Magnesium is a mineral, one of six alkaline earth metals - along with beryllium, calcium, strontium, barium and radium - that make up the second column of the periodic table. In nature, it can only be found as a salt, that is, in combination with other minerals such as magnesium carbonate, magnesium sulphate, magnesium citrate, to name but a few. Elemental or free magnesium that is not combined with another element is a highly flammable, lightweight, shiny gray solid that can only be produced artificially.
One of the cases that stand out in my mind from the beginning days in practice was of a woman with Alzheimer's disease who was brought in by her husband for treatment. They were old time Vermonters - Earl, a farmer who prided himself on ingenuity and self-reliance, and Mary, a sturdy, strong looking woman. (Not their real names.)
SALT - GOOD, BAD OR WHAT? One of my first forays into the world of alternative medicine took place soon after my arrival in Japan when I was in my early 20’s. Not feeling particularly energetic and without any helpful feedback from conventional sources, I sought the advice of elderly Japanese man who placed me on a diet. The diet basically consisted of brown rice, beans, vegetables, fermented soybean products like soy sauce and miso, sesame oil and a few, mostly salty condiments.
Some people might recognize this as basic “Macrobiotic” fare. Macrobiotics was a diet and philosphy based on an idealized concept of the traditional Japanese food before the widespread use of milled white rice and foreign dietary influences. I was excited by the idea of feeling better and took up the challenge of changing the way I ate immediately. I remember standing on the train platform waiting to catch the train home after my first meeting with “my advisor”. I pulled out a cheese sandwich I had packed for the ride home and most ceremoniously dumped it in the garbage.
Looking back after over a quarter century of experience, I marvel at the consequences of my enthusiastic embrace of this idea. Admittedly, I will give myself a A for effort, but more importantly, I’d get a D- for common sense and an F for results.
The first 2 weeks were great. My energy increased, I felt light, I slept well... But after that initial honeymoon period of clean eating, the metabolic imbalances of insufficient protein, too many carbohydrates and especially too much salt gradually led to an ever decreasing level of health. My energy started to slide downward, my muscles felt tight and stiff, my emotional and mental outlook became increasingly narrow. Within six months I was a wreck and worst of all I had no understanding of how bad things were. I just wasn’t well enough in any sense of the word to see or evaluate my own condition.
Fortunately, a somewhat crazed American Zen devotee snapped me out of it. I hardly knew him, but through a mutual friend, it was arranged that he be put up at my house for a few days. At one point during his stay, he said to me, “The problem with you is that you aren’t eating any food at all, you are just eating theoretical concepts!” That comment, which I still remember with great clarity and appreciation, was like a lightening bolt, cutting through my dazed state and awakening in me a sense of perspective about my condition.
In retrospect it was a very destructive - and instructive episode in my life. Even after returning to an appropriate balanced diet, some of the symptoms that developed during that half year took years to disappear. Unfortunately, some of them still linger on in a ghost-like fashion, reappearing now and again.
The lessons I did learn have also stayed with me and I have had many occasion to share them with clients over the years. First and foremost, never delegate total responsibility for one’s own health to anyone else, even an “authority”. This is especially so in regard to dietary regimens. There are many ideas and theories, most of which worked for someone at some time, none of which work for everyone. It is important to keep an open mind, a sense of perspective and trust one’s common sense while trying out any diet. It might work marvelously for your best friend and be a disaster for you; and your mother might say you look too thin and pale, but you might feel absolutely fantastic.
Secondly, I experienced firsthand how diet is an extremely powerful tool, for better or for worse, to change one’s state of health and wellbeing. While I have studied and employed many different healing modalities over the years, there is no other tool as fundamental as considering the food a patient eats. It isn’t simply a matter of what is eaten, but also the amount that is eaten, the way it is eaten and, most importantly, the attitude with which it is eaten.
Third on the list is the necessity to consume adequate amounts of appropriate forms of protein. With all the publicity concerning the Atkins, Zone and other low carb diets, this certainly is a secret no longer. (When bakeries around the country are reporting that bread sales are off as much as 40% around the country and RJ’s Diner in downtown Bellows Falls advertises LOW CARB MEALS on the sign in front, you know the idea has taken hold...) Actually, it took me a long time to fully appreciate this particular lesson, but I firmly embrace it and written about it frequently over the years.
