Using MCT Oil to Enhance Energy, Performance and Cognitive Function 2


I remember chatting with a female colleague of mine who is a mother of three. She’s in tune to all natural living so naturally, the conversation shifted to some of the products we use in our lives. She mentioned how she is using MCT oil for sustainable energy and to “cleanse the system.” At the time, she didn’t go into detail so I was left wondering what that meant.

After my first use, I knew exactly what she meant. Especially the cleansing part. What other benefits might this mysterious MCT oil may have?

Medium-chain triglyceride (MCTs) oil usage has gotten a lot of publicity over the last few years especially with the emergence and marketing of Bulletproof coffee, a touted performance boosting combination of MCT oil, butter and coffee.

Followers believe MCTs are their secret weapons to enhance energy, performance and cognitive function in their lives. Others use MCT oils in the fight against weight loss. Whatever the reasons, consumption of these oils can be part of any healthy diet.

In this article, you’ll get a better understanding of:

  • Ketone production and its relationship to MCTs
  • The benefits of MCTs
  • How to buy MCT oil
  • Strategies for using MCT oil

Read on to learn exactly why MCT oil is for everyone… even my awesome middle-aged colleague trying to dominate in life.

Ketones and the brain

If you take a closer look at the brain, you’ll find that over half of its structure is made of fat. Naturally, one might assume this is why it’s essential to consume quality fats as part of your daily diet. While this is true, another one of the primary fuel sources for the brain is glucose, which is created from carbohydrate consumption.

The majority of the scientific nutritional research supports the fact that glucose is the preferred fuel for muscles during exercise and definitely the most abundantly available fuel for the brain [1]. However, glucose may not be the best source for the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is a critical energy-producing molecule.

ATP is the molecule that transports energy needed for cell metabolism throughout our bodies and is produced by our mitochondria. Mitochondria are considered as the “power plants” of our cells and are responsible for extracting nutrients from food to aid in the production of the ATP. Made up of fatty cell membranes, our mitochondria are incredibly dependent on the fatty acids within our bodies.

Whenever mitochondria produce ATP, whether, from glucose or fatty acids, unavoidable free radicals are created in the process. When a higher amount of free radicals are present, it leads to the destruction of mitochondria which then leads to a reduction in ATP (energy). Fortunately, the ketones created by the liver from fatty acid production during lower carbohydrate/glucose presence, produce fewer of the free radicals that can destroy mitochondria and negatively affect ATP production.

This is the part of the many reasons ketones are superior to carbohydrates for brain health [2].

Brain efficiency

In terms of the optimal brain fuel for energy production, Emily Dean, M.D from Psychology Today, explains that there is a “dirty little secret about glucose.” She describes it as such:

“When you look at the amount of garbage leftover in the mitochondria, it is actually less efficient to make ATP from glucose than it is to make ATP from ketone bodies. A more efficient energy supply makes it easier to restore membranes in the brain to their normal states after a depolarizing electrical energy spike occurs, and means that energy is produced with fewer destructive free radicals leftover.”

The human body normally runs on glucose that is produced from the broken down carbohydrates. Unfortunately, the brain cannot store this energy and needs a constant stream of it. While blood glucose typically supplies energy to the brain, the body has a backup system for energy production. When the body does not have enough glucose from carbohydrates, the liver begins to use fatty acids for fuel to produce ketones in this limited presence.

Because ketones readily cross the blood-brain barrier, they provide instant energy to the brain. Ketone bodies provide an alternative fuel source and can efficiently recharge metabolic processes within the brain. The presence of ketones stimulates an increase in energy without the harmful effects of high levels of insulin present.

Additionally, the ketones produced are better than glucose in ATP conversion. When comparing glucose to fat intake by total units of ATP produced, the ATP produced from 1 molecule of glucose is 38 ATPs. For fats, the ATPs are produced using a slightly different and slower chemical process but yield over 130 ATPs [3].

This explains why fats are the most nutrient dense source in the diet. Wouldn’t you want nearly 3 times more energy from the foods you eat?

Why is this good?

