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The healing power of coconut water

Coconut (Cocos nucifera) is the most extensively grown palm tree in the world. It is an essential member of the palm family, originally from Southeast Asia. Coconut trees are significant tropical and subtropical trees with multiple uses. They are a unique source of medicines and highly nutritious foods and are essential for the development of industrial products. All parts of the tree are used.

Coconut water

Coconut water is the sterile semi-clear fluid (the liquid endosperm) inside the young coconut, with the ideal age of harvesting being 6–7 months and mature coconuts being harvested at 11–12 months. It has a similar electrolyte balance to human plasma. The maturity of the coconut determines the nutrient levels, with higher sucrose content and lower total phenolics in mature coconut water and with higher fructose and glucose in less mature nuts. Coconut water has low levels of solid matter, mainly natural sugars and minerals.

Coconut water is very different to coconut milk, which is the grated inner flesh of the coconut mixed with hot water and strained.

Active ingredients

Coconut water contains a broad range of electrolytes, including potassium, magnesium and calcium. Its dry weight is very low (5 per cent compared with apple juice at 12–15 per cent). It contains small amounts of proteins including the amino acids arginine, alanine, cysteine and serine (higher levels than cow’s milk), B vitamins and antioxidants, vitamin C and phenolic compounds. Coconut water also contains various enzymes, plant hormones and growth-promoting factors as well as a powerful glycoside, shikimic acid. It is about 94 per cent water, and a glassful contains about 45 calories.

Therapeutic uses

While there is a long history of the traditional use of coconut water for various conditions, there is very little human research. However animal research today supports the traditional uses.

Nutrients
With its high levels of minerals, coconut water alone contains almost all the nutrients humans require for healthy functioning that otherwise need to be ingested through eating a variety of foods.

Antioxidant and anti-inflammatory
Coconut water contains various antioxidants that protect against a range of chronic illnesses caused by oxidative stress, and these also repair DNA damage. The glycoside shikimic acid has multiple effects, including reducing hydrogen peroxide oxidative damage in liver cells
by inhibiting the inflammatory pathways of nuclear factor-KB (NF- KB).

Blood sugar management

In recent research, rats with diabetes that were given coconut water not only maintained better blood sugar levels than the control group, but they also had lower levels of HbA1c, an indicator of improved long-term blood sugar control.

Heart health

Drinking coconut water has many benefits in cardiovascular health. It lowers cholesterol and triglycerides. A study on rats comparing coconut water with a common statin drug lovostatin demonstrated a comparable lipid-lowering effect.

Research has shown that coconut water has a cardioprotective effect through its production of nitric oxide, encouraging the blood vessels to relax.

In a clinical trial, people with hypertension drank coconut water for four weeks. After four weeks those who did so had significantly lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure than the control subjects.

A cytokinin, kinetin, in coconut water has shown measurable anti-thrombotic (blood-thinning) activity. This cytokine has also shown potential activity in reducing certain types of cancer.

Kidneys

One of the most important uses of coconut water traditionally has been in the treatment of kidney disease and the reduction of kidney stones. Kidney stones are formed when calcium, oxalate and other compounds form crystals in the urine that then turn into stones. This affects about 12 per cent of the population. In a rat study, coconut water not only reduced the number of crystals formed in the urine but also prevented them from sticking in the urinary tract.

There was also a small human research study demonstrating that coconut water increased the excretion of potassium, chloride and citrate in the urine, flushing out the kidneys and reducing stone formation.

Athletic performance

Coconut water has been shown to be an excellent drink for restoring hydration and replenishing electrolytes that are lost during exercise. The main electrolytes — potassium, magnesium, calcium and sodium — play many roles, including maintaining correct fluid balance.

A small trial in Brazil compared drinking coconut water with other sports electrolyte replacement drinks and showed that coconut water was more beneficial than sports drinks, particularly when exercising on a hot day.

Rehydration

As coconut water is sterile and has beneficial electrolytes in proportions resembling blood plasma, during World War II it was used as an intravenous rehydration replacement, and the research shows its effectiveness in short-term emergency situations. Even today, immature coconut water is still used for emergency resuscitation and rehydration in more remote parts of the world, including some Pacific Islands.

Coconut water is a refreshing and nutritious drink that can be enjoyed regularly, knowing it is also benefiting your health. Just make sure it is organic and does not contain any added sugar or flavourings.

References are available on request.

Dr Karen Bridgman

Dr Karen Bridgman

Karen Bridgman is a holistic practitioner at Lotus Health and Lotus Dental in Neutral Bay.

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