MCTs (Medium Chain Triglycerides) are defined as fatty acids comprised of a 6-12 carbon atom aliphatic tail with a glycerol backbone. The fatty acids derived from MCTs are commonly referenced as “MCFAs” or medium-chain fatty acids. MCT oils are most commonly extracted from coconut oil and palm kernel oil and can take a number of different forms. (Read the article “What is MCT Oil?” for more information).
Various types of MCTs include: caproic acid (C6:0), caprylic acid (C8:0), capric acid (C10:0), and lauric acid (C12:0). Many formulations of MCT oil are comprised of multiple types of MCTs, while others may be purely from one source (e.g. 100% caprylic acid). A considerable number of people that use MCT oil as a dietary supplement have reported significant benefits such as: improved cognitive function, weight loss, and increased energy.
MCT Oil Benefits: List of Scientific Possibilities
Included below is a list of possible benefits that have been associated with using MCT oils (medium-chain triglyceride) of various types as a dietary supplement. Understand that due to lack of research using MCTs specifically, it is difficult to assess whether these benefits are scientifically legitimate. Also keep in mind that benefits may vary based on the specific MCT formulation (e.g. C6, C8, C10, or C12).
ADHD: Due to the fact that MCTs tend to improve cognitive function among those with neurodegenerative diseases and memory impairment, they may be a viable adjunct treatment for those with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). They provide the brain with a rapid source of energy in the form of ketones, which have been shown to enhance cognition. While they may not be an effective standalone treatment for ADHD, they may increase the ability to focus – thus helping reduce symptoms.
Appetite reduction: There is some evidence to suggest that MCTs may be beneficial for reducing a person’s appetite. Some scientists speculate that MCT acts on various hormones such as: cholescytokinin, gastric inhibitory peptide, pancreatic polypeptide, peptide YY, and neurotensin. The precise mechanism of action of MCTs remains unknown, but it is known to induce satiety and reduced appetite compared to long-chain fatty acids. Supplementation of MCTs also is known to increase energy expenditure (EE) which may result in a reduced appetite.
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11880549
Atherosclerosis: This is a medical condition stemming from fats, cholesterol, and other substances accumulating within and around the arteries. Some evidence supports the idea of using MCTs as a method of offsetting the fatty build-up. MCTs may function as anticoagulants, which reduce cholesterol levels in organs and tissues. MCTs may also elicit antioxidant effects, thus improving atherosclerosis.
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8988911
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3519928
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/564943
Athletic performance: Some speculate that MCTs may help improve athletic performance, particularly among endurance athletes. It was hypothesized that MCTs may help endurance athletes maintain sufficient glycogen stores, thus giving them a performance advantage. In theory, it seems like this should work as MCTs increase fat oxidation and energy expenditure. However, MCTs appear to lack efficacy for improving exercise performance. There is evidence though that MCTs may aid in recovery.
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20367215
Blood glucose regulation: Dietary consumption of MCTs can have an effect on blood glucose levels. Studies have suggested that the ketones provided by MCTs could inhibit an increase of plasma glucose. This may be useful for those with diabetes or those who are prediabetic. The effect of MCT may be related to the dosage that is taken.
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7931723
Body fat reduction: Due to the fact that medium-chain fatty acids (8-10 carbon atoms) like MCT oils are absorbed by the portal vein and rapidly broken down into mitochondria. This gives the body increased energy and speeds up the metabolism. Various long-term trials have shown that MCT supplementation in humans results in less accumulated body fat. These studies indicate that regular usage of MCTs may effectively reduce body fat.
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18296368
Cancer: Some researchers believe that elevating ketone bodies via ketosis may be a practical adjunct treatment for cancerous tumors. One study investigated the effects of a diet comprised of 60% MCT oil, 20% protein, 10% carbs, and 10% other fats. Researchers tested the effects of a ketogenic diet on the glucose metabolism of tumors. Results of the study suggested that an MCT oil-based diet may benefit pediatric patients with cancer. Rodent studies support the idea of substituting MCTs for LCTs (long-chain triglycerides) to reduce the occurrence of cancer.
