Coconut water – that is, the juice found in the centre of a young coconut – was once a refreshing treat enjoyed only on tropical holidays. Nowadays, tapping the benefits of coconut water is as easy as nipping to the corner shop on your lunch break.
Despite coming from the same fruit, coconut water is wildly different to coconut milk and coconut oil in terms of taste and nutrition.
We asked clinical pharmacist and nutritionist Mike Wakeman of VitMedics to talk us through the various benefits of coconut water:
10 benefits of coconut waterGiven that liquid helps to nourish the fruit as it grows, it makes sense that coconut water is packed with healthful plant-based compounds. As the coconut ripens, the water slowly transforms into the solid white flesh we call 'coconut meat', leaving very little liquid once the fruit has reached full maturity.
'Not to be confused with coconut milk, coconut water is a sweet refreshing drink taken directly from the inner part of coconut fruits,' says Wakeman. 'It has long been touted for its health qualities, including natural hydration, high fibre content, anti-ageing impact, antimicrobial properties, as well as an energy enhancement.'
1. Coconut water is highly nutritiousCoconut water is known to Hawaiians as Noelani, meaning 'dew from the heavens', says Wakeman. And it's easy to see why. 'It's rich in electrolytes, vitamins, minerals – such as magnesium, potassium, calcium, selenium, methionine, zinc, iodine, manganese, boron, and molybdenum – cytokines, and proteins,' he says. While coconut water contains an array of minerals, it's particularly high in manganese and potassium, with one 250ml serve supplying almost one fifth of your Recommended Daily Amount (RDA).
2. Coconut water is rich in antioxidantsCoconut water contains antioxidants that protect your cells from the damage caused by free radicals. Known as oxidative stress, it contributes to the ageing process and is associated with diseases such as stroke, heart disease, and cancer. 'Researchers have identified that coconut water can reduce oxidative stress and improve antioxidant status, as well as increasing levels of natural antioxidant enzymes in the body,' says Wakeman.
Fresh coconut water is highest in antioxidants, and levels decrease if the liquid is heated or overly-processed. 'Coconut water has also been shown to have a positive effect on mitochondrial activity and protects cells from free radical damage,' he says. 'Coconut water is also rich in L-arginine and ascorbic acid, which significantly reduce the generation of free radicals and have antioxidant activity.'
3. Coconut water is hydrating, especially post-exerciseCoconut water is high in potassium, magnesium, sodium and calcium. These minerals are known as electrolytes, and they control the fluid balance in your body. 'The particular mineral composition and reasonable total sugar content suggest coconut water to be a natural isotonic liquid, making it an ideal rehydrating and refreshing drink after physical exercise,' says Wakeman.
In fact, coconut water beats water and sports drinks for post-workout hydration. When researchers compared coconut water, a carbohydrate-electrolyte beverage and plain water, they concluded coconut water was 'significantly sweeter, caused less nausea, fullness and no stomach upset,' he says. 'It was also easier to drink in large quantities than the carbohydrate-electrolyte beverage and plain water.'
4. Coconut water regulates cholesterol levelsAnimal studies suggest coconut water may be beneficial for reducing the risk of heart disease, thanks to its potent cholesterol-lowering effects. 'Research has shown that coconut water can lower total cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and triglyceride levels and decrease high-density lipoprotein (HDL),' says Wakeman. 'All good news for our heart health'.
5. Coconut water improves heart healthAside from lowering cholesterol, coconut water possesses other heart-healthy qualities. 'Coconut water is rich in L-arginine – a free-form amino acid – and vitamin C, which can help prevent heart disease and lipid peroxidation,' says Wakeman. Lipid peroxidation refers to the oxidation of polyunsaturated fatty acids by free radicals, and it's a marker for the risk of heart disease.
Coconut water may also be beneficial for blood pressure, too. 'Similarly, the presence of L-arginine in coconut water could have a cardioprotective effect through its production of nitric oxide, which induces the relaxation of small venous blood vessels,' he says. 'According to research, coconut water can help lower systolic pressure,' Wakeman says.
'Other research shows that the consumption of coconut water helped decrease blood pressure in primary hypertensive patients.'
6. Coconut water prevents kidney stonesSometimes, waste chemicals in the blood can form crystals that collect inside the kidneys, known as kidney stones. Studies have shown that drinking coconut water can help to prevent them from forming. 'Researchers have demonstrated that coconut water consumption inhibited crystal deposition in kidney tissue and decreased the number of crystals in the urine,' says Wakeman.
There are four different types of kidney stones, but calcium oxalate is the most prevalent. 'The citrate present in coconut water is a well-known inhibitor of calcium stone formation through multiple mechanisms – including complexing with calcium, preventing combination of both calcium oxalate and calcium phosphate, and blocking crystal agglomeration and growth,' says Wakeman.
7. Coconut water promotes healthy skin'Hydration is vital for our skin health needs,' says Wakeman. Coconut water is rich in nutrients, amino acids – including arginine, and growth factors – and supports hydration to preserve that all-important skin elasticity, he says. Aside from drinking it, coconut water makes for an ideal anti-ageing ingredient for skin creams, science has found.
'The results of a clinical study showed that treatment with a cream containing a patented coconut water solids composition significantly improved skin elasticity, which was manifested in decreased skin roughness and improved skin tone,' Wakeman continues. 'Coconut water solids nurture keratinous tissue and support tissue integrity, thereby helping to stop the appearance of the signs of ageing and the manifestation of wrinkles.'
The takeaway? 'Using coconut water as a dietary supplement and within an anti-ageing skin cream could be good news for our skin health,' says Wakeman.
8. Coconut water supports digestionCoconut water is high in magnesium, which is essential for healthy digestion. Without magnesium, your body can't properly digest foods. It activates enzymes that allow your body to absorb and use fats, proteins and carbohydrates for energy. A 250ml serve of coconut water contains around 15 per cent of your RDA – plus approximately 3g of easy-to-digest fibre.
9. Coconut water is a potent anti-inflammatoryLeft unchecked, chronic inflammation damages healthy cells, tissues, and organs, increases the risk of diseases including rheumatoid arthritis, narrowing of the arteries (atherosclerosis), and gum disease. Coconut water possesses potent anti-inflammatory potential – the results of one study suggest it is able to prevent inflammation, says Wakeman.
'The anti-inflammatory potential of coconut water may be linked with stopping prostaglandin production,' says Wakeman. 'Prostaglandins are a group of lipids made at sites of tissue damage or infection that are involved in dealing with injury and illness. They control processes such as inflammation, blood flow and the formation of blood clots, thereby reducing inflammation and pain.'
10. Coconut water may help in diabetesWhen you have diabetes, your blood sugar (or blood glucose) levels can be consistently high. In one study, coconut water was shown to lower blood sugar levels as effectively as anti-diabetic medication. 'Using [either] coconut water or the anti-diabetic drug glibenclamide helped reduce blood glucose levels when compared with the untreated controls in a preclinical study,' says Wakeman. 'Coconut water also increased insulin levels and liver glycogen concentrations and reduced glycated hemoglobin levels for diabetic subjects.'
'Liver glycogen' refers to the glucose your body stores in the liver. In diabetic patients, liver enzyme levels are often high. Coconut water has also been shown to 'significantly' reduce elevated levels of liver function enzyme markers, says Wakeman, which contributes to its anti-diabetic properties. 'These observations were confirmed in another preclinical study, where coconut water decreased blood glucose levels and reduced oxidative stress.'