Health News

Is coconut oil safe for the heart?

Q. For years, coconut oil was much maligned as being very bad for cholesterol. Now it is touted as being not only OK, but good for high blood cholesterol. Are there any reputable studies that would confirm or deny those new claims?

A. A review of research on virgin coconut oil (VCO) found that“there may be health benefits associated with VCO” (Postgraduate Medicine, November 2014). The authors point out, however, that there are no good head-to-head studies comparing VCO to olive oil, for example. That said, both the animal studies and human trials seem promising with respect to heart health.

A recent analysis suggests that the idea that saturated fat would clog coronary arteries was not supported by good evidence (BMJ, April 12, 2016).

Some health experts now encourage their patients to cook with VCO. A reader shared this observation:“I have been cooking with coconut oil. My husband is still alive at 93, and so am I. Coconut oil has not raised our cholesterol at all, so I do not see any harmful effects.”

Q. I read in your column that you can relieve leg and hand cramps with ordinary soap. Would this possibly work for menstrual cramps as well?

A. Surprisingly, the answer may be yes. Anesthesiologist Yon Doo Ough and his colleagues were intrigued by reports that soap in bed could alleviate nighttime leg cramps. They crushed Ivory soap and used gauze pads to apply the crushed soap over cramping muscles. When they found that was helpful, they tested soap-scented skin patches (SSSP). The investigators found that these helped relieve menstrual cramps within half an hour (Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, July 2008).

The oils used to scent Ivory soap have anti-spasmodic activity, which may explain the benefit. Dr. Ough concluded,“This SSSP is a simple and convenient treatment for menstrual cramps.”

Q. My urologist has encouraged me to keep my vitamin D levels above 50 ever since he treated me for prostate cancer. So far, I have not been able to achieve that level. Do you have any suggestions?

A. Epidemiologists have noted for decades that people exposed to more sun are less likely to develop prostate, breast and colon cancer (International Journal of Molecular Sciences, May 2016). Sunscreens block the skin’s ability to make vitamin D, so if you have been slathering yourself with sunblock, that may account for your suboptimal vitamin D level.

Researchers have found that supplementation with vitamin D-3 can improve prostate-cancer outcomes (Journal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, July 2013).

Some people report that taking their vitamin D-3 pills after dinner is more effective than swallowing them on an empty stomach or before breakfast.

In their column, Joe and Teresa Graedon answer letters from readers. Write to them in care of this newspaper or email them via Their newest book is“Top Screwups Doctors Make and How to Avoid Them.”