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7759747
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6488161
Cardiovascular disease: MCTs may have an effect on lowering cholesterol and improving cardiovascular health in humans. Those that consume coconut oils (which contain 50% MCTs) tend to have lower incidences of heart attacks compared to those who don’t. In the past, many speculated that medium-chain triglycerides may increase a person’s risk for heart disease. These days researchers are currently finding evidence suggesting that not only do MCTs not increase risk of heart disease, but certain mechanisms of MCTs may reduce a person’s risk.
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1836037
Cognitive function: In animal research, supplementation of MCTs is noted to improve brain health and function. It tends to reduce neurodegeneration, and improves learning abilities in aged dogs. MCTs are thought to be a cognitive enhancer and support optimal brain function by increasing circulation of ketone bodies. If you supplement MCTs, it will provide your brain with an alternative energy source (ketones) as opposed to solely glucose (sugar).
In small scale human trials, MCT supplementation boosted cognition in individuals with cognitive impairment and mild forms of Alzheimer’s disease after just a single dose. While not everyone improved from the MCT treatment, those with certain genetics experienced notable improvement.
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20141643
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19664276
Energy levels: MCT oils provide the brain and the body with increased energy. They are rapidly metabolized and provide the brain with improved cognition as a result of ketones and give the body more energy for physical exertion and post-workout recovery. While MCTs won’t increase athletic performance for top-notch athletes, they provide the body with fuel or a quick form of energy. Thus many individuals that supplement MCTs report an increase in energy.
Epilepsy (Seizures): It is well-known that an effective treatment for epilepsy, particularly in youth is that of a ketogenic diet. There is sufficient evidence to support the claim that a ketogenic diet can reduce the occurrence of seizures and in some cases serve as a functional cure for epilepsy. Some ketogenic diets advise that over 50% of all calories come from MCT oils, which have been shown to improve alertness and seizure control among youth with epilepsy.
There are also case studies of those with epilepsy who found no relief with traditional antiepileptic medications. One example involves a 43 year old man adding MCTs to his diet in the form of pure oil. The frequency of his seizures was minimized from several per day to one every four days. This man took approximately 4 tablespoons of MCT (2x per day), leading researchers to conclude that supplementation may be useful as an alternative to a ketogenic diet.
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24383019
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/5166216
Exercise recovery: Although current scientific evidence suggests that there is no performance benefit derived from MCT supplementation for athletes, MCT oil may enhance recovery. Recovery enhancement is likely due to the fact that MCT oil is rapidly absorbed and converted into cellular energy. This may result in superior muscle recovery after bodybuilding, strength training, or endurance events. Additionally MCTs may inhibit protein breakdown (catabolic states) when the body is tapping into its energy reserves.
Fat oxidation: Supplementation of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) is thought to increase fat oxidation. In other words, they may prompt the body to utilize more of its fat stores as a source of energy, which would result in weight loss. This has lead some researchers to conclude that MCTs may be an effective strategy to increase oxidation of long chain saturated fatty acids – which could help individuals (especially women) manage their weight.
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11033985
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12532160
Gut microbe: As was already mentioned, MCTs (particularly caprylic acid) is useful for treating various infections that affect the gut flora. Should you have an infection like Candida affecting your gut flora, administration of MCTs has been proven to be an effective intervention. In particular, caprylic acid shows the most promise, though other forms of MCTs warrant further research for their impact on the gut flora.
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21830350
Immune function: In addition to fighting various types of bacterial infections (e.g. Candida), MCTs may boost immune function. In rodents with autoimmune diseases, MCTs reduced the severity of the autoimmune condition compared to a control group. The MCTs also were thought to reduce various inflammatory biomarkers. While the mechanisms by which MCTs may boost immune function are not fully understood, it is believed that they may alter gut flora, mRNA expressions, and decrease inflammation.
