Virgin coconut oil is known to have many uses and health benefits. A small clinical study has found that the use of virgin coconut oil along with chemotherapy may improve quality of life in women with breast cancer. Different pre-clinical/animal studies have also found that virgin coconut oil may have the potential to reduce toxicity such as kidney injury and damage to the nervous system (neurotoxicity) caused due to cytotoxic chemotherapy drugs. However, some animal studies have shown excessive use of virgin coconut oil to increase the risk of colorectal and liver cancers. Taking large amounts of virgin coconut oil may also cause certain side-effects like nausea, headache, gastro-intestinal problems, etc. Additionally, while virgin coconut oil use by radiation-treated head and neck cancers did not increase toxicity, taking foods such as orange and chili pepper, and supplements such as Clove and Nutmeg, along with coconut oil, may not be good for these radiation-treated cancer patients. Hence, it is really important to personalize nutrition to the specific cancer type to reap maximum benefits from nutrition and stay safe.
Virgin Coconut Oil Source and Characteristics
Virgin coconut oil is the unrefined and unprocessed coconut oil extracted directly from the fresh meat of the coconut. It has received a lot of attention lately for its varied health benefits/uses. It is used by many people throughout the globe either by applying to one’s hair and face, used for cooking or consumed orally. Virgin coconut oil like other oils is high in saturated fat. However, it has a very high percentage of the more easily digestible medium chain fatty acid (MCFA) like lauric acid when compared to other animal based fats that contain more of the hard to digest long chain saturated fats. Virgin coconut oil with high amounts of MCFAs have been shown to be associated with an increase in good cholesterol (high-density lipoprotein- HDL) in the body.
Besides being a rich source of medium chain saturated fatty acids like lauric acid, coconut oil is also a good source of minerals such as Manganese, Copper, Iron and Selenium. These are key constituents for different functions in the body including bone health, aiding digestion of foods, forming red blood cells and antioxidant functions as mediated by Selenium.
Health Benefits/Uses of Virgin Coconut Oil
Following are some of the health benefits/uses of Coconut Oil.
- Good for the heart and has promise in lowering cardiovascular risk.
- Anti-cancer benefits through not only improving quality of life but also having a direct impact on viability of cancer cells. The studies for the use of virgin coconut oil in cancer and whether it can be a potential ingredient of cancer patients’ diet will be further detailed in this blog.
- Has shown improvements in cognitive abilities in Alzheimer’s patients. (Orti, JEdlR et al,, J Alzheimer’s Dis., 2018)
- Can help with Satiety and Weight loss (Assuncao ML et al, Lipids, 2009)
- Reduce inflammation.
- As an antioxidant, it can play a role in cellular defense mechanisms.
- Helps the body absorb fat soluble nutrients such as Vitamins A, D, E and K.
- Has been shown to improve gut health through strengthening gut bacteria.
Virgin coconut oil is stable under heat and can be used over medium heat for sauteing and stir-frying foods. However, taking virgin coconut oil in large quantities may lead to nausea, a common side-effect. Additionally, excess intake of virgin coconut oil may also lead to other side effects like headache, swollen glands, joint or muscle pain, gastro-intestinal problems, cramps, diarrhea or skin rashes. The USDA daily recommendation for virgin coconut oil is 1.5 tablespoon.
There have been numerous studies on the health benefits/uses of virgin coconut oil and how its supplementation and use impacts cancer patients. We will summarize and highlight the key studies of the use of virgin coconut oil and its impact in cancer.
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Virgin Coconut Oil Supplementation in Breast Cancer Patients
In 2014, a study conducted by medical researchers from Universiti Sains Malaysia, investigated the association of virgin coconut oil supplementation along with chemotherapy on the quality of life impact of breast cancer patients. This cancer type is one of the most widely affecting cancer for Malaysian women. In this prospective randomized study, 60 patients with either stage 3 or 4 breast cancer were divided into either a control group or the group that took virgin coconut oil supplementation. The researchers found that the group that took the virgin coconut oil supplementation along with chemotherapy had a much higher mean Quality of Life (QoL) score as measured based on the European Organization for Research and Treatment of Cancer Quality of Life Questionnaire Breast Cancer Module (EORTC-QLQ-C30). The virgin coconut oil group had ‘better scores for symptoms including fatigue, dyspnea, sleep difficulties, and loss of appetite compared to the control group’ (Law KS et al, Lipids Health Dis., 2014).
The reason why cancer patients face such a decline in their quality of life is because chemotherapy drugs are non-specific, cytotoxic drugs, which means that along with attempting to stop tumor growth by killing rapidly dividing cancer cells, the drugs also cause collateral damage by affecting other cellular and bodily functions. Therefore, any natural product which has the ability to decrease chemotherapy mediated toxicities towards non-cancer cells is extremely beneficial.
