lowering drugs. The bottom line is bigger profits for the drug companies.

Please keep in mind that high blood cholesterol doesn't cause heart disease. Blood cholesterol level is only a risk factor. In other words, a person's risk or chances of suffering from heart disease is increased if they have elevated cholesterol. If cholesterol actually caused heart disease then everyone who dies from coronary heart disease must have high cholesterol, but that is not the case. In fact, almost half of all those who die of heart attacks have normal to below normal cholesterol levels. Cholesterol level is only one of many risk factors. Age, gender, smoking, and diabetes are a few of the other risk factors. Cholesterol is the risk factor we hear most about because it is the easiest (and most profitable) one to alter using drug therapy. Therefore, pharmaceutical companies market the need for cholesterol-lowering very aggressively.

With drug companies stressing the need to lower cholesterol (using cholesterol-lowering drugs) we have the mistaken belief that cholesterol is evil and we need to lower it as much as possible. We have come to believe that the lower our cholesterol is the healthier we are. This is not true. Low cholesterol is dangerous. But you won't see drug companies or doctors advising people to not lower their cholesterol. Why? Because they can't make money that way. They don't sell cholesterol-arising drugs. So don't expect to hear too much about the dangers of low cholesterol from your doctor or the media anytime soon.


The Truth About Good and Bad Cholesterol

There are several different types of cholesterol. The ones we hear most about are often referred to as the "good" cholesterol and the "bad" cholesterol. The bad cholesterol, otherwise known as LDL cholesterol, gets its notoriety from the fact that it transports cholesterol throughout the body. It therefore provides the cholesterol that might become trapped in artery walls and form plaque. HDL cholesterol is considered the good guy because it brings cholesterol back to the liver for reprocessing and possible elimination from the body.

Although HDL and LDL cholesterol are commonly referred to as the good and bad cholesterols this really isn't the case. There are two other forms of cholesterol that actually deserve the labels "good" and "bad."

All forms of natural cholesterol, the type normally found in the body, are good and necessary. Whether it is transported as LDL or HDL, cholesterol provides the body with building blocks to manufacture hormones, cell membranes, vitamin D, etc. Cholesterol is absolutely vital to good health. It is not an evil villain. It's illogical to believe that nature would create a substance that is vital for good health but is also toxic.

Something that is good, however, can become bad under certain circumstances. When cholesterol becomes oxidized, its bad side comes out. When researchers analyze arterial plaque what they find is oxidized cholesterol. Oxidized cholesterol is the only form of cholesterol that collects in arterial plaque. Normal, healthy cholesterol does not build up in artery walls. When fats and oils are oxidized, they become rancid and, consequently, toxic. Cholesterol is the same way. Natural cholesterol is harmless, but when it is damaged by oxidation it turns bad.

Years ago researchers discovered that if they put oxidized cholesterol into test diets, lab animals developed atherosclerosis in a matter of weeks. If they fed normal cholesterol to animals it was nearly impossible for them to develop atherosclerosis even when they were fed massive amounts of it. Blood cholesterol levels could rise to over 800 mg/dl and still atherosclerosis would not develop unless oxidized cholesterol was used. Today oxidized cholesterol is routinely used in cholesterol research to induce atherosclerosis in test animals.

The vast majority of the cholesterol circulating in our blood is manufactured in the liver. Only a small amount comes from the diet. Cholesterol manufactured by the liver is obviously not rancid and, therefore, not oxidized. The cholesterol in fresh, natural foods, likewise, is not oxidized. But foods that have been overly processed may contain oxidized (i.e., rancid) cholesterol. The foods that are most likely to contain oxidized cholesterol are animal products that have been dehydrated, dried, or powdered.

The foods with the highest oxidized cholesterol content are dried cheese, powdered whole milk, powdered eggs, powdered butter, hard meats, etc. These types of foods are often used in packaged prepared foods. For instance, a boxed cake mix will list eggs or milk in the ingredients. Obviously for the mix to be dry, these ingredients must be dehydrated or powdered. Finished baked goods may not be any safer. Was the cake you bought last week at your local grocery store made with fresh eggs or powdered? It's possible that the bakery used a mix containing powdered eggs.

How about the packaged spaghetti or macaroni and cheese you made last night? Did it come with a packet of powdered cheese?

Did the last pizza you eat contain pepperoni? Did it have powdered Parmesan cheese?

The "good" cholesterol is the cholesterol that is formed in your body and the cholesterol found in fresh, natural foods. The "bad" cholesterol, the one that causes problems, is oxidized cholesterol that is found in many highly processed foods.

To avoid bad cholesterol you need to look at ingredient labels. Avoid foods with all suspect ingredients. Better yet, avoid all processed, packaged foods and only eat fresh, whole foods. Make your meals from scratch so you know exactly what you are eating. This is what our great grandparents did. In their day heart disease was essentially unheard of. Today with all of the innovations of modern food processing, heart disease has become our number one killer.

Instead of worrying about cholesterol levels we should be worried more about the types of foods we eat and the type of cholesterol in those foods. There is no doubt that many factors contribute to heart disease. However, eating better seems to make a big difference and it is something you can start doing right now.



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 Copyright © 2007, 2005, Bruce Fife. All rights reserved.