When Dr. Mary Newport’s husband Steve was denied at every drug trial screening he went to, she decided to do some research of her own.
She started Steve on a regiment of coconut oil she hoped would treat some of the effects of his Alzheimer’s disease. The treatment was more effective than she initially thought possible and sparked enough interest that the USF Health Byrd Alzheimer’s Institute decided the treatment method should become a scientific study.
Last week, the Institute received approval from the Food and Drug Administration to move forward with a research project that will study the effects of coconut oil consumption by individuals with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s.
Alzheimer’s disease, Newport said, causes some parts of the brain to stop processing glucose, the main source of energy for brain cells. Without this source of energy, brain cells die. Researchers at the Byrd Institute hypothesize that coconut oil, and the medium-chain triglycerides found inside it, can offer the brain an alternative source of energy.
The idea for the study had been floating around at the institute since August, but until recently the study lacked sufficient funding. In June, the institute announced it would be receiving a $250,000 grant from the Leo and Anne Albert Charitable Trust to conduct a two-year study.
Jill Smith, the research coordinator at the Byrd Institute, said the institute had been asked to look into the effects of coconut oil for a while.
“Because there had been so many questions from patients and the community, and because there had been no actual clinical trial to-date on coconut oil for Alzheimer’s, we finally wanted to put it to rest,” Smith said. “We wanted to really test it and research it, because all the evidence we have until now was anecdotal.”
Much of the anecdotal evidence surrounding this treatment has come from Dr. Mary Newport, a neonatal doctor at Spring Hill Regional Hospital. In her spare time, Newport runs the website www.coconutketones.com, where she has received more than 200 testimonials from Alzheimer’s patients and their families who have tried a coconut oil-based, ketogenic diet.
Newport said the majority of the stories she receives from coconut oil users report improvements in both cognitive function and quality of life, but she also knows firsthand the tremendous affects coconut oil can have on an Alzheimer’s patient.
Steve was an accountant who worked from home when was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s in 2004. Mary said her husband first began showing signs of dementia when he would make serious payroll mistakes or forget if he had gone to the post office that day.
“When we got the diagnosis, it kind of totally changed our entire outlook for the future,” Mary said.
Both she and her husband had a family history of longevity. Both their grandparents had lived well into their 80s. At the time Steve was diagnosed, the couple was in their early 50s.
“The average life span from the time of diagnosis to the time of death is like seven years…,” Mary said. “You know, you think you are going to grow old with somebody and enjoy retirement years together and it just didn’t look like that was going to happen at all.”
Mary said Steve’s memory loss became obvious in 2003, when the couple moved from Dunedin to Spring Hill.
“He would spend endless hours in the garage looking for things,” she said. “I mean, he spent six to eight hours in the garage looking for something and then he couldn’t remember what it was. That’s kind of when we knew something was up.”
After his diagnosis, Steve’s condition continued to deteriorate.
Steve, who Mary describes as “always being self-aware of the fact that he was sick,” grew depressed as his functionality diminished. At the lowest points of his illness, Steve had to be helped with some of the most basic functions, like taking a shower.
“I had to tell him ‘Put the shampoo in your hand, and now put it into your hair. OK. Now, rub it into your hair.’ I just had to talk him through the whole thing,” Mary said.
After years of highs and lows, she started to enroll Steve in multiple drug trials around the state. Steve wasn’t able to pass most of the trial screenings because his Alzheimer’s was too advanced. Because of this, Mary began researching ketones as an alternative fuel for glucose, which a patient’s brain is no longer able to use.
In order for the brain to get the necessary amount of ketones, Mary realized she needed to put Steve on a diet that was high in medium-chain triglycerides, which his liver would then convert to the ketones his brain needed. While most medical foods made for patients with Alzheimer’s were at least a year away from FDA approval, she found out she could get these same fats from coconut oil available over the counter. When she began putting Steve on a strict regiment of coconut oil, she said his condition improved dramatically.
“I remember one day I had a doctor’s appointment and he was waiting in the lobby for me, reading a magazine. A couple hours later he was telling me details about an article he had read about Einstein, and I was just flabbergasted,” Mary said. 12