Virgin Coconut Oil Use in Radiation-Treated Head and Neck Cancer Patients
A feasibility study was performed on 30 patients with a dry mouth condition called xerostomia that is a side-effect of radiation treatment in head and neck cancer patients. This happens when the salivary glands are damaged by radiation therapy and unable to produce enough saliva, hence causing the dry mouth condition. Coconut oil samples were provided to the patients with a protocol for use over a 2-week period and an option to continue if they found it beneficial. Patients were asked to record their patterns of use in diary and the Xerostomia-related Quality of Life Scale (XeQOLS) was administered prior to the start of the study and at a 3-month follow-up.
They found that twelve patients (41.4%) may have benefitted from the use of virgin coconut oil as they continued to use it beyond the 2-week period. However, the researchers did not find any statistically significant difference in the XeQOLS score pre and post-treatment, but they also did not find any additional side-effects either with the use of the coconut oil. (Quimby A E et al, Int J Otolaryngol., 2020)
Preclinical Studies of Virgin Coconut Oil Use in Animal Models
There are numerous studies that have tested the use of coconut oil along with different cancer treatments in animal models of different cancer types.
- In a recent study, the researchers evaluated the protective effects of virgin coconut oil on the chemotherapy induced kidney toxicity in a rat model. Based on measuring different renal toxicity markers, they found that use of virgin coconut oil was protective and reduced chemotherapy induced kidney damage. (Narayanankutty A et al, Drug Chem Toxicol, 2020)
- Another study published this year assessed the difference between extra-virgin olive oil, virgin coconut oil and sunflower oil in affecting the gut microbiome in mice, that the researchers associated as being causal for development of colorectal cancer. In this study the researchers found only extra-virgin olive oil to produce beneficial changes in the gut microbiome that could be associated with prevention of colorectal cancer. Coconut oil and sunflower oils caused changes that were associated with increased risk of colorectal cancer. (Rodriguez-Garcia C et al, Nutrients, 2020)
- Another study explored the antioxidant potential of virgin coconut oil in a chemotherapy induced cerebral (brain) toxicity and inflammation in a rat model. The researchers found a reduction in chemotherapy induced neurotoxicity by virgin coconut oil due to its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. Thus, supplementation of virgin coconut oil may be beneficial in prevention of the neurotoxic side-effects in cancer patients undergoing the specific chemotherapy and could be further validated in a clinical trial to confirm its health benefits. (Famureva AC et al, J Food Biochem, 2019)
- A study done by researchers from the Amala Cancer Research Centre in India to see how virgin coconut oil supplementation would affect the toxicity of another chemotherapy used to treat leukemia and lymphoma in mice. While the chemotherapy is effective in stopping tumor growth, it causes a large number of adverse side-effects in patients including cardiotoxicity, and kidney and liver damage. The results proved to be in favor of virgin coconut oil supplementation in terms of its protective nature against the systemic toxicity of the chemotherapy. Researchers found that many of the toxicity markers including blood urea, creatinine and liver marker enzymes in the mice were marginally decreased by the oral ingestion of virgin coconut oil supplementation. (Nair SS et al, Hum Exp Toxicol., 2016)
- Use of saturated fatty acid rich coconut oil in a hepatitis C virus (HCV) transgenic mouse model that spontaneously develops tumors with aging showed negative effects of long term use of coconut oil in the diet. In this study, the mice fed a long term saturated fatty acid rich coconut oil diet instead of the control soybean oil diet, had increased liver dysfunction and prevalence of liver tumors. Hence, HCV-infected patients should be cautious with intake of coconut oil diet and high fat foods to prevent liver cancer.
Coconut oil may be used for cooking as well as for other purposes in a range of different ways to reap its benefits. When it comes to cancer, there are many more studies and clinical trials that need to be conducted on humans, but virgin coconut oil has many health benefits/uses and has also shown some positive effects in the breast cancer clinical study and many animal studies in terms of improving the quality of life and reducing side-effects of cytotoxic chemotherapy. In some animal studies, excessive and long term use of coconut oil due to being a saturated fatty food showed increased risk for cancers of colon and liver. Also, taking foods such as orange and chili pepper, and supplements such as Clove and Nutmeg, along with coconut oil, may not be good for radiation-treated head and neck cancer patients.
Virgin coconut oil supplementation along with chemotherapy for cancer patients should be tested in larger trials. It has the potential to benefit patients with specific cancer indications and those being treated with specific cytotoxic chemotherapy treatments. However, virgin coconut oil’s benefits/uses may be limited only to certain cancer types and treatments, but not all. Additionally, excessive use of even a beneficial natural food such as virgin coconut oil may also have some side-effects due to this being a high saturated fatty food, hence should be used as per the nutritional recommended guidelines.
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Cancer patients often have to deal with different chemotherapy side effects which affect their quality of life and look out for alternative therapies for cancer. Taking the right nutrition and supplements based on scientific considerations (avoiding guesswork and random selection) is the best natural remedy for cancer and treatment related side-effects.