Lastly, it is important to respect the effect of salt on one’s health. Either too much or too little can make a critical difference in how one feels. The single most destructive aspect of my dietary adventure back in Japan was the over-consumption of salt. That is why I became so stiff and rigid - both physically and mentally. I was so dried out that it was nearly impossible to muster the energy to bend my legs to climb a flight of stairs.
My youthful “joie do vivre” was replaced by a rigid, narrow mindedness that I could no longer even see what was taking place. True excess salt intake and the fluid imbalances that it causes can also disturb the circulatory system and the function of the heart, resulting in elevated blood pressure, palpitations, headaches and a generalized anxiety.
Over the last 30 or more years, salt intake has become one of the standard tools of conventional medicine to regulate blood pressure. Next time we will explore this issue in greater detail.
Baseball is by far the most popular spectator sport in Japan - and nothing is followed with greater interest than the national high school tournament played every summer in one the most historical professional league ballparks. During the week or two (I can’t remember clearly how long it goes on anymore) that the teams representing each of the provinces fight it out in the single elimination tournament, the country’s attention is firmly fixed on these adolescent athletes.
Each day promises 3 or 4 consecutive games beginning around 9 am. Just about every office and public place has a TV or radio tuned in to the action. For the Japanese, this tournament is the embodiment of “ganbaru ki” or “fighting spirit”: true amateur athletics played with the intensity of samurai warriors. One might compare it with the Little League world series held every year in Pennsylvania or college basketball’s March Madness tournament, but the high school tournament has much higher skill levels than the former, the absence of the masqueraded professionals of the latter, as well as an intensity and a nearly universal popularity that is unequaled by both of them put together.
For all its appeal, I didn’t find high school baseball the most intriguing spectator sport during my time in Japan. For me, it didn’t have the same allure as the primeval, ritualized sport of Sumo wrestling. These modern day athletes still live by social and athletic traditions that originated several thousand years ago. They are descendants of ancient warriors who, it is said, fought until death.
At the professional level, the 6 major tournaments consist of two weeks of matches, every day beginning with the lowest ranked wrestlers in the morning and ending with the highest around 6 pm. Each wrestler has a precise rank based on his performance history, and that rank is re-evaluated after each tournament. The matches themselves are quite brief, lasting anywhere from a few seconds to two or three minutes - until the opponent is forced outside of a ring or is made to fall on his knee or back.
What takes just as much, or perhaps, even more time are the stylized rituals that the fighters perform. Some take place as a joint presentation when a group or class of wrestles is introduced, others as the two wrestles prepare to face off against each other. To my foreign eyes, they always had an almost mesmerizing effect. Naked except for special silk loin clothes with detachable aprons that display their place of origin and rank, these behemoths slowly perform a series of arm motions and various types of stomps with their legs, all the while maintaining the same expressionless demeanor which is there code of honor.
Compared to the self-aggrandizing, demonstrative athletes of contemporary american sport, Sumo wrestlers are trained to never show a hint of emotion. This is especially so after a match. Whether they have been humiliated by a lower ranked opponent or have won the tournament championship, these fellows never betray any feeling whatsoever.
An integral part of the Sumo ritual is the use of salt. This, no doubt, is due to the fact that one of the four basic principals of Japan’s native Shinto religion is that before praying or approaching a religious shrine, a person must be cleansed through the sprinkling salt and then washing.
Likewise, the Sumo ring, known as a Dohyo, which is a clay platform with a straw circle, is purified with salt and sake each day before each tournament by a tournament referee and a Shinto priest. And before each match, the ring is again ritually cleansed with salt to ward off evil spirits. As the wrestles warm up, stretch and go thru their stylized motions before they face off, they once more grab handfuls of salt, sprinkle it on various body parts to ensure their personal protection and then toss the remainder into the ring .
A similar ritual was performed in Japanese theaters, where salt was sprinkled on the stage before each performance to prevent evil spirits from casting a spell on the actors and ruining the play.
The central role of salt in these rituals is not unique to Sumo or Japan. A fascinating article about salt by Dr. Paul Rosch, many similar examples are given .1
Many people are familiar with the superstition of throwing three pinches of salt over your left shoulder. This was because it was considered so valuable a substance that spilling any was thought to bring on bad luck. The idea was that some evil spirit was behind you causing the accident, and thus throwing salt in its direction would blind it and send it away.
