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The Many Ways That MCTs Promote Cognitive Health

Whether you’re trying to up your efficiency at work, or ward-off age-related cognitive decline, it seems like everyone is interested in boosting brain health these days. 

While there are plenty of supplements on the market before you go filling up your cart with brain-supportive nutrients, it's essential to understand why your brain may be a bit sluggish in the first place and what exactly is at the root of cognitive decline. 

Among the nutrients being touted for brain-boosting benefits are MCTs (medium-chain triglycerides). MCTs, provide your brain with a unique energy source that research shows may be the key to boosting cognitive performance. 

So should you supplement with MCTs to boost brain health?

In this article, you’ll learn:

  • How MCTs boost brain health
  • The role that MCTs play in protecting your brain tissue
  • One of the primary markers for cognitive decline (and how MCTs combat it)
  • What the research says about MCTs and memory, learning, and neurological disease

How Do MCTs Boost Brain Health?

Unlike long-chain fatty acids that need to travel through your lymph before they can be utilized, MCTs are a unique type of fat that can be absorbed by your portal vein and sent directly to your liver. 

What does this mean for you?

When you consume MCTs, they become an almost immediate source of energy, and during their breakdown, they produce energy molecules called ketones. Ketones are an alternative source of fuel that your body uses when glucose is not available -- and they're the real magic behind the brain-boosting benefits of MCTs. 

How do ketones impact brain health? 

#1 By acting as an alternative fuel source, ketones can enhance the energy supply going to your brain[1]

#2 Ketones have a neuroprotective effect on your brain as they are both anti-inflammatory and antioxidant[2]

Through these two mechanisms, MCTs (and the ketones they produce) can create profound benefits to your cognitive health. 


What Does The Research Say About MCTs and Brain Health?

Improves Cognition 

Research shows that one of the key markers for declining cognitive function is your brain's inability to properly use glucose. Many people think of impaired glucose tolerance strictly as a symptom of diabetes; however, research shows that young, healthy people can also experience glucose control issues, leading to cognitive impairment[3][4]

Furthermore, low blood sugar can also result from poor diet, certain medications, hormone deficiencies, and some chronic diseases[5]

Glucose is the primary fuel that your brain runs on. Therefore, when glucose is in short supply, it's not uncommon to feel brain fog and have issues with concentration. If your brain can't get the energy it needs to do its job, it isn't going to work efficiently -- it makes sense. 

Research shows that taking MCTs can enhance cognitive function by supplying your brain with an alternative fuel source, ketones.  

In one study, MCTs given to people with diabetes completely reversed the cognitive impairment as indicated by three separate cognition tests[6]

Neuroprotective 

Protecting your brain tissue from degeneration can be just as important as making sure you get the right nutrients to support its structure. Through their ability to produce ketones, MCTs act as powerful neuroprotectors that keep your brain tissue healthy and vital. They do so via three mechanisms[2]:

Anti-Inflammatory 

Ketones have an anti-inflammatory impact on your brain by inhibiting the activation of pro-inflammatory chemicals and specifically modulate something called the NLRP3 inflammasome.  NLRP3 activation is associated with the release of inflammatory intermediates and increased brain inflammation. Therefore, ketones can help to modulate the expression of NLRP3 and its subsequent inflammatory cascade.

Antioxidant 

Beta-hydroxy-butyrate (BHB) is a ketone body that's known for its antioxidant capacity and is one of the most abundant ketones produced via the consumption of MCTs. Of all the tissues in your body, your brain is one of the most susceptible to oxidative stress due to its high oxygen consumption paired with its lipid-rich content. This means that maintaining healthy antioxidant levels is crucial for the health of your brain tissue[7]

Mito-Protection 

Perhaps one of the most significant contributions that ketones make to neuroprotection is their impact on mitochondria. Mitochondria are the energy production centers in your cells, which become very vulnerable after injury. Free radicals caused by oxidative stress can directly target your mitochondria, resulting in decreased energy production in your brain. Ketones have been shown to protect your mitochondria from damage and help maintain the healthy energy flow through the brain.

Supports Learning and Memory 

Although most research on cognitive function has been conducted on elderly people with dementia, Alzheimer's, or another neurological disease, research shows that healthy elderly people may also see an increase in working memory along with task-switching and visual attention when taking MCTs[8]

The ketones produced by MCTs can upregulate something in your brain called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF is a key molecule involved in plastic changes related to learning and memory in your brain. In fact, changes in BDNF are associated with normal and pathological aging that leads to memory decline[9][2]

This, along with the anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective effects of ketones, may be why so many people