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?
Does it live up to the claims that it can increase mental clarity and protect the brain against aging and neurodegeneration?
Here’s everything you need to know about whether MCT oil is a brain supplement you should try.
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.
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.
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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 and decrease body fat while increasing lean muscle mass.
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.
How MCT Oil Fuels the Brain
Your brain cannot store energy and so needs a constant stream that’s usually supplied by blood glucose.
But there’s a backup system for times your blood sugar 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)
Medically Recognized MCT Oil Benefits
The benefits of MCT oil for serious health disorders has long been understood by the medical community.
Medium-chain triglycerides were first used in the mid-1900s, along with the ketogenic diet, to manage epileptic seizures. (5)
MCTs are essential for the development of babies’ brains and are found in abundance in human breast milk. (6)
MCTs have been used to feed premature babies and to treat children with epilepsy for decades. (7)
MCT oil provides an easily absorbed source of energy for those with serious food absorption disorders. (8)
It is administered intravenously to prevent muscle wasting in critically ill patients.
It’s given to Alzheimer’s patients in the form of a “medical food” called Axona. (9)
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MCT Oil Benefits for Brain Disorders
MCT oil shows great potential for treating neurological disorders.
Here’s a look at what the research shows so far.
MCTs offer neuroprotective benefits for a wide range of diseases including dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, stroke, epilepsy, and traumatic brain injury. (10)
MCTs can delay brain aging by providing extra fuel to repair brain cell damage, especially when combined with a high-fat diet. (11)
Caprylic acid, a main component of MCT oil supplements, holds promise for treating autism. (12)
MCTs can be helpful for depression.
Research has deemed coconut oil an “antidepressant functional food” due to its unique combination of MCTs and antioxidants. (13)
Taking MCT oil has been found to increase brain energy by 8 to 9%. (14)
MCT oil can help optimize your intestinal flora — surprisingly important to brain health. (15)
Among other things, your good bacteria produce dozens of neurotransmitters, including more than 90% of your total serotonin and 50% of your dopamine. (16)
Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is an intermediate stage of mental decline before dementia.
This study has often been cited by supplement manufacturers as evidence that MCT oil will increase mental performance in everyone.
Related on Be Brain Fit —
Mild Cognitive Impairment Treatment: What You Can Do
But this is not necessarily the case.
Currently, there’s minimal scientific evidence that MCT oil increases mental performance in healthy adults.
You can now buy dog food with added MCT oil to keep your best friend’s brain sharp and ward off doggie dementia.
MCT Oil: A Potential Alzheimer’s Treatment
One of the most promising uses for MCT oil is in treating dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Alzheimer’s is believed to be a type of diabetes of the brain caused by brain cells losing their ability to absorb glucose, their main source of energy, which leads to their death. (21)
PET scans show that areas of the brain affected by Alzheimer’s readily take up ketones as an alternative fuel source. (22)
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 addition of supplemental MCT oil and coconut oil might provide the solution.
Dr. Mary Newport popularized the use of both MCT oil and coconut oil for treating Alzheimer’s disease.
Related on Be Brain Fit —
Coconut Oil for Alzheimer’s and Dementia: The Evidence
As a veteran neonatal physician, she was familiar with the use of MCT oil to nourish the brains of newborns.
So when her husband developed early-onset Alzheimer’s, she fed him a mix of MCT oil and coconut oil with some success.
She published a detailed account of her husband’s progress in Alzheimer’s Disease: What If There Was a Cure?.
Prescription MCT Oil for Alzheimer’s Patients
Alzheimer’s patients and their caretakers may understandably be concerned about the use of any supplement that hasn’t been doctor-recommended.
In that case, talk to your doctor about the prescription-only “medical food” called Axona which contains a proprietary formulation of medium-chain triglycerides.
It was created to help manage mild to moderate symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.
MCT Oil vs Coconut Oil: How They Compare
Depending on the brand you use, MCT oil can contain up to 18 times more MCTs than plain coconut oil per serving. (25)
But MCTs are isolated from coconut oil by a process called fractionation and do not contain the same nutrients as coconut oil, a healthy traditional food.
Lauric acid is responsible for many of coconut oil’s health properties due to its antibacterial, antiviral, and antifungal 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.
Related on Be Brain Fit —
How Coconut Oil Benefits and Protects Your Brain
In fact, whether or not you decide to take supplemental MCT oil, I urge you to switch from highly processed vegetable oils like canola, sunflower, and soy oil to coconut oil.
These supposedly healthy oils have been a health disaster.
There’s even a correlation between vegetable oil consumption and homicide rates! (32)
Coconut oil, along with extra virgin olive oil, are 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 mix the powder with any drink.
Since it is virtually tasteless, the uses for MCT oil are limited only by your imagination.
Medium-chain triglycerides are water soluble and so MCT oil readily mixes with foods. (33)
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). (34)
You’ll find a few MCT oil recipes to get you started here.
You may have heard about it as an ingredient in “bulletproof” coffee, a trendy brain-boosting drink.
Making coffee “bulletproof” means adding grass-fed butter and MCT oil to it.
Putting butter in coffee is not as weird as it sounds.
The people of Tibet traditionally add yak butter to their tea, which is where Dave Asprey, the drink’s creator, got his idea.
And when you think about it, adding butter is not much different than adding cream, since butter is simply churned cream.
Asprey and his many followers report steady energy, better mood, reduced feelings of hunger, and enhanced mental clarity and physical performance from coffee dosed with MCT oil.
This quick video shows you how to make bulletproof coffee, in case you want to give it a try.
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. (35)
You can get that from 1-2 teaspoons of MCT oil.
If you are looking to take MCT oil therapeutically for neurological disorders, 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. (36)
The most common side effect of MCT oil is diarrhea and, in more extreme cases, nausea, stomach cramps, and vomiting.
This is usually caused by taking too much too soon.
You need to start slowly — as little as 1/2 teaspoon per day — and step up gradually to your full dosage amount.
If you have depression or anxiety, pay close attention to how MCT oil makes you feel.
While it is usually helpful, a number of anecdotal reports on popular “brain hacking” forums reveal that MCT oil can exacerbate symptoms of anxiety and depression in some people.
MCT Oil for the Brain: The Bottom Line
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 tremendous potential for treating neurological diseases of all kinds, including dementia and Alzheimer’s.
But 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 the benefits you’re looking for.