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15132951
Ketones: Those on ketogenic diets typically eat fats, proteins, and low carbohydrates. This dietary type can help reduce epileptic seizures in young people. Most people eating a standard diet consume carbohydrates, which are broken down and utilized as glucose to fuel the brain. An alternative brain “fuel” is that of ketones, which are derived from a ketogenic diet.
These ketones can also be derived from MCT oils. The brain can then use the ketones as a source of energy, which may be useful for optimal cognitive function, treatment of medical conditions (e.g. neurodegenerative diseases), and physical health.
Life extension: There is slight evidence to suggest that MCTs may extend a person’s life span. In experimental studies, researchers discovered that animals fed diets high in MCTs lived longer than those fed diets with lots of LCTs (long-chain triglycerides). While this may not carryover to humans, it should be considered as potentially eliciting similar effects. Additionally a combination of the established benefits of medium-chain triglycerides may result in increased longevity.
Microbial infections: There is evidence that a type of MCT, particularly “caprylic acid” (C8:0) may help treat various medical conditions, including Candida albicans (more commonly known as a “yeast infection”). It has also been shown to help with Helicobacter pylori and cytomegalovirus. These bacterial infections can result in a variety of unpleasant symptoms and are difficult to treat. Researchers discovered that administration of caprylic acid (at an optimal dose) was better than Diflucan (a pharmaceutical drug given to treat these conditions).
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21830350
Neurodegenerative diseases: There is significant speculation that various MCTs may be beneficial for preventing or helping treat various neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. In fact, some pharmaceutical companies have even resorted to developing marketable MCTs (with glycerin and caprylic acid) for the treatment of mild to moderate Alzheimer’s symptoms. In a double blind study with this formulation (Axona), it was found to prevent cognitive decline over a 90 day treatment period.
The brain’s primary energy source is typically that of glucose (sugar), but among patients with neurodegenerative diseases, neurons aren’t able to utilize glucose for performance. Therefore cognition tends to decline in part as a result of non-use. MCTs are a viable glucose alternative, providing individuals with ketones which can help fuel the brain. There is even speculation that MCT supplementation may help prevent dementia in certain individuals.
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21830350
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19664276
Neuroprotection: It has been hypothesized that increasing serum levels of ketones may protect the brain. Thus supplementation of MCT oil should be speculated to act as a neuroprotective agent. Although the mechanisms by which MCTs protect the brain is unknown, researchers believe that ketones help reduce free radicals (reactive oxygen species) throughout the brain.
The ketones may provide neuroprotection as a result of their antioxidant effects, reducing the possibility of excitotoxicity. They are known to decrease formation of glutamatergic free radical production. Therefore it is important to consider the possibility that MCTs may protect and enhance brain function.
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17240074
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18845187
Obesity: MCTs have been studied for their potential as an adjunct treatment strategy for obesity. Not only do they tend to speed up the metabolism and induce thermogenesis, but they may decrease overall appetite. They also result in increased fat oxidation, meaning fat stores are utilized for energy. MCTs may effectively reduce food cravings and enhance weight loss efforts for those who are clinically obese.
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8069895
Thermogenesis: There is evidence that MCT supplementation is useful for enhancement of thermogenesis. A rodent study compared the effects of overfeeding an MCT-based diet compared to an isocaloric diet with LCT (long-chain triglycerides). Each of these diets were administered for 6 weeks and had the rats eating over half of their total calories from fat.
Following the 6 week period, rats were assessed for fat cell accumulation and size. It was found that overfeeding the MCTs lead to 15% less weight gain than the control group and significantly decreased body fat. The MCT group also demonstrated increased thermogenesis and metabolic rates.
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7072620
Weight loss: There is some evidence that supplementation of MCT oils could help some individuals lose weight. In a randomized, controlled feeding study with 19 overweight men, it was suggested that MCTs may stimulate fat oxidation. This means that the body would use up more of its stored “fats” as an energy source, helping people lose weight.
