The Coconut Oil Debate and Psoriasis

Patient Expert
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“Coconut oil is pure poison.”

Is that so?

In August, Harvard University professor Karin Michels, delivering a lecture to college students in Germany, declared that coconut oil is one of the worst foods you can eat due to its high saturated fat content. (And what about whole milk and red meat, professor?) The talk, captured on video and shared on YouTube, quickly went viral; it’s since been removed from the video sharing site.

Health nuts decried her statements as inflammatory and misguided. India, “the land of the coconut tree,” asked for a retraction. And I began to eye my tubs of white death — stowed in my bathrooms for topical application and in my kitchen for cooking — with suspicion.

Why I use coconut oil

I have psoriatic arthritis with mild plaque psoriasis and, since my experimentation with coconut oil, it’s only gotten milder, sometimes completely disappearing if the circumstances (good dietary choices, lots of vitamin D, and exercise) are right. Even if I stray from the path of healthy lifestyle interventions, coconut oil softens my spots and reduces itching and redness.

After a tub or shower, I slather on coconut oil with abandon. I buy it at a local discount store — if you ever visit Rhode Island, stop by Ocean State Job Lot for the coconut oil and stay for aisles upon aisles of quirky finds — for less than $5 per tub. And I buy the best quality stuff: cold-pressed, pure extra virgin organic coconut oil. Refined coconut oil, while odorless and tasteless, is treated with heat and sent through a bleaching clay, which can kill off beneficial proteins and minerals.

I was inspired to try extra virgin coconut oil after perusing a message board with moisture-locking alternatives to petroleum jelly, another swear-by solution for people with psoriasis. My mom is a big proponent of the petroleum jelly and plastic wrap method, however I found the process to be cumbersome and inefficient, since my lesions are small and sporadically distributed. I learned that coconut oil was easy to apply; it melted in my hands and I could slick it on without any sticky residue. I also became accustomed to smelling like a pina colada – a feat for a person who, before psoriasis, avoided coconuts at all costs. Now, I love it everywhere: on my skin, in my hair, sautéed with vegetables, in my granola, and in soups.

Research on coconut oil’s benefits

After officially declaring myself a coconut convert — I’ve got a badge and everything — I had to figure out why it works for me. And others. While I did not find published research papers on coconut oil and psoriasis, I did discover one study that looked at the anti inflammatory and skin barrier repair qualities of various common oils.

Since psoriasis is an inflammatory disease characterized by a comprised skin barrier, I figured this was a good place to start. The paper, published in January of 2018 in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences, compared coconut oil with the several other plant oils. Only coconut oil had positive skin barrier, anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and wound healing effects across the board. Coconut oil’s oft-compared kitchen cousin, olive oil, also clocked many benefits but skin barrier repair is not one of them.

In light of the so-called toxicity concern of ingesting coconut oil, I also sought research on its health implications. A randomized trial comparing coconut oil, olive oil and butter found that, although coconut oil and butter are both saturated fats, coconut oil — like the monosaturated olive oil — did not raise the bad cholesterol, LDL-C, while butter did. Different fats, different fatty acids, it seems.

And, finally, the study of my coconut oil dreams: Researcher Dr. Jose Scher, out of New York University, is seeking to test the benefits of oral coconut oil for people with psoriatic disease. Scher, a leader in the field of autoimmune disease and microbe research, is conducting a clinical trial to assess whether oral pure extra virgin coconut oil, delivered to participants via a 1,000 milligram supplement four times a day, improves disease activity and T-regulatory cell counts for people with psoriasis who are not currently taking other medications. Both the psoriasis group and the healthy control group will take the coconut oil supplement for six weeks, then a non-coconut supplement for three additional weeks.

In an email interview with HealthCentral, New York University researcher Luz Alvarado tells me the proof-of-principal study is bolstered by preliminary data on oral coconut oil’s effectiveness with animal models of psoriasis as well as some prior data on a small number of healthy subjects.

The trial is expected to wrap up in 2020, but I won’t be waiting for the results. I’ll run through a dozen more tubs of coconut oil, both in the bath and the kitchen. I won’t be eating it by the spoonful, to be sure, but a turmeric coconut curry with sautéed vegetables sounds pretty tasty right about now.