Can Coconut Oil Improve Your Thyroid?

A Holistic Physician Looks at an Article and Offers Answers About Coconut Oil

The kernel of these coconut shells drying in the sun will be processed and sold as coconut oil
Simon Rawles/Photolibrary/Getty Images

A note from Mary Shomon: Over time, "miracle" cures for many conditions, including thyroid disease, come and go. While miracles are few and far between, looking at old controversies offers a new look at how we handle the next new thing. Here we revisit the issue of coconut oil as a thyroid curative.

In 2003, an issue of Woman's World featured a cover story on "The New Thyroid Cure." A the time, I was deluged with email from people wondering about claims of thyroid cure and rapid weight loss. I turned to physician Dr. Ken Woliner for his opinion.

(Dr. Woliner had no financial relationship to any companies that sell coconut oil, and reported no conflicts of interest with the coconut oil industry, or with any other vitamin or pharmaceutical company).

In May 2003 Woman’s World published a cover story, “The New Thyroid Cure." The piece described how a low carbohydrate/high protein diet and coconut oil could cure thyroid disease. Though I did not directly interview the authors or their sources, I made a reasonable assessment of the validity and reliability of this article. My opinion is based upon review of the article, information available on Tropical Traditions (one major supplier of coconut oil), independent research published in peer-reviewed medical journals, and my own personal medical school training and clinical experience.

For simplicity’s sake, it is perhaps best to split my comments into two: a discussion of the article itself and a balanced discussion regarding coconut oil and its relation to thyroid disease and weight loss.

What Is the Quality of This 'Miracle Cure' Article?

Woman’s World is a “tabloid” style online outlet and print magazine sold in checkout aisles in supermarkets across the United States. They have been cited on numerous occasions for fabricating quotes and other information. There is no consistency from article to article in each issue, with some stories promoting a low carbohydrate / high protein diet for weight loss, while on other pages, listing recipes for very high carbohydrate recipes.

Simply put, Woman’s World is not a reliable source of medical information.

Popular Spanish-language television host Cristina Saralegui was featured on the cover of the magazine and inside the main article. It appeared that a majority of her weight loss and increase in energy was due to her new eating and exercise pattern. She consumed less total calories by omitting white carbohydrates such as bread, potatoes, pasta and rice. This dietary change limits her carbohydrate and saturated / trans-fat intake, limiting her need to produce insulin to metabolize these foods. Insulin is a hormone that leads to fat deposition, most notably in the hips and belly. High insulin levels also lead to fatigue, and by reducing her insulin requirements, she appears to have more energy (and discipline) to exercise on a treadmill 30 minutes a day, four times a week. This increased exercise burns calories, and further lowers her insulin resistance. Whether or not she has a thyroid problem or not cannot be ascertained by the information presented in this article.

As often occurs, medical expertise and literature is oftentimes taken out of context to drive the point of a promotional piece.  Dr. Woliner continues with his discussion of features of the article:

  • Dr. Donald Layman, Ph.D., is a professor of nutrition at the University of Illinois. Dr. Layman is quoted as noting dieters receiving only 15 percent of their calories from protein have lower thyroid hormone levels. Dr. Layman does not refer to the fact that they also have lower levels of thyroid binding globulin. He did not measure "Free T3" nor "Thyroid Binding Globulin." Dr. Layman realized that Dr. Layman realized that Women's World writers were misinterpreting his data and said to them, "Any extrapolation of our data to thyroid would be inappropriate." Dr. Layman He did link tyrosine (as quoted), nor weight loss diets (which he studied) with the ability to regulate thyroid function.
  • Dr. Glenn S. Rothfeld, M.D., has written many health books including “Thyroid Balance." This book is considerably less popular than three other books on thyroid (“Living Well With Hypothyroidism” by Mary Shomon, “Thyroid Solution” by Ridha Arem, M.D,), and “Thyroid Power” by Richard Shames, M.D. and Karilee Shames, R.N., Ph.D. Dr. Rothfield's book is not considered a key source for information regarding thyroid disease. He emphasizes tyrosine, the amino acid that is found in thyroid hormone. Although low levels of tyrosine have been associated with hypothyroidism, this is thought to be mainly due to low serum levels of iron, tetrahydrobiopterin, and NAD, all necessary for the conversion of the essential amino acid phenylalanine to tyrosine. Because it enhances intestinal absorption of iron, vitamin C can help restore tyrosine formation when there is a deficiency of iron. Iron deficiency is quite common in women and can be tested with a serum ferritin level.
  • Dr. Bruce Fife, N.D., no longer sees patients and now derives a majority (if not all) his income from the coconut oil industry. He has not published nor cited any research relating coconut oil to thyroid function. It is unclear whether he has IRB approval to safely conduct human studies. As he is not a MD or DO physician licensed to prescribe (or de-prescribe) prescription medication, his suggestion to "give up thyroid medications and simply use coconut oil instead," is improper. Inadequately treated hypothyroidism could lead to osteoporosis, early heart attacks, and other disability. Though foods are generally less toxic than refined prescription medications, they do have the potential for harmful effects if taken in excessive dosages. For example, too much consumption of Vitamin E in the form of d-alpha tocopherol prevents the absorption of beta- and gamma-tocopherols, increasing the risk for heart disease. Dr. Fife references a University of Colorado review article (not a research article) that speculates on the possibility that medium-chain triglycerides could preserve muscle glycogen during exercise. From this theorized discussion, it would be difficult to come to his conclusions that "coconut oil can increase your calorie-burning power by up to 50 percent," leading to a weight loss of "36 pounds a year without dieting."

Does Coconut Oil Cure Thyroid Disease & Lead to Weight Loss?

No one therapy has the potential to cure all thyroid disease because there are many different causes of hypothyroidism. Deficiencies of minerals such as selenium, zinc, and iodine are common (iodine less so since the fortification of salt with iodine). A relative deficiency of tyrosine caused by low iron, tetrahydrobiopterin, or NAD inhibiting its conversion from phenylalanine is another cause.

A patient could be exposed to the toxicity of heavy metals such as cadmium and mercury; fatty acids such as oleic acid and trans fats; stress; infections; autoimmune disease; radiation; and trauma (thyroid surgery, other surgeries in the neck, whiplash during a motor vehicle accident). Other causes include imbalances of other endocrine glands and the hormones they produce such as estrogens, progesterone, testosterone, DHEA, cortisol, insulin, TRH (hypothalamic hypothyroidism), TSH (pituitary hypothyroidism)), and the thyroid itself (benign adenoma or cancer squeezing out healthy thyroid, status post thyroid surgery, radioactive ablation).

Inability to lose weight is a complex symptom that requires a well-trained clinician to decipher the true cause(s). Though hypothyroidism is one common cause, there are many others including excessive consumption of calories, carbohydrates, trans-fats, caffeine, and artificial sweeteners; deficiencies of lean body mass (muscle that burns calories at rest), exercise (burning calories while exercising), vitamins, minerals, protein, essential fatty acids and water; and hormone imbalances as mentioned above. Ms. Saralegui did not consume coconut oil, and it was her low-calorie and low-carbohydrate diet combined with her increased exercise, that helped her lose her unwanted pounds. The other women in the article who did start coconut oil may have lost weight, but this is more likely due to the medium-chain fatty acids being absorbed withtout excess insulin production, rather than an improvement in thyroid function. Hashimoto’s Thryoiditis has a variable course with remission and relapses based upon selenium status among other things.

In summary, a low-carbohydrate diet combined with adequate protein and healthy fatty acids (which can include a modest amount of coconut oil) will help some people lose weight. Correcting underlying dysfunction in regard to deficiency, toxicity and hormone imbalances will help more people lose even more weight, but will also reverse the other troublesome symptoms they may experience.

Dr. Kenneth Woliner is a board-certified family physician in private practice in Boca Raton, Fl. Though he often recommends vitamin supplements, he does not sell them due to conflict of interest concerns. 

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