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How MCTs Provide Energy To Your Brain and Body
The role that your diet plays in energy production is crucial. In fact, it's pretty much the cornerstone around which all other aspects of energy sourcing in your body takes place. Put simply, what you consume creates the fuel that your body uses to energize you and keep day-to-day operations running smoothly.
Of course, you have options like coffee or tea, which offer caffeine to give you a boost of energy without having to consume any calories, but many people are sensitive to caffeine, and it's easy to go overboard. Or you could go the sugar route which will get you going pretty fast but leave you tired, cranky, and craving for more within an hour or two.
While those options offer a short-term pick-me-up, there's another energy-boosting powerhouse that many people don't even know about -- MCTs.
MCTs (medium-chain triglycerides) are a type of fatty acid that's metabolized differently than other fats. Due to their unique structure, your cells are able to access the energy potential of MCTs much faster than most other macronutrients. The result? Soaring, steady energy that doesn't fall off a cliff after an hour or two.
How MCTs Are Processed
The magic behind MCTs comes down to how they're processed in your body. When you consume most forms of fat, they need to be broken down by pancreatic enzymes and mixed with bile during digestion. Next, they travel through your lymphatic system before they enter your bloodstream, at which point they're either used for cellular repair, stored for later, or they're sent to your liver to be broken down for fuel. However, if their fate is to become fuel for your body, they first need to enter a transport system that allows them into your cells' mitochondria. Here, they can finally begin the process of beta-oxidation, which turns them into usable energy.
MCTs, on the other hand, are digested and absorbed more like carbohydrates -- quick and efficient.
Instead of relying on bile and pancreatic enzymes to be broken down in the small intestine, MCTs are readily absorbed by your intestinal cells. Once absorbed, they get to skip the lymphatic system and instead are directly absorbed into your bloodstream. From here, MCTs take a straight shot to your liver, where they enter your mitochondria freely to be broken down and used as fuel.
The Energy-Boosting Power Of MCTs
Now that you have an idea of why MCTs increase available energy in your body, let's take a look at how they do their job.
#1 Enhances Mitochondrial Biogenesis
Your mitochondria are known as the powerhouse of your cells. They are small organelles that generate the vast majority of the chemical energy that your body runs off of. It's within your mitochondria that the food you eat is turned into fuel. For instance, when you consume fat, protein, or carbohydrates, the end products of digestion are eventually sent to your mitochondria to be broken down into the energy molecule ATP, which is then used for almost every chemical reaction in your body.
Research shows that MCTs up-regulate genes involved in the biogenesis of mitochondria. This means that when you consume MCTs, they are not only rapidly sent to your mitochondria to be processed, but they also increase the number of mitochondria you have. More mitochondria translate into more energy processing centers in your cells.
#2 Improves Exercise Endurance
With the understanding that MCTs can enhance energy, scientists put this unique source of fuel to the test with studies involving exercise endurance. Traditionally, glucose (from carbohydrates) has always been the preferred fuel source for athletes due to the rapid nature in which it is digested and absorbed. By rapidly entering your bloodstream and acting as a source of fuel, carbohydrates seemingly make the perfect pre-workout snack.
With that being said, too much glucose at once could result in a blood sugar spike, while not enough can make you bonk during your workout.
When researchers put MCTs to the test with recreational athletes, they found that there was a significant increase in endurance for both moderate and high-intensity training. Furthermore, it reduced something called the rate of perceived exertion (RPE), which basically means how tired or worn out you feel from a workout. And simultaneously extended the duration of time that athletes could spend performing high-intensity exercise.
#3 Reduces Blood Lactate During Exercise
While this one may not be directly related to its energy-boosting activity, MCTs can improve exercise performance indirectly through their ability to reduce blood lactate levels.
When you exercise, and you start working hard and breathing faster, your body does its best to shuttle more oxygen to your muscle tissues so you can produce more energy from glucose. During intense exercise, however, the amount of oxygen available may not be able to meet your energy needs, in which case your body switches over to anaerobic respiration (creating energy without the need for oxygen).