One purpose for consuming MCT oil is to achieve a state of nutritional ketosis. In a lower carbohydrate state, fat consumption via MCT better enables an increase in ketones which allows your body to shift from burning carbohydrates (glucose) to burning fats for energy. In fact, research shows ketosis happens around 20 grams per day but beneficial ketones can be produced around the range of 40-50 grams of carbohydrates [4].

When insulin levels are high from increased carb consumption, your body will prioritize the transfer of glucose through your body instead of fat cells. But if your insulin receptors are “numb” or resistant, these receptors are less capable of triggering the body to burn glucose from carbohydrates. This causes an overflow in the blood, leading to weight gain and chronic inflammation.

A better way to induce your body to burn fat instead of carbs is to stabilize and reduce insulin levels. In most people, lowering insulin can be achieved by a reduction in starchy carbohydrates. When starchy, simple carbs are replaced with a diet rich in healthy fats and low glycemic carbohydrates, you have less of a chance to become insulin resistant.

When you are following a diet low in carbs and sugars and higher in fats (which is generally a healthier lifestyle approach for most), your body is primarily burning existing fat storage depots for energy instead of glucose from carbs.

As mentioned previously, this allows you to capitalize on the most energy dense sources of food to fuel your body. The same sources that promote fat burning, improved cognitive function, reduced inflammation and many others.

The benefit of MCTs is that they provide a similar function to carbohydrates due to their quick absorption. Supplementing with MCT oils and coconut oil is a great way to add quality, satiating fats, for to achieve a more sustainable source of energy.

Be aware

Most resources encourage drinking bulletproof coffee in the morning as a breakfast replacement so it is no surprise why it might be an effective measure for weight loss. High-quality fats in the morning significantly reduce appetite and provide a great sustainable energy source but, depending on your current daily eating habits, eliminating another meal can take away from the beneficial nutrients and vitamins the food in it would provide.

MCT oil is essentially pure saturated fat which is considered “empty calories” as they lack nutrient value. While medium chain triglycerides themselves have many beneficial components in the way our bodies process them, relying solely on them is not optimal. For example, if the average consumer replaces their power breakfast which contains fiber, protein, quality fats, B-vitamins, choline and many other beneficial nutrients from eggs or vegetables, it can be harder for some to meet their daily nutrient needs.

Be wary that MCT oil usage is not a miracle fix or the solution to better health. MCT oil should be used only as a supplemental part of a healthy diet that focuses on the consumption of high-quality foods. Once a healthy diet is in place, MCTs can help you achieve the benefits of ketone production which mean more energy.

Understanding MCTs

To understand MCTs let’s take a look at medium-chain fatty acids (MCFA) and their importance first.

Triglycerides are composed of fatty acids that come from unsaturated and saturated fats (and excess carbs). These acids serve as important sources of fuel that are metabolized in the liver to produce ATP, which as I defined earlier, is a critical molecule used in cells that regulate the transfer of energy in the liver.

Fatty acids can differ by length and are often put into three categories (four if you add very long fatty acids but we’ll save that for another time); short-chain, medium-chain and long-chain fatty acids.

  • Short-chain fatty acids (SCFA) – Produced in your body when friendly gut bacteria ferment in your colon. They provide the main source of energy for the cells lining your colon. While they provide only about 10% of your daily caloric needs, SCFAs are heavily involved in metabolizing nutrients from carbs and fats.
  • Medium-chain fatty acids (MCFA) – Naturally found in coconut oil, these types of fatty acids are absorbed much more efficiently in the body and are transported directly to the liver for energy production. Because they are easily digestible and have no destined fat storage depot, the liver will quickly metabolize into fuel for your organs and muscles.
  • Long-chain fatty acids (LCFA) – The most abundant types of fats found in food and constitute the majority of the fats and oils we consume in our diets. Both short- and medium-chain fatty acids are absorbed directly into the bloodstream while long-chain fatty acids get absorbed into the fatty walls of the intestines. Studies have shown that an influx in LCFA’s play a causative role in insulin resistance [5].

What are MCT’s?

Medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) are composed of medium chain fatty acids found primarily in coconut and palm oils but are also present in small amounts in yogurt, cheese, butter, and milk. MCTs are absorbed differently from long-chain fatty acids (LCFAs) and have a remarkable ability to stabilize blood sugar and enhance ketone body production.

LCFAs are tougher for the body to break down and have extra steps before they make their way into the liver [6]. Instead of being quickly processed, LCFAs are absorbed along the intestine wall where they are packaged into bundles of fat and proteins (lipoproteins). If these lipoproteins are oversaturated with bad fats and poor absorption, it can lead to inflammation throughout the body.

In MCT absorption, MCFAs make their way through the stomach in fewer steps and are easily absorbed by the liver. Because lipases (fat digesting enzymes) digest MCTs very rapidly without bile acids, less strain is put on your digestive system. This is one of the many reasons everyone can benefit from MCTs, especially those without gallbladders, fat absorption issues and fatty acid metabolism disorders.

To recap thus far, we know:

  • Low carbohydrate diets can help reduce inflammation, insulin resistance and cognitive function
  • Low carbohydrate states promote greater ketone production
  • Ketones provide the brain with a cleaner source of energy that is more efficient in the production of ATP compared to glucose
  • MCTs are high-quality fats that bypass digestion and are quickly absorbed by the liver for lasting energy production
  • MCTs can be a powerful tool in the quest for higher ketone production

Now let’s talk about the difference between MCT oil products and coconut oil.

MCT oil

While coconut oil is what comes to mind when most think about MCTs, there is another more potent option with a similar set of benefits – MCT oil.

Through a manmade process, the production of MCT oils is completed by extracting the beneficial medium chain fatty acids in more concentrated doses from the coconut. The chart below explains the typical makeup of MCT oils on the market today.

Table 1: Medium Chain Fatty Acids in MCT oils
MCFA Alias Typical ratio in MCT oils
C6:0 Caproic Acid 1-2%
C8:0 Caprylic acid 60-70%
C10:0 Capric Acid 20-30%
C12:0 Lauric Acid 1-2%

In MCTs, the general rule of thumb is that the shorter the carbon chain, which is noted by C6, C8, C10, and C12, the faster the transformation to ketones for energy. Each MCFA that make up MCT group operates differently in the body. The paragraph below illustrates the differences between the fatty acids that make up MCT oils.

Caproic Acid (C6) – Although technically C6 would be the quickest transfer to energy, it is generally avoided. Since there is a very limited source of it in MCT oils, any benefits would not play a huge role. It is known to taste bad and can result in upset stomachs. If your MCT oil has a funky taste to it, it could be because not enough of caproic acid was removed in the extraction process.

Caprylic Acid (C8) – Also known as caprylic acid, this MCFA has 8 carbons. It is typical to find this fatty acid in the majority of the MCT oil products in the market today as it makes up anywhere from 60-75% of the MCT product. It’s well known for its antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal properties. This makes C8 an incredible source for maintaining a healthy gut and increasing in brain function.

  • C8 is typically the most expensive of the MCFA group because it is argued to be the best and quickest source to increase ketones in your body.
  • C8 also provides the quickest source of energy, more cognitive benefits and helps with appetite suppression.

Capric Acid (C10) – This is another brain-boosting MCFA that makes up roughly one-third of MCT oil mixtures. While it is more slowly absorbed than C8, C10 has great brain-boosting properties. Most MCT oil mixtures include about 50/50 of 60/40 of C8 and C10

Lauric Acid (C12) – This 12-carbon chain MCFA is perhaps the most common ingredient across the different food sources containing MCFA’s. While still beneficial, C12 does not boast quick absorption like C8 and C10.

Instead of being directly absorbed by the liver, Lauric acid requires a few more steps than its counterparts. Since C12 is the most abundant acid in coconut oil, you’re better off buying MCT oils made with only C8 or a mixture of C8 and C10.

Benefits of MCT oils

The major benefits and selling points for MCT oils focus on the properties of C8 and C10 or concentrated C8. Although the majority of the oils on the market contain only C8 and C10, some have an equal balance of C12. C12 is marketed as a more sustainable energy source due to the long-chain fatty acid makeup that makes it slower to digest.