The Biblical covenant of salt gave the rule over Israel to David and his descendants forever, while the Law of Moses required that all offerings contain salt.
Leonardo da Vinci painted an overturned salt dish in in front of Judas which represented an ill omen for the traitorous act. Another example are the ancient Druid rituals performed at Stonehenge that incorporated salt because it was “a symbol of the life-giving fruits of the earth”.
The importance of salt originated not only from its nutritional value as a mineral source, but also from its usefulness in preserving foods for seasons when people would otherwise have starved.
It became so valuable that many societies used salt as a form of currency. The expression "not worth his salt" comes from the practice of trading slaves for salt in Greece. The word “salary” comes from “salis”, the Latin word for salt, with which Roman soldiers were sometimes paid. "Soldier" is a derivative of “sal dare”, meaning “to give salt”. .
Salt was used to seal an agreement or contract, in the way a signature is used today, in many cultures. In Arabic countries, it also signified safety and friendship.
Participants at medieval feasts were seated in order of importance based on the location of the salt dishes. Distinguished guests dined at an elegant elevated banquet table "above the salt." Lesser lights sat "below" in the boondocks in progressively lower trestle type tables.
Indeed, as Rosch points out with the Latin saying “Nil sole et sale utilius”, there is nothing more useful than the sun and the salt.
For thousands of years, salt has been considered an irreplaceable component of the human diet. Without adequate amounts of salt, people suffered from mineral deficiencies and metabolic disorders. Yet, for the last several decades, instead of being celebrated as the essential, life-giving food that it is, salt has been gained notoriety as a cause for high blood pressure.
Dr Paul J. Rosch, a professor of Medicine and Psychiatry at the New York Medical College has written a fascinating overview of both the history of and our contemporary attitudes towards salt in an article entitled, “Take the Latest Low Sodium Advice With a Grain of Salt”.1
Millions of dollars have been spent on government sponsored salt related research. This generally negative attitude toward salt has been most famously codified by the 1979 "Surgeon General's Report on Health Promotion and Disease Prevention" which identified salt as a major factor in hypertensive conditions. Five years later, a huge government sponsored study concluded that in general societies with higher salt intake would also have higher average blood pressure.
Even more damning was a 1999 study that followed over 20,000 Americans for more than a quarter century. The results were that people who ate more salt “had 32 percent more strokes, a whopping 89 percent more deaths from stroke, 44 percent more heart-attack deaths, and 39 percent more deaths from all causes.”
What is most interesting about this research is that although the statistics were technically correct, the conclusion was actually false. It is a classic example how numbers can be manipulated to prove just about any preconceived opinion.
What an independent review of the data showed was that the correlation of high salt intake and cardiovascular disease was only true for persons who were overweight. If overweight persons were removed from the study, the correlation disappeared. In fact, Michael Alderman, an epidemiologist and past president of the American Society of Hypertension, concluded quite the opposite and wrote that for persons who were not overweight, "the more salt you eat, the less likely you are to die."
While it is undoubtedly true that certain hypertensive persons are sensitive to salt intake, it is simply impossible to conclude that high salt intake is a cause of high blood pressure. For instance, in one of the salt studies, one group of Chinese all from a particular province had the highest salt intake of any group in the study - and very low rate of hypertension. Conversely, another group from Chicago with low salt intake had above average incidences of high blood pressure. Another group, a Brazilian rain forest tribe had low salt levels also had mean blood pressures that ran 20 to 30 points lower than what is considered normal.
The fact of the matter is that while it is possible to manipulate or cherry pick the data to “prove” any number of theories that may contradict each other, restricting salt can also have negative health consequences. For instance, after reviewing data in a study of 3,000 people with relatively moderate hypertension, Dr. Alderman concluded that, “those who consumed the least sodium had the most myocardial infarctions and other cardiovascular complications.”
An article published in the Lancet, a prestigious British medical journal, in 1998 similarly concluded that people “who eat lots of salt live longer than those who avoid it.” The 25% of people who consumed the lowest amounts of salt had a higher risk of death compared with the 25% who consumed the highest amounts of salt (23 deaths per 1,000 compared to 19 per 1000 person-years). Likewise, in an eight-year study of hypertensives in New York, those on low-salt diets had more than four times as many heart attacks as people with normal sodium intake.
