How MCT Oil Benefits Brain Health

Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC | Written by Deane Alban

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Using MCT oil as a supplement and coconut oil as a food shows great promise for treating many neurological diseases, including dementia and Alzheimer’s.

MCT oil is a nutritional supplement that has been called “rocket fuel for your brain” and the “cure for Alzheimer’s.”

But it’s also been called the “dregs” left over from the manufacturing process of coconut oil.

That’s a lot of hype and controversy over a supplement that, until recently, few people had heard of.

What exactly is MCT oil and what are its proven benefits?

Here’s what you need to know to decide if MCT oil is a brain supplement worth taking.

What Is MCT Oil?

MCT oil is a nutritional supplement that consists of naturally occurring fats called medium-chain triglycerides or MCTs.

The best food source of MCTs by far is coconut oil, but it can also be found in palm oil and high-fat dairy products like cheese and butter.

The difference between medium-chain triglycerides and either long or short-chain triglycerides is the number of carbon atoms in each molecule.

short, medium, and long-chain fatty acids compared
Short, medium, and long-chain fatty acids compared. (Image courtesy of JBLearning.com)

Compared to the long-chain triglycerides found in other vegetable oils, MCTs are smaller and, consequently, more readily absorbed and metabolized — qualities that make them a good source of fuel for your brain.

MCTs are unique among fats in that they don’t require bile salts for digestion or extra energy for absorption, use, or storage.

Popular Uses for MCT Oil

MCT oil is mostly sold as a supplement to aid weight loss or improve athletic performance.

It’s popular with bodybuilders and endurance athletes who use it to increase energy, decrease body fat, and increase lean muscle mass.

But the scientific evidence to support these benefits of MCT oil is mixed. (1, 2)

And taking enough MCT oil to reap these benefits is not always practical.

For example, it’s thought that to experience any significant weight loss, you’d have to eat half your daily calories in MCT oil! (3)

And taking MCT oil for physical performance presents a dilemma since the amount of MCT oil needed to increase endurance generally is more than enough to cause diarrhea.

However, one area where MCT oil shows great promise is as a supplement to support brain health and function.

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How MCT Oil Nourishes the Brain

Your brain cannot store energy, so it needs a constant and steady energy stream that’s normally supplied by blood glucose.

Fortunately, there’s a backup energy source for the times when your blood sugar level gets low.

When needed, your liver can break down stored body fat to produce ketones.

Ketones readily cross the blood-brain barrier to provide instant energy to the brain.

And while you can provide ketones for your brain by eating a very high-fat, low-carbohydrate ketogenic diet, you don’t have to.

The medium-chain fats in MCT oil (and its source, coconut oil) raise the blood level of ketones, providing a convenient workaround. (4)

MCT Oil’s Brain Benefits

Taking MCT oil has been found to increase brain energy by 8 to 9%. (5)

There are a few other ways MCT oil benefits the brain.

MCTs can delay brain aging by promoting the repair of brain cell damage, especially when you combine supplementation with a high-fat diet. (6)

MCT oil can help optimize your intestinal flora (gut bacteria) which is surprisingly important to brain health. (7)

Your good gut bacteria produce dozens of neurotransmitters, brain chemicals used by brain cells to communicate with each other.

Notably, two important feel-good neurotransmitters — serotonin and dopamine — are created mainly in your intestines.

Good bacteria also reduce brain inflammation, now thought to be a possible root cause of depression. (8)

Medically Established Uses for MCT Oil

The benefits of MCT oil for serious health disorders have long been understood by the medical community.

The ketogenic diet has been used to treat drug-resistant epilepsy for nearly 100 years! (9)

Medium-chain triglycerides were first isolated in the mid-1900s and were used to manage epileptic seizures. (10)

MCTs are essential for the development of babies’ brains.

They are found in abundance in human breast milk and are included in some brands of baby formula.

Additional MCTs are given to premature infants to give them the extra energy boost they need to thrive. (11)

MCT oil provides an easily absorbed source of energy for those with serious food absorption disorders. (12)

It is sometimes administered intravenously to critically ill patients, such as those with immune, liver, or pulmonary disease. (13)

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MCT Oil: A Potential Alzheimer’s Treatment

One of the most promising uses for MCT oil is for treating dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Some experts now consider Alzheimer’s a type of diabetes of the brain — when brain cells lose their ability to absorb glucose, their main source of energy, they subsequently die. (14)

PET scans show that areas of the brain affected by Alzheimer’s readily take up ketones as an alternative fuel source. (15)

While ketogenic diets can be useful for dementia and Alzheimer’s patients, it is notoriously difficult to get them to change their eating habits.

The use of supplemental MCT oil can provide a partial solution.

Mary T. Newport, MD, popularized the use of both MCT oil and coconut oil for treating Alzheimer’s disease.

As a veteran neonatal physician, she was familiar with the use of MCT oil to feed newborns.

When her husband developed early-onset Alzheimer’s, she fed him a mix of MCT oil and coconut oil to fuel his brain.

She published a detailed account of her husband’s progress in her highly-rated book Alzheimer’s Disease: What If There Was a Cure?.

She’s now an outspoken advocate for the use of MCTs and coconut oil for neurological disorders beyond dementia, including Down syndrome, ALS, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s. (16)

She has since written a comprehensive second book, The Complete Book of Ketones: A Practical Guide to Ketogenic Diets and Ketone Supplements.