MCT oil as a treatment for weight loss shows some promise. MCTs have been established as metabolic enhancers, induce thermogenesis, and help our body oxidize fat stores. The body also doesn’t typically store MCTs as fat and they generally are very low in total calories. They are metabolized similarly to carbs, yet they increase ketones – potentially aiding in ketosis.
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12975635
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8696422
How do MCT oils work?
Medium chain triglycerides are rapidly metabolized by the portal vein, providing immediate energy. Longer chained fatty acids are absorbed by the lymphatic system, thus requiring a longer metabolic process. This is why individuals with digestive disorders are often given MCTs – they don’t take long to be “broken down” and converted to energy like other foods and dietary supplements.
Thus they are considered a great source of energy that is efficiently metabolized by the body. Additionally they provide the brain with ketone bodies as a source of energy. Both glucose and ketones provide the brain with energy that it needs to properly function, but most people don’t give their brain sufficient ketones. These ketones can have a restorative effect on the brain and tend to not only boost mental energy, but enhance cognitive function.
How long before MCT oil provides benefits?
It totally depends upon the purpose for which you’re using the MCT oil, the specific dosage taken, as well as the type of MCTs that are used. In some studies, participants experienced a noticeable cognitive improvement after just one dose of slightly less than 3 tablespoons. Many people have reported that they noticed cognitive improvement after just a single teaspoon.
While not everyone will experience benefits after their very first dose, most people are able to consciously detect a cognitive change within a week of supplementing. As was mentioned, taking an MCT product that is 100% caprylic acid (C8:0) may elicit different effects than a blend of capric acid (C10:0) or lauric acid (C12:0). Also understand that certain genes may inhibit certain benefits of MCTs (e.g. APOE4 polymorphisms) among those with neurodegenerative diseases.
Is it safe to take MCT oil?
When taken properly by healthy adults, MCTs are likely very safe. Further research is warranted regarding consistent, long-term usage. Many experts suggest that they are likely safe, but shouldn’t exceed 50% of a person’s total dietary fat as fats need to be balanced. If you are considering supplementing MCT oils, be sure to talk to your doctor. Certain medical conditions (e.g. liver disease) and/or pharmaceuticals may result in adverse reactions to the supplementation.
Many people do experience side effects from MCTs when they first start taking them. These side effects are generally a result of the body not being adapted to MCTs within the diet. It is recommended to integrate MCTs in small amounts and titrate up as the body becomes more tolerant to the effects. Additionally, consuming MCTs with food can help offset some of the gastrointestinal reactions that may occur.
MCT Oils Warrant Further Research
There is clearly an abundance of evidence indicating that MCT oil consumption is beneficial to one’s physical and mental health when taken at acceptable doses. However, much of the research conducted with MCTs is considered small-scale and/or were conducted with animal models. There is an increasing need of large-scale human studies with MCTs as a standalone treatment and/or adjunct treatment for certain conditions.
In coming years, it should be thought that MCTs will be analyzed for their potential to treat neurodegenerative diseases like dementia, enhance cognitive function, and even promote weight loss. It is hoped that in addition to analyzing MCTs for the treatment of various conditions, that researchers get more specific with their research by testing various combinations of MCTs as well as comparing the effects of 100% pure C6:0 vs. C8:0 vs. C10:0 vs. C12:0.
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22566308
Have you noticed any benefits from MCT Oil supplementation?
If you’ve been taking MCT oil, feel free to share your experience in the comments section below. Mention the specific type of MCT (e.g. C8:0 – caprylic acid) that you’re taking, your current dosage, as well as whether you’ve experimented with other types (e.g. C12:0 – lauric acid). Also discuss whether you’ve experienced any noticeable health benefits from incorporating the MCTs into your diet.
Most evidence suggests that MCTs are safe and likely to improve long-term psychological and physiological health outcomes. It is something that I personally take and recommend others test to determine whether they experience any noticeable benefit. I’ve found MCTs to give me some extra mental energy and have very subtle mood boosting properties.