Rosch states that reduced salt intake actually has a number negative consequences including: increased levels of renin (an enzyme that is associated with hypertension), increased levels of LDL (Low density lipids - the “bad” type of cholesterol), insulin resistance (the cause of adult onset or “type II) diabetes), reduced sexual activity in men and cause cognitive difficulties and anorexia in the elderly.
Reductionist thinking, that is an attempt to reduce complex phenomena to a single simple factor, is always tempting because it makes things simple. But the human metabolism is too complicated to reduce the cause of cardiovascular disease to a single culprit, be it salt or anything else.
There are many factors that influence blood pressure. For instance, it is known that deficiencies of other minerals such as calcium, potassium, and magnesium, correlate with hypertension. Excessive dietary intake of carbohydrates can also have a similar influence.
Balancing the amounts of sodium, magnesium and potassium can reestablish a healthy blood pressure when it is raised. Sodium, potassium and magnesium also act to regulate fluid balance in the body, allowing nutrients and oxygen to reach necessary destinations within the body.
That is why for anyone concerned about blood pressure, it is important to use a high quality of salt such as Celtic Sea Salt from France or Real Salt from Utah, both of which contain not only sodium chloride, but a plethora of other minerals essential for maintaining a healthy metabolism. Unfortunately, most of the commercial salts commonly available, even those labeled as sea salt or kosher salt, are heated and bleached. This results in a chemically altered, mineral deficient product which, though inexpensive and easy to pour from a shaker, is best avoided.
1 Rosch, Paul J., M.D. “Take the Latest Low Sodium Advice With a Grain of Salt”, Health and Stress newsletter of The American Institute of Stress
Over the last several months I have discussed some cutting edge technology that comes from abroad. So, for a change of pace, let’s consider some old technology, some very old technology, innate to all of us. The incredible mechanism built into our jaws that allows us to chew. It isn’t really ‘low tech’, because these mechanisms are actually quite complicated and involve not only a highly developed group of specialized muscles, but also many aspects of the nervous system. This includes the innervation of these muscles and the sense of taste, the perception of size and place of the food morsels, as well as coordination with the impulse to swallow. All these are more or less involuntary activities carried on without our conscious input. But chewing, like breathing, is one of the few physiological activities that we can also control consciously.
The news is that the Sri Lankan civil war between the Sinhalese Buddhist majority and the Tamil Hindu minority appears to have run its course, at least for this episode. The Sinhalese government has declared victory, the Tamil rebels – or what remains of the rebels – have admitted that armed resistance is futile. It is hard to believe that 26 years ago, when my wife and I arrived there for what turned out to be a two-year stay, this very same conflict had just broken out. Decades of war and a full generation of people have known nothing but this war.
Unfortunately, the roots of the problem go much deeper than this most recent chapter. The antagonism dates back thousands of years and reflects ethnic as well as religious differences. The Sinhalese are descendants of the Northern Aryan race who trace back to the Bengali coast of India, where the modern city of Kolkata (Calcutta) stands today. Before that, they are thought to have originated somewhere in the Punjab area, approximately where modern day Pakistan and the Indian state of Punjab form a border.
The Tamils once occupied most of what today is called India. But thousands of years ago, the Aryans swept down to the south and east, defeating the Tamils and driving them southward toward the tip of India, a region close to the island of Sri Lanka.
Sometime around the time of Christ, a disgraced Prince of Bengal was exiled to Sri Lanka by his father the King. This Prince appropriated the island from the indigenous peoples and established the Kingdom of Sri Lanka that eventually became one of the earliest Buddhist nations in the world. Subsequently, a series of conflicts arose with the periodic incursions from across the water by the Tamil forces. Eventually, after many centuries, the Sinhalese removed themselves from the northern part of the island, being replaced by Tamil settlers.
Although there were times of peaceful co-existence, the two groups never seem to have totally settled their differences. This most recent flare-up of the conflict was fanned by the legacy of colonialism. The British overlords ruled by the ‘divide & conquer’ method, skillfully playing off the ethnic tensions between the two to establish and maintain their dominance.
When the Brits withdrew in the 1950’s, neither ethnic group trusted the other and both harbored mutual grievances. The Sinhalese resented the fact that under the British and in the immediate aftermath of their withdrawal, although representing only ten per cent of the population, the Tamils still occupied a disproportionately high percentage of government bureaucratic, judicial and educational positions.
