By Sayer Ji
The coconut palm is perhaps the world’s most widely distributed and versatile food-medicine, and has been prized and even revered by indigenous cultures since time immemorial. Increasingly, scientific evidence is validating its traditionally ascribed health benefits, and more, including supporting brain health, protecting the heart, and even reducing stress and depression.
But what of anecdotes referring to the presumed antifungal activity of coconut oil? Is there any basis in scientific research to make such claims?
Indeed, a recent study led by researchers at Tufts University has found that coconut oil is highly effective at controlling the overgrowth of the opportunistic fungal pathogen Candida albicans in mice.
Published in the American Society for Microbiology’s journal mSphere, and entitled “Manipulation of Host Diet to Reduce Gastrointestinal Colonization by the Opportunistic Pathogen Candida Albicans,” the study identified C. albicans as the most common human pathogen, with a mortality rate of about 40% when causing systemic infections.
C. albicans is normally present in the human gastrointestinal tract, but antibiotics can destroy commensal bacteria that normally keep Candida populations within a healthy range. According to the study, compromised immunity is also a major cause of C. albicans overgrowth, and “systemic infections caused by C. albicans can lead to invasive candidiasis, which is the fourth most common blood infection among hospitalised patients in the United States according to the CDC.”
Additionally, in a recent article we wrote on the topic of Candida albicans and cancer, we explored the implications of a paper published in Critical Reviews in Microbiology, entitled “Candida albicans and cancer: Can this yeast induce cancer development or progression?“, wherein compelling evidence is presented that C. albicans overgrowth may play a significant role in carcinogenesis. If this is true, clearly natural ways to keep C. albicans levels at bay are needed by a global population increasingly afflicted by cancer as a primary cause of morbidity and mortality.
Conventional cancer treatments like chemotherapy and conventional anti-fungal drugs carry with them significant risk of adverse effects, and their repeated use leads to the development of drug resistant strains of fungal pathogens, making natural approaches all the more attractive. The researchers hypothesised that a coconut-based dietary intervention might reduce Candida infection in mice. The study design and results were reported on ScienceDaily.com as follows:
“The team, led by microbiologist Carol Kumamoto and nutrition scientist Alice H. Lichtenstein, investigated the effects of three different dietary fats on the amount of C. albicans in the mouse gut: coconut oil, beef tallow and soybean oil. A control group of mice were fed a standard diet for mice. Coconut oil was selected based on previous studies that found that the fat had antifungal properties in the laboratory setting.
A coconut oil-rich diet reduced C. albicans in the gut compared to a beef tallow-or soybean oil-rich diet. Coconut oil alone, or the combination of coconut oil and beef tallow, reduced the amount of C. albicans in the gut by more than 90% compared to a beef tallow-rich diet.
Coconut oil even reduced fungal colonisation when mice were switched from beef tallow to coconut oil, or when mice were fed both beef tallow and coconut oil at the same time. These findings suggest that adding coconut oil to a patient’s existing diet might control the growth of C. albicans in the gut, and possibly decrease the risk of fungal infections caused by C. albicans,” said Kumamoto, Ph.D., a professor of molecular biology and microbiology at Tufts University School of Medicine and member of the molecular microbiology and genetics program faculties at the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences.”
These preliminary results have profound implications for the practice of medicine, according to a statement made to ScienceDaily by Alice H LIchtenstein, D.Sc., director of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University:
“This study marks a first step in understanding how life-threatening yeast infections in susceptible individuals might be reduced through the short-term and targeted use of a specific type of fat. As exciting as these findings are, we have to keep in mind that the majority of adult Americans are at high risk for heart disease, the number one killer in the U.S. The potential use of coconut oil in the short term to control the rate of fungal overgrowth should not be considered a prophylactic approach to preventing fungal infections.”
The first author of the study, Kearney Gunsalus, Ph.D. an Institutional Research and Academic Career Development (IRACDA) postdoctoral fellow at the Sackler School in Kumamoto’s lab, also offered his opinion on the study implications:
“We want to give clinicians a treatment option that might limit the need for antifungal drugs. If we can use coconut oil as a safe, dietary alternative, we could decrease the amount of antifungal drugs used, reserving antifungal drugs for critical situations.”