During anaerobic exercise, the primary substrate from glucose metabolism, called pyruvate, is shuttled into your muscle cells and converted to lactate which can be used as fuel without the need for oxygen. The problem is, when lactate builds up, it can create a burning feeling in your muscles, along with cramps, weakness, and in some cases, nausea.
When you use MCTs to fuel your workout, however, the need for glucose is significantly reduced. As a result, research shows that athletes consuming MCTs experience a reduction in blood lactate. Since lactate buildup is often the rate-limiting step for athletes when it comes to endurance, this can directly translate into a more intense and productive workout.
#4 Mental Performance
The link between MCTs and physical energy is indisputable, as biologically, MCTs offer a rapid source of energy for your body. However, physical performance isn't the only arena in which a boost in energy can have positive impacts.
In your liver, MCTs can be converted into a fuel source known as ketones. Ketones behave similarly to other forms of fuel, with the one big exception that they don't require insulin in order to get into cells.
As you get older, you may find that your brain has a reduced ability to utilize glucose for energy. In fact, this is at the root of most age-related cognitive decline. Generally speaking, glucose serves as the primary source of fuel for your brain as brain cells are unable to break down fatty acids for fuel. Luckily, research shows that when blood glucose is low or your ability to metabolize glucose is impaired, ketones serve as an alternative energy source.
With the growing concerns around cognitive decline in the US, scientists have begun putting more energy into studying the impact of ketones on brain health. So far, studies have shown that when ketones are used to supplement your brain's energy requirements that can enhance cognitive performance.
What's more, scientists are also finding that there is a potential therapeutic role for ketones in Alzheimer's disease due to ketones' ability to fuel your brain and enhance the efficiency of your mitochondria.
MCTs offer a fantastic source of energy. From a metabolic perspective, they not only produce energy just as efficiently as carbohydrates, but they do so in a way that avoids a spike in insulin or blood sugar. This translates into smooth energy that doesn't crash.
Furthermore, due to the way that MCTs are processed, they enhance the activity and number of mitochondria you have in your cells. This primes your body for even more fuel creation.
Athletes have found that when they take MCTs before a workout, they are able to train harder and for a longer amount of time. What's more, MCT supplementation results in lower levels of lactic acid buildup -- a common rate-limiting step in exercise performance.
The production of ketones that results from MCT metabolism also offers an excellent fuel source for your brain cells. More research is being conducted as we speak, but there is hope that MCTs and the ketones they produce may offer a therapeutic effect for neurological conditions like Alzheimer's disease.
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- Wang, Ying, et al. "Medium chain triglycerides enhances exercise endurance through the increased mitochondrial biogenesis and metabolism." PloS one 13.2 (2018): e0191182.
- Nosaka, Naohisa, et al. "Effect of ingestion of medium-chain triacylglycerols on moderate-and high-intensity exercise in recreational athletes." Journal of nutritional science and vitaminology 55.2 (2009): 120-125.
- Cairns, Simeon P. "Lactic acid and exercise performance." Sports medicine 36.4 (2006): 279-291.
- Hernandez, Abbi R., et al. "A ketogenic diet improves cognition and has biochemical effects in prefrontal cortex that are dissociable from hippocampus." Frontiers in aging neuroscience 10 (2018): 391.
- Dhillon, Kiranjit K., and Sonu Gupta. "Biochemistry, ketogenesis." StatPearls [Internet] (2020).
- Henderson, Samuel T. "Ketone bodies as a therapeutic for Alzheimer’s disease." Neurotherapeutics 5.3 (2008): 470-480.
- Fortier, Mélanie, et al. "A ketogenic drink improves cognition in mild cognitive impairment: Results of a 6‐month RCT." Alzheimer's & Dementia (2020).
This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice or to take the place of such advice or treatment from a personal physician. All readers/viewers of this content are advised to consult their doctors or qualified health professionals regarding specific health questions. Neither Dr. Chad Walding nor the publisher of this content takes responsibility for possible health consequences of any person or persons reading or following the information in this educational content. All viewers of this content, especially those taking prescription or over-the-counter medications, should consult their physicians before beginning any nutrition, supplement, or lifestyle program.