The Tamils, on the other hand, were sensitive to being dominated by the majority, resenting the recognition of the Sinhalese language in place of English as the official national language and opposed to plans for the establishment of settlement regions for Sinhalese farmers in traditionally Tamil dominated areas in the north.
Riots broke out when English letters were replaced with Sinhalese script on license plates. Tamil bands attacked a number of the settlements, killing many of the settlers and forcing the withdrawal of the rest. The government responded with reprisals, and the hostility of the Sinhalese majority increased.
Our stay on the island began not even a half-year after the strife was rekindled by an ambush in the north by Tamil guerillas that killed a convoy of Sinhalese police in the early 1980’s. These guerillas were led by Velupillai Prabhakaran, the somewhat mysterious and single minded founder of a militant organization that sought to create an independent Tamil state in the north and east of Sri Lanka.
Prabhakaran brought a hitherto unknown level of organization, violence and fanaticism to the conflict, training his cadre at the camps of Islamic fundamentals in the Middle East, introducing sophisticated weaponry that outgunned the Sri Lankan police (at the time, the government had no standing armed forces) as well as employing tactics such as suicide bombings and forced recruitment of both male and female children into their ranks.
It took the government many years to fully realize the determination and capacity of these fighters and then to create a military capable of facing them. By that time, the guerillas occupied the northern third of the island, establishing a de facto independent state.
Eventually, after a generation of warfare, it seems Prabhakaran’s refusal to negotiate a lasting settlement to the hostilities that would relieve the harsh siege-like conditions in the north bred discontent amongst the Tamil population. Amongst other things, a major guerilla commander defected, beginning his own insurrection against them.
With a weakening and divided foe, a newly elected hardline Sinhalese president sought to finally resolve the conflict militarily, unleashing a merciless offensive that ensnared many civilians as well as the guerillas.
Prabhakaran, along with his sons and most of the leadership are said to have perished in this most recent fighting. It is not known whether they died at the hands of Sri Lankan troops or by swallowing the cyanide capsules that the guerillas were famously known to have attached to their collars in order to prevent ever being captured alive.
Though not directly threatened by the conflict, our life as the sole foreigners in a village in the tropical countryside – some might call it ‘the jungle’ – of central Sri Lanka, exposed us to the fears and resentments of the Sinhalese majority. Living on a relatively small island a few hundred miles from the fighting creates a sense of vulnerability quite different from subsequent experiences as a citizen of a large nation that exported war abroad.
Although it was only for two years, on reflection – newly awakened by this news that the war is finally over – it was a very formative time in our lives.
The beginning of the civil war that just ended in Sri Lanka also roughly marked the beginning of my stay their… And the beginning of my experience of fatherhood. The first inkling my wife and I had that she was pregnant came with her sudden sensitivity to odors, especially a strong disgust with the smell of coconut products.
In some places that might not be a problem, but in Sri Lanka – a relatively small island that is 6th largest producer of coconuts in the world – and particularly in a rural village, that was nearly an insurmountable one. Coconut oil especially – and especially when it is heated, has a very pungent odor that was hard to avoid or ignore.
Coconuts, the seeds of a species of tree in the palm family, are everywhere and made use of in any number of ways in Sri Lanka, neighboring Southern India, Southeast Asia and the islands of the South Seas. There is not a part of the coconut that isn’t used for something by the villagers, and many of the uses related to some combination of food, skin care, or medicine.
The hard shell of the husk is carved and shaped into cooking utensils, tools or ornaments of various kinds. Then there is ‘coir’, a fiber derived from a layer between the husk and the outer shell of a coconut. Of two types, brown and white, it is used to make ropes (from the white) and twine, brushes, mats or other more coarse bristle-like objects (from the brown). Another use is in agriculture, where its anti-bacterial properties make coir a wonderful environmentally friendly replacement for the spaghnum found in peat moss.
Coconut oil is first and foremost a food, but is also a wonderful cosmetic used on the skin as a moisturizer and softener, in the hair to sooth and heal the scalp as well as styling hair. It is also a significant ingredient in industrial lubricants and is now being tested as a possible automotive lubricant and as a fuel, as a component in biodiesel mixtures for diesel, jet and generator engines.
