The coconut tree has been deemed as the “all-giving tree” due to its abundant and diverse derivatives. From the leaves to the fruit, to the trunk down to its roots, there appears to be no end to its benefits. The edible parts of the tree like the coconut water and kernel do not just satisfy as a food source but they are also known for their antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral, and other numerous medicinal properties. In recent years though, one of the by-products of the coconut fruit – coconut oil, has stood out and gained more attention.
From being viewed as a health risk, it has become a sought-after component of a health buff’s diet. Some even consider it a superfood. Although some use it as a beauty product, a cooking ingredient, and even a topical medicine for skin diseases, coconut oil is most famous for improving overall digestive health. But how exactly does it affect the complex process of digestion?
Coconut oil induces the production of digestive enzymes
As soon as the food is ingested, the process of digestion begins. By mastication, food is crushed and ground into smaller bits which allows more efficient breakdown by enzymes found in the saliva. This starts the process called chemical digestion. As early as this stage, coconut oil already exhibits its digestive benefits by activating salivary enzymes that act on carbohydrates. This effect even makes coconut oil a natural treatment for xerostomia or dryness of the mouth.
Monolaurin found in coconut oil also causes the death of bacteria and microorganisms like Staphylococcus aureus, Candida spp., Helicobacter pylori, Escherichia vulneris, and Enterobacter spp. This compound can even dissolve lipids and phospholipids (fats).
Sucrose monolaurate in coconut, on the other hand, reduces the breakdown of sugar in the mouth to prevent plaque formation. These benefits can already be reaped by making coconut part of your diet but can be maximized by oil pulling, the practice of swishing the oil back and forth through the teeth for a few minutes daily.
When food travels down to the stomach and the intestines, it is subjected to gastric juices and digestive fluids containing live enzymes that turn food into nutrients that can be absorbed by the body. Lipase(which breaks down fat) is one of those enzymes. The good news is that coconut oil stimulates lipase production! In fact, a study published in the Electronic Journal of Biotechnology made use of coconut oil as a base to grow lipase and purify enzymes. In a separate experiment, results showed that virgin coconut oil enhanced the formation of bile acids.
Coconut oil helps with the absorption of nutrients during digestion.
Lauric acid is the primary fatty acid of coconut oil present at about 45-53%. It is a medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) which makes it more rapidly absorbed by the body and more quickly metabolized as fuel. On top of that, MCTs facilitate the absorption of oil-soluble vitamins including vitamin A, D, E, and K (which everyone with gallbladder problems needs) as well as amino acids. Even the assimilation of protein, calcium, and magnesium appears to be enhanced when the diet contains MCTs. This is particularly true in infants who thrive with the help of the same fatty acid found in breast milk.
In a study cited in the book The Coconut Oil Miracle, 46 very low-birth-weight babies were supplemented with coconut oil and vegetable oil. At the end of the experiment, the group with the coconut oil gained weight quicker. And the weight was due to physical growth and not fat storage. This explains why historically, producers of infant formulas used pure coconut oil in manufacturing.
A comparative study conducted in Colombia also investigated the short and long-term effects of diets based on different fats on the iron bioavailability in test rats. Corn, coconut, soy, and olive oils were tested alongside human milk fat and formula milk fat. Researchers concluded that subjects taking the coconut oil showed the highest iron retention. It also supports the claim that coconut oil and saturated fats in general, increase iron absorption and even hemoglobin (red blood cell) regeneration.
Numerous studies also claim that MCTs are indeed ideal for rapid energy supply. High MCT diets are sometimes even customized for athletes, postoperative patients, or those suffering from malnutrition.
Coconut oil improves bowel movement
Once food has been digested and nutrients have been absorbed, there remains one last step to complete the digestive process- the excretion of waste in the form of defecation. For some, this is easy. However, regular elimination is a challenge for many. One of the most common problems is constipation. Thankfully, coconut oil has been proven to address many of its popular causes such as bowel obstruction and disruption of the gut flora.