Research has shown that MCT oils provide many performance boosting activities, including:

  • Reduced effects of Alzheimer’s disease [7]
  • Better nutrient absorption [8]
  • Greater fat loss [9]
  • Improved gut health [10]
  • Improvements in epilepsy symptoms [11]
  • Suppressed appetite [12]
  • Quick, lasting energy [12]

You may be wondering more about coconut oil itself. Why can’t I just use this in my coffee? Many do use coconut oil as their primary MCT go-to. However, there are a few big differences between MCT oils and the MCFAs that are found in coconut oil.

Coconut oil vs. MCT oil

Coconut oil has many benefits and contains a wide variety of MCFAs and LCFAs. But the substantial difference between MCTs and coconut oil is the distribution and content of MCTs. And remember, the longer the chain the longer it takes our bodies to break down the fats.

Table 2: Standard makeup of high-quality coconut oil
Makeup Content
C6 – Caproic ~5%
C8 – Caprylic 7%
C10 – Capric 8%
C12 – Lauric 48%
C14 – Myristic 16%
C16 – Palmitic 10%
C18 – Oleic 7%
Total content 100%

There are usually around 7 different kinds of fatty acids that make up the composition of the coconut oils you find in the marketplace today. As you can see, the most abundant source of MCTs within coconut oil is in the form of lauric acid (C12) which makes up nearly half of the fatty-acid content.

Coconut oil and lauric acid

Coconut oil is about 65 percent MCTs. Producers commonly market this fact but what they don’t tell you is that there are 4 kinds of long-chain fatty acids. And that about 50% of the fat in coconut oil is just one type of MCT while the rest slower digesting fats.

The lauric acid content in coconut oil is the reason that this oil is “amazing”. A few of the benefits of lauric acid are:

  • Appetite suppression
  • Easily digested
  • Strengthens immune system
  • Maintains blood sugar and cholesterol
  • Skincare
  • Antimicrobial, antibacterial and antiviral

Awesome right? While true, this also means that if you are counting on coconut oil for your MCTs, you’re going to get a lot of lauric acid and only about 5% of the really good shorter/medium chain MCTs found in MCT oils. If you are looking for quicker absorption, this is where pure MCT oil would be more effective.

To determine your best course of action you need to find your purpose for consuming MCTs. Do you want a greater increase in cognitive function and quick, lasting energy? Then concentrated MCT oil is more beneficial due to much higher concentrated doses of shorter chain MCTS. If you only want to exploit the awesomeness of lauric acid for benefits, coconut oil is the way to go. Go for extra virgin, unrefined and cold pressed for the cleanest source (we use Nutiva in our house).

Now that you are aware of the benefits of MCT oil, the next logical step is to understand which one to buy. The following section provides a closer look at my MCT oil-buying process should you decide that MCT oil is right for you.

How to purchase MCT oil

I failed to do my proper research in my first purchase of MCT oil. Instead, I opted for the lowest priced item and disregarded the important matters like ingredients and fatty acid makeup of the oil. My next go around, I wanted to understand and compare different products on the market. I was specifically interested in the cost, percentage and total grams contained within the MCT oils.

My primary focus was with MCT oils that were sourced from coconut oil with the exception of one brand that contains palm kernel oil. Part of the reason I stuck to coconut only sources is in terms of both health and sustainability.

Palm kernel oil also has a much lower quality and content of MCFAs such as lauric acid. And to farm palm kernel oil, thousands of rainforest acreages have to be clear cut which renders the practice as extremely unsustainable. Whether completely or partially true, this is enough to shift my purchases toward MCTs sourced only from coconut oil.

Another reason I was looking for primarily coconut sources is that unlike coconut oil, palmitic acid has been connected with inflammatory diseases due to its chemical structure. In my observation, I view this oil as the “cheap sellout brother” to coconut oil. Given its purpose for mass production and as a substitute for the oils in many processed foods, I am staying away from it.

For the sake of comparing two C8 only MCT oils, I included Mickey T in the brand selection despite the presence of Palm kernel oil.

Summary of products

The final list of selected MCT oils contains what I feel are the most trustworthy brands. The high-quality Amazon reviews was another factor that was considered.