The clear juice of the young, unripe coconut was drunk as a refreshing tonic, a wonderful antidote against the heat of tropical climate. The white ‘meat’ found on the inside of the ripe nut is used fresh or dried. There is also a sap that can be tapped from the tree known as ‘neera’ and drunk fresh or fermented to make palm wine.
Fresh meat, squeezed and strained makes the ‘milk’ that is used for cooking, as a medicine or even turned into an alcoholic drink. Virgin coconut oil is also made from it. The dried meat, known as ‘copra’, is also mainly used to make non-virgin or ‘refined’ coconut oil. The residues of this process are known as ‘copra meal’, often used as an animal feed.
As a food, Coconut oil as well as palm oil, both saturated fats have gotten a bad rap for decades, being thought to increase cholesterol and clog the arteries. Palm oil, which is rivaled only by soybean oil as the most widely produced edible oil in the world, is derived from the seeds and fruit of another species of West African palm tree and is characterized by a reddish tinge and its own distinctive aroma.
The reputation of theses oil suffers especially because of their association with margarine and many cheap processed foods. And certainly the fact that they are also major ingredients in many forms of soap doesn’t help - especially for those of us who remember having our mouths ‘cleaned’ after certain unguarded moments.
There are a number of reasons that the public has been warned about the dangers of consuming saturated fats, but as we have seen over and over, nutritional does and don’ts have a habit of changing. ‘Good’ turns to ‘bad’ or visa versa at the drop of a clinical study or the publication of a new diet.
It turns out that a good deal of the problems over coconut and palm oil revolve around the quality of the oil used and not about the oil itself.
Tropical oils produced from trees like coconut and palm are saturated fats that for over a generation have been generally deemed unhealthy. But, like so many simplistic, reductionist ideas in the world of medicine and nutrition, the decades old notion that saturated fats are ‘bad’ and unsaturated fats are ‘good’ appears to not be valid at all.
The problem with a great deal of nutritional analysis and theories is that whenever an attempt is made to explain complex phenomenon or sets of facts by simpler ones – this is, in fact, the very definition of ‘reductionist’ thinking upon which much of modern science itself is founded - a lot of mistaken or inaccurate concepts can take hold.
Misconceptions about saturated tropical oils, states Mary Enig, Ph. D, who is perhaps this country’s foremost authority on the nutritional value of coconut oil, were mostly formed some 40 years ago when researchers conducted an experiment in which animals were fed coconut oil and it was subsequently found that their serum cholesterol increased.
But what is often ignored about this research is the fact that the animals were fed hydrogenated coconut oil, not the unaltered virgin oil that native populations have consumed for centuries. The purpose of hydrogenation is to make a liquid into something solid or semi-solid by giving it a higher melting point, and thereby making it convenient for transportation, baking and extending its shelf-life.
Hydrogenation is an invention of mankind that does not occur naturally. And hydrogenated oils don’t exist in nature, either. They are made by heating and then passing hydrogen bubbles through oil. The fatty acids in the oil then acquire some of the hydrogen, which makes it denser. Fully hydrogenated oils are solid. Stopping part way with the process, partially hydrogenation, produces a semi-solid, partially hydrogenated oil with a butter-like consistency.
Hydrogenated oils are also favored by food producers because it is a cheap substitute for butter, not only giving the oil a similar consistency but also a rich flavor and texture. But it also changes the nature of the fatty acids in the oils and consequently changing the effect on the body.
The process of hydrogenation results in a high level of trans fats where the arrangement of the carbon atoms is artificially changed and the consumption of which is now being correlated with heart disease, diabetes, cancer, low birth weight, obesity, and immune dysfunction. (These are the types of fats that were recently banned in New York City.)
In regard to coconut oil specifically, to paraphrase Enig, animals fed hydrogenated coconut oil become deficient in essential fatty acids. These are fatty acids that the body cannot make itself and must derive from food sources, the most important of which are fish and shellfish, flaxseed (linseed), hemp oil, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, leafy vegetables, and walnuts.
Essential fatty acid deficiency leads to raised cholesterol and blood restricted flow in the blood vessels. But this is not an effect that is exclusively seen just when tropical oils are hydrogenated. Research into other hydrogenated oils made from soybean or corn produce the same negative results.