Coupled with a healthy overall diet, coconut oil can promote the movement of food through the digestive system as it serves as a lubricant within the intestines. Those who have bowel obstructions or diseases like Chron’s or Irritable Bowel Syndrome can also benefit from coconut oil’s anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties. The presence of lauric acid also contributes to its potency because of its ability to fight against bacteria and viruses.
Lastly, coconut oil is able to facilitate the elimination of food waste because of the presence of MCTs that boosts the energy and strength of intestinal cells. This can increase peristalsis and speed up the metabolism in general.
Coconut oil is easy to digest, not only for babies but for people with impaired fat digestion which includes individuals without gallbladders or with gallbladder problems. However, it is important to mention that to break down the lauric acid in coconut oil, bile is still needed and used. Therefore, if you’re gallbladder/liver condition warrants that you avoid it for now, then do so. As an alternative, you may use XCT Oil.
Summary – How Coconut Oil Improves Digestion
- Coconut oil raises digestive enzyme production
- Increases the manufacture of bile acids
- Stimulates lipase production to enhance fat digestion
- Facilitate the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, K
- Appears to enhance the assimilation of other nutrients as well – protein, calcium and magnesium, iron
- May help people to gain weight who are not otherwise able to
- Improves elimination through adding bulk as well increasing energy of intestinal cells
Despite the popularity and commercialization of coconut oil, there are still a lot of things that can be discovered through experiments and research. But even now, with what we have, we are almost certain that this wonder oil can be our digestive system’s new best friend.
1. Arunima S., Rajamohan T. (2012) Virgin coconut oil improves hepatic lipid metabolism in rats–compared with copra oil, olive oil and sunflower oil. Indian J Exp Biol. 2012 Nov;50(11):802-9.
2. Arunima S., Rajamohan T. (2014) Influence of virgin coconut oil-enriched diet on the transcriptional regulation of fatty acid synthesis and oxidation in rats – a comparative study. British Journal of Nutrition. 2014 May 28;111(10):1782-90. doi: 10.1017/S000711451400004X. Epub 2014 Feb 11.
3. DebMandal, M., Mandal, S. (2011) Coconut (Cocos nucifera L.: Arecaceae): In health promotion and disease prevention. Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Medicine. Volume 4, Issue 3, March 2011, Pages 241-247.
4. Hamsi, H.A., Othman, F., Das, S., Kamisah, Y., Thent, Z. , Qodriyah, M.,… Jaarin, K. (2015) Effect of consumption of fresh and heated virgin coconut oil on the blood pressure and inflammatory biomarkers: An experimental study in Sprague Dawley rats. Alexandria Journal of Medicine. Volume 51, Issue 1, March 2015, Pages 53–63.
5. Kanmani, P., Kumaresan, K., Aravind, J. (2015) Utilization of coconut oil mill waste as a substrate for optimized lipase production, oil biodegradation and enzyme purification studies in Staphylococcus pasteuri. Electronic Journal of Biotechnology, Volume 18, Issue 1, January 2015, Pages 20–28.
6. Manivannan, A. Bhardwaj, R., Padmanabhan, S., Suneja, P., Hebbar, K.B., Kanade, S. (2016) Biochemical and nutritional characterization of coconut (Cocos nucifera L.) haustorium. Food Chemistry. Available online 28 October 2016.
7. Monooctanoin, a monoglyeride found in coconut oil can be used for gallstone dissolution. (from MA Abate, TL Moore. Monooctanoin use for gallstone dissolution. Drug Intell Clin Pharm, 19 (1985), pp. 708–713)
8. Pabón ML1, Lönnerdal B. (2001) Effects of type of fat in the diet on iron bioavailability assessed in suckling and weanling rats. Journal of Trace Elements in Medical and Biology. 2001;15(1):18-23.
9. Shanbhag, V.K.L. (2016) Oil pulling for maintaining oral hygiene – A review. Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine, Available online 6 June 2016.