In the table, the MCFA content includes the percentage and total grams of fatty acids for each MCT oil. The costs are have been included in the bottom as well.

MCT oil brand comparison

Out of the six selected MCT oils, Mickey T and Brain Octane oil are the only products that contain only C8. Both are similar in price and sit at the higher end of the scale. Due to the pure C8 content, these can be seen as the gold standard of MCT oils containing ~14g’s of the “best” MCTs.

For the oils that contain C8 and C10, Viva Labs and Left Coast Performance had respectable content profiles. Unlike the Onnit and Sports Research brands, the oils from Viva Labs and Left Coast Performance do not contain C12 (lauric acid) in their ingredients and were comparable in price.

All oils came in 32oz bottles except for the Onnit brand. Per oz, this made the Onnit brand more expensive than the 4 mixed MCT oil competitors.

A buyer’s thought process

Of the compared MCT oils, Brain Octane Oil had the most impressive profile due to its pure coconut derived C8 structure. However, if you want the best, you have to pay for the best.

In terms of a cost/oz price of a C8 and C10 mixture, Viva Labs came in the lowest which makes it the most economical option.

If I am purchasing an MCT oil I am looking only oils that contain C8 and C10. This weeds out a few of the other options for me which included the Onnit and Sports Research brands leaving only Viva Labs and Left Coast Performance.

Quality is paramount all supplements and something I strive for. I am less familiar with some of the other selected company’s standards on quality, but having bought from Viva Labs previously, I am well aware of their quality production standards. To me, they are a brand I can trust.

With its high-quality standards, a competitive price and great MCFA contents within its MCT oil, I gave Viva Labs the nod for my selection.

Three strategies for using MCT oil

Before my research, I didn’t understand that there were some performance-based strategies behind consuming MCT oil. While general consumption of MCT oils as a source of dietary fat is beneficial, I have found that I can use them even more purposefully to increase performance.

For appetite suppression

For me (and many others), carbs make me hungrier. When I consume a meal that is carb-heavy, I can feel my body slowly developing hunger sensations throughout the 4-5 hours until my next meal. But, if my meals have the proper macronutrient balance, (weighted heavier in fats and proteins instead of carbs), it’s much easier to last upwards to 5 or even 7 hours.

By consuming a high-quality fat source such as MCTs, I’m able to replace the carbohydrates in my body when I need them the least.

Instead of eating a ton of carbs and sitting on my ass all day at work, I am much better suited feeding my body ketones (fats) as a fuel source generated from MCTs as opposed to glucose from carbs. This can be beneficial for reducing the negative effects insulin can create as a result of inactivity.

If I choose a mixture of quality fats, such as coconut oil or MCTs with proteins, I feel more focused and less susceptible to cravings throughout the day.

TIP: In general, you’ll know that you achieved proper meal balance if you make it about 4-5 hours between meals (dependent on activity, of course). MCT oil provides a great way to experiment with the balance of fats, proteins and carbohydrates in your meals. You may find that you operate much better with fewer carbs.

Cognitive function

One of my weapons for boosting creativity and sustained focus is consuming MCTs in the morning on an empty stomach, well before my first meal. This method serves as my way to “break the fast” while fueling my brain and maintaining the beneficial functions of an intermittent fasting such as cognitive function [13].

I consume MCTs on an empty stomach specifically to provide my body with a direct energy source that is uninfluenced from the digestion of other foods. While not a huge amount, our bodies use up precious morning energy to aid in digestion which is an avoidable distraction.

TIP: Instead of complicating the digestion process, I personally aim to make it easier by consuming only MCTs to reap the full benefits of energy and cognitive boosts.

Placebo effect

Another overlooked aspect is the ability for all supplements to provide that “placebo” effect in your body. For me, part of the trick to mental clarity is believing what you are doing matters and is making a difference. MCT oil usage is no different.

Not only have MCTs been proven scientifically to be quick, long-lasting sources of energy, I am a firm believer that they can and do increase my performance. While you could argue MCTs are not essential for healthy brain function but if they improve your life, why does anyone else’s opinion matter?