On the other hand, there is also data available that shows that in studies where animals were fed natural coconut oil, cholesterol did not increase at all. Moreover, in studies on human populations, there is no evidence that the consumption of natural coconut oil has a negative effect on cholesterol levels or the circulatory system in general.
To the contrary, there is evidence that lowered intake of virgin coconut oil in countries like Sri Lanka and the Philippines has resulted in poorer cardiovascular health in the general population. In Sri Lanka, for instance, the incidence of heart and cerebral vascular disease has increased as the consumption of coconut oil is falling.
There is a plethora of information easily available detailing how the mistaken notion that saturated fats are unhealthy arose through faulty research exploited by corporate interests. Aside from benefiting some industrial agricultural concerns, the half-century old promotion of polyunsaturated fats such as soybean and corn oils as well as margarine and other hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated products has done little to foster a healthier population.
While there has been a fair amount of publicity about the unhealthy properties of artificially manipulated hydrogenated oils and trans fats, there is probably less appreciation for the harmful effects of unsaturated oil made from nuts and seeds. These oils, even those of the highest organic quality, are very unstable by nature and are prone to becoming rancid in the body because of the very nature of their unsaturation.
On the other hand, awareness of the benefits of coconut oil - at least in certain segments of American society, is spreading through the work of Mary Enig, Ph.D., Sally Fallon and the Weston Price Foundation (http://www.westonaprice.org/) and a number of companies such as Tropical Traditions (www.tropicaltraditions.com/ and its sister site www.coconutoil.com) that produce high quality oil.
For those seeking to delve into this in greater detail, aside from the above websites, the book ‘Nourishing Traditions’ for which Fallon and Enig collaborated is a wonderful resource both as a wonderful cookbook and a treasure trove of nutritional information.
Populations across a wide swath of the world from the South Seas to South and Southeast Asia have thrived on coconut oil for thousands of years with much lower incidences of heart disease and cancer, amongst other illnesses, than we see in modern populations that have largely shunned saturated fats.
Research has shown that there are several specific qualities of coconut oil that are in fact quite beneficial.
In contrast to the instability of polyunsaturated oils, coconut oil is wonderfully stable. Even without refrigeration it will not go rancid for years and it maintains its quality when exposed to high heat. This makes it ideal for cooking, better than olive oil, which is not stable when heated.
Secondly, coconut oil contains specific fatty acids that are known to be protective against viruses, pathogenic bacteria and protozoa. One of these fatty acids, lauric acid, is almost totally absent from the typical American diet. It makes up 40% of coconut oil and is also present in breast milk, conveying immunoprotective properties to the suckling infant.
The fatty acids in coconut oil are called medium chain fatty acids (sometimes called ‘medium chain triglycerides’ or MCTs for short). In contrast, fatty acids from plant oils are long chain (long chain triglycerides or LCTs). The LCTs are converted to fat and stored in the body while the MCTs are easily metabolized and quickly burned in the body.
This results in an increased metabolic rate in the body, or what is known as ‘thermogenesis’. Thermogenesis produces energy, stimulating the thyroid gland and promoting weight loss.
An interesting fact is that around 70 years ago, there was an attempt to fatten livestock using coconut oil that backfired quite dramatically. Instead, the livestock became leaner, more energetic and hungrier.
Anti-thyroid drugs were then used as a replacement, which had the desired effect of fattening them up with less feed. Unfortunately, the drugs were also carcinogenic, so these were replaced by soybean and corn feed. (The deleterious effects on the quality of meat, eggs and milk from soy and corn fed animals compared is a topic for another day…)
Another benefit of thermogenesis is lowered total cholesterol, especially the ‘bad’ cholesterol known as low-density lipids or LDLs. This is due to the fact when the thyroid gland is stimulated the LDL is converted to steroids that in turn have anti-aging properties and are protective against many chronic degenerative illness.
There is, in fact, research showing clearly indicating that when populations switch from a high coconut oil diet to one dominated by plant oils, LDL levels dramatically increase. In addition, coconut oil based diets have been shown to result in much lower incidences of cancer compared to diets using plant based, unsaturated fats.
Finally, it is important to bear in mind that not all coconut oils are of the same quality and are equally beneficial. It is best to find a virgin unrefined cold-expressed coconut oil while hydrogenated products should be avoided entirely.