Prescription MCT Oil for Alzheimer’s Patients

Alzheimer’s patients and their caretakers may understandably be concerned about using any supplement that hasn’t been recommended by their doctor.

If that is your situation, talk to your doctor about the prescription-only medical food Axona which contains a proprietary formulation of medium-chain triglycerides.

It was created to help manage mild to moderate symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.

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Benefits of MCT Oil for Other Brain Disorders

MCT oil shows great potential for treating a wide range of mood and neurological disorders.

Here’s a look at what the research shows so far.

Besides Alzheimer’s, MCTs offer neuroprotective benefits for: (17)

  • dementia
  • Parkinson’s
  • stroke
  • epilepsy
  • traumatic brain injury (TBI)

Caprylic acid, a main component of MCT oil supplements, holds promise for treating autism. (18)

MCTs can be helpful for depression.

Researchers have deemed coconut oil an “antidepressant functional food” due to its unique combination of MCTs and antioxidants. (19)

Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is an intermediate stage of mental decline that occurs before a diagnosis of dementia is made.

When MCT oil was given to adults with mild cognitive impairment, they experienced significant improvement in memory recall within 90 minutes of taking their first dose. (20)

Note that this study has often been cited by supplement manufacturers as evidence that MCT oil will increase mental performance in everyone.

This is not necessarily the case.

Currently, there’s minimal scientific evidence that MCT oil increases mental performance in healthy adults.

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MCT Oil vs Coconut Oil: How They Compare

Depending on the brand you use, MCT oil can contain up to 18 times more MCTs per serving than coconut oil.

But since MCTs are isolated from coconut oil by a process called fractionation, they do not contain the same nutrients as coconut oil, a healthy traditional food.

Notably, MCT oil does not contain lauric acid, a compound found in abundance in coconut oil. (2122)

Lauric acid is antibacterial, antiviral, and antifungal, making it responsible for many of coconut oil’s health properties.

Both MCT oil and coconut oil bring their own unique set of benefits to the table, but there’s no reason you have to choose between them.

You can add coconut oil to your diet and take supplemental MCT oil.

In fact, whether or not you decide to take supplemental MCT oil, I urge you not to use highly processed vegetable oils like canola, sunflower, and soy oil.

These supposedly healthy oils have been a health disaster.

They increase your risk of depression, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity, cancer, and more. (2324, 25, 26, 27)

Instead, use coconut oil and extra virgin olive oil — two brain-healthy oils that should be stocked in every kitchen.

How to Use MCT Oil

MCT oil is available as both a liquid and as a powder supplement.

You can take the oil by the spoonful or add it to drinks or foods.

Medium-chain triglycerides are water-soluble, so MCT oil readily mixes with foods. (28)

And since it is virtually tasteless, the uses for MCT oil are limited only by your imagination.

You can add it to smoothies, soups, stews, yogurt, salad dressings, spreads, and drinks of all kinds, both hot and cold.

But don’t cook with it since it has a low smoke point and burns at 150° C (302° F). (29)

You may have heard about MCT oil as an ingredient in Bulletproof Coffee, a trendy brain-boosting drink.

You can make your own coffee “bulletproof” by adding grass-fed butter and MCT oil.

Putting butter in coffee is not as weird as it sounds.

The people of Tibet traditionally add yak butter to their tea, which is how Dave Asprey, Bulletproof Coffee’s creator, got his inspiration.

And butter is simply churned cream.

Asprey and his followers report steady energy, better mood, reduced feelings of hunger, and enhanced mental clarity and physical performance when they drink coffee dosed with MCT oil.

This short video shows you how to make Bulletproof Coffee.

MCT Oil Dosage and Side Effects

How much MCT oil you should take depends on your goals.

Doses in studies generally range from 5 to 50 grams per day.

For general purposes, using 5-10 grams of medium-chain triglycerides is a reasonable place to start.

You can get that from 1-2 teaspoons of MCT oil.

If you are looking to take MCT oil therapeutically for any health disorder, you should talk to your doctor before modifying your supplement regimen.

But, as a general guideline, Dr. Newport recommends taking 4-6 tablespoons per day of coconut oil and MCT oil combined.

You can read more about her specific recommendations in this downloadable document, Coconut Oil Dietary Guidelines.

MCT oil is generally recognized as safe and there are no reported interactions between it and drugs or other supplements. (30)

The most common side effect of MCT oil is diarrhea and, in more extreme cases, nausea, stomach cramps, and vomiting.

This is almost always caused by taking too much, too soon.

If you experience digestive upset, scale back to 1/2 teaspoon per day and then gradually step up to your desired dosage.

MCT Oil for the Brain: Take the Next Step

There’s little science to back up claims that MCT oil improves mental performance in healthy adults, aids weight loss, or improves athletic performance.

However, MCT oil shows significant potential for treating neurological diseases of all kinds, including dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Before trying an MCT oil supplement, get your kitchen in order.

Swap out existing vegetable oils (like canola oil) for coconut oil, the main dietary source of MCTs.

Using coconut oil as a food and MCT oil as a supplement will give you the best chance of reaping therapeutic benefits.

READ NEXT: How Coconut Oil Benefits and Protects Your Brain