TIP: If you are drinking it with skepticism to prove someone wrong or to argue against a claim, why even consume MCT oil? As Ronald Spark, MD puts it so eloquently,

“Be enthusiastic. Remember the placebo effect because 30% of medicine is showbiz.”

If you decide to give MCTs a try, remember to play around with timing and how you supplement them in your diet to maximize their effectiveness.

In summary

Any fat sources primarily composed of medium-chain fatty acids provide many benefits. These are safe for consumption and can serve as an essential part of any diet. With smarter consumption of fats, such as MCFAs, they can better serve your body rather than work against your digestion. MCTs are one of the best ways to get a lasting fuel source without the negative effects of a high-carb diet.

Adding coconut oil and MCT oil into the diet is primarily how you can achieve this. As mentioned above, a few of the benefits of medium-chain triglycerides include:

  • Easy and quick digestion, thus putting less strain on your digestive system.
  • Immediate conversion into energy by the liver rather than being stored as fat.
  • Ability to stimulate your body’s metabolism which promotes weight loss.

Supplementing MCT oils and coconut oil has been a major game-changer in my performance. I’ve noticed I have more energy and I can rest assured knowing that both MCT oil and coconut oil both provide cleaner sources of fats.

MCTs and their oils are too great to not tell people about. Discover how these oils can benefit your own life and start simply killing it every day. #SKIED

I am curious to hear others thoughts on MCT oils and their experiences so please send me a note if you’re interested in chatting!

References:

  1. Mergenthaler, Philipp et al. “Sugar for the Brain: The Role of Glucose in Physiological and Pathological Brain Function.”Trends in neurosciences 10 (2013): 587–597. PMC. Web. 28 Jan. 2017.
  2. Kim, Hae-Suk, Michael J. Quon, and Jeong-a Kim. “New Insights into the Mechanisms of Polyphenols beyond Antioxidant Properties; Lessons from the Green Tea Polyphenol, Epigallocatechin 3-Gallate.”Redox Biology 2 (2014): 187–195. PMC. Web. 28 Jan. 2017.
  3. http://cristivlad.com/energy-levels-under-ketosis-fats-carbs-and-atp/
  4. http://eatingacademy.com/sports-and-nutrition/ketones-carbohydrates-can-co-exist
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fatty_acid
  6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medium-chain_triglyceride
  7. Samuel T. Henderson, Ketone Bodies as a Therapeutic for Alzheimer’s Disease, Neurotherapeutics, Volume 5, Issue 3, July 2008, Pages 470-480, ISSN 1933-7213, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.nurt.2008.05.004. (//www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1933721308000937)
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22866697
  9. Page, Kathleen A. et al. “Medium-Chain Fatty Acids Improve Cognitive Function in Intensively Treated Type 1 Diabetic Patients and Support In Vitro Synaptic Transmission During Acute Hypoglycemia.”Diabetes 5 (2009): 1237–1244. PMC. Web. 28 Jan. 2017.
  10. Rial, Sabri Ahmed et al. “Gut Microbiota and Metabolic Health: The Potential Beneficial Effects of a Medium Chain Triglyceride Diet in Obese Individuals.”Nutrients 5 (2016): 281. PMC. Web. 28 Jan. 2017.
  11. Yeou-mei Christiana Liu, Huei-Shyong Wang. “Medium-chain triglyceride ketogenic diet, an effective treatment for drug-resistant epilepsy and a comparison with other ketogenic diets.” Biomed J.2013 Jan-Feb; 36(1): 9–15. doi: 10.4103/2319-4170.107154
  12. St-Onge, Marie-Pierre et al. “Impact of Medium and Long Chain Triglycerides Consumption on Appetite and Food Intake in Overweight Men.”European journal of clinical nutrition 10 (2014): 1134–1140. PMC. Web. 28 Jan. 2017.
  13. Li, Liaoliao, Zhi Wang, and Zhiyi Zuo. “Chronic Intermittent Fasting Improves Cognitive Functions and Brain Structures in Mice.” Ed. Zhongcong Xie.PLoS ONE 6 (2013): e66069. PMC. Web. 28 Jan. 2017.

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