By Al Sears, MD
When I traveled to India and visited the home of Ayurvedic medicine, the world’s oldest health system, one of my favorite things I learned was their name for the coconut palm tree.
They call the coconut palm kalpa vriksha which means “the tree which provides all the necessities of life.” What a great name. The tree of life.
We have coconut palms here in South Florida, and seeing them always gives me the feeling of lazy afternoons at the beach, and warm tropical breezes.
I have coconut trees in my yard, too, and I love to eat coconut … but it takes a bit of skill to get the darned things open. When I went to Brazil and ordered a drink with fresh coconut milk in it, a guy puts the coconut down, takes a machete, and “whack!” opens it right up.
It wasn’t so easy when I tried it at home. It takes a little practice. I’ve got it down now. I can’t open a coconut with one whack, but I can do it without taking a hammer and busting it to pieces.
What you have to have is a heavy machete, and it’s got to be sharp.
And it’s not easy to get the coconuts down from the tree, either. Climbing a straight, smooth coconut palm is a trick. You can tie your feet together with a rope and shimmy up, and I’ve done that, but it’s not easy!
When I go to Jamaica, my friends have coconut palms on their property. They grow on both sides of the road, and they have all the coconut you can eat. We make drinks from them, eat the flesh, and when the coconuts are young, there’s a jelly inside that’s good, too.
Coconuts are an excellent way to get protein and natural fiber. They also have zero starch, and the brain-healthy nutrient choline.
In Jamaica, they also press the flesh of the coconut to make oil for their skin. It doesn’t take too much. You can put it on a flat surface and just roll a round coffee cup over it and get some oil.
Cosmetic companies are starting to lust after coconuts like they’re gold because the oil is such an effective moisturizer and skin softener.
But coconuts have a secret skin ingredient that most cosmetics makers don’t know about.
But not just any fat.
Coconuts have a unique kind of fat you’ll find in less than a half-dozen foods anywhere in the world. They’re called medium chain fatty acids (MCTs).
These fats — capric acid and lauric acid — are very rare. They are only found in human breast milk, cow and goat’s milk, and coconut and palm kernel oils (which is not the same as palm oil).
Why is this important to you? Because the outer layer of your skin is partly made of fat. And keeping this layer of skin water-tight and healthy not only keeps your skin firm and smooth, but it’s your best defense against pollutants the modern world produces.
This skin barrier is called your “acid mantle.” It’s made up of skin cells and fats called sebum that protect you from environmental dangers like toxins, viruses, bacteria and other attackers.
This barrier also works as an antioxidant. It protects skin from water loss, and it maintains the correct hardness of the water-holding protein that makes up your skin called keratin.
The MCTs in coconut oil benefit your skin because they reinforce your protective barrier and increase your proteins that hold on to water.
MCTs also help maintain your skin’s ph balance. In order to stay water-tight and healthy, your skin needs to be slightly acidic (which is why the barrier is called an “acid” mantle).
The problem with many so-called “mild” soaps and commercial products is that they damage your skin barrier by stripping away too much of your fatty sebum. What’s worse is that they reverse your skin’s natural ph so it’s no longer mildly acidic.
These products then leave your skin open to infection, unable to keep moisture and more prone to developing rashes and breakouts.
Also, most cosmetics loosen your keratin fibers to create gaps in the protective covering, so they can artificially hydrate your skin.
This looks good for a little while, but when the artificial hydration wears off, it makes your skin even more prone to water loss, damage, infections and pollutants.
The MCTs in coconut oil, by comparison, react naturally with your skin to keep it hydrated and firm. They increase your acid mantle and keep your skin protein intact. One study showed that MCTs significantly increased skin hydration compared to drugs and other mixtures.1
MCT fatty acids also gently dissolve dead skin cells, leaving behind a fresher, more even complexion. This will prevent wrinkles from forming and will help to soften wrinkles that are already present.
Coconut oil can penetrate underneath your protective layer, too, going deep down to heal underlying skin damage. By massaging coconut oil into your skin, you can improve the connective tissue deep below the surface. Coconut oil has been proven in clinical studies to mimic the skin’s natural repair mechanisms.2
Coconut oil protects against overexposure to the sun, too, which is why it’s used in suntan lotion.
Vitamin E is one of your primary skin antioxidants and is temporarily used up when you spend long periods in the sun. Coconut oil protects you by preserving your vitamin E, and allowing you to absorb more of it.
In fact, scientists are looking at using coconut oil as a better vitamin E delivery system than gel capsule supplements. In an animal study, researchers used oil made from coconut MCTs to see how well it could help vitamin E absorb. After only 24 hours, more than 65 percent of the vitamin E was absorbed, and had already made it to the places that need it most like the heart and liver.3
Coconut oil works well as a delivery system because MCTs like lauric acid are easily absorbed by your skin cells. Commercial skin care products use synthetic versions of these acids, but the man-made versions aren’t even close to being as effective.
For general health purposes, eating raw coconut is a great way to get protein, natural fiber and healthy fats.
One thing coconuts don’t have is a lot of vitamins.
Many so-called skin care and health experts keep telling you that coconuts are healthy because they are “high” in this or that vitamin, but it’s just not true.
A cup of raw coconut only has .2 mg of vitamin E, 2 mg of vitamin C, no vitamin A, almost zero B vitamins, and .2 micrograms of vitamin K.3
What coconuts do have is lots of minerals. A cup of coconut has a good amount of iron, zinc, copper, selenium, potassium … and especially manganese.
Manganese is what gives you iron-hard bones, nerves that can respond in an instant and hormones that keep you calm and relaxed.
If you don’t want to eat raw coconut, you can use coconut oil. I recommend about three tablespoons of coconut oil each day to improve your skin, hair and nails … and for increased immune function.
The lauric acid transforms into a substance called Monolaurin that can strengthen your immunity and fight infection from bacteria and viruses.
 Wiedersberg, S., Leopold, C.S., Guy, R.H., “Effects of various vehicles on skin hydration in vivo,”Skin Pharmacol. Physiol. Jan.2009; 22 (3):128-30
 Nevin, K.G., Rajamohan, T., “Effect of topical application of virgin coconut oil on skin components and antioxidant status during dermal wound healing in young rats,” Skin Pharmacol.Physiol. June 2010;23(6):290-7
 Trevithick, J.R., Mitton, K.P., “Uptake of vitamin E succinate by the skin, conversion to free vitamin E, and transport to internal organs,” Biochem. Mol. Biol. Int. March 1999;47(3):509-18
 “Nutrition Facts — Coconut Meat, Raw,” http://nutritiondata.self.com
Written By: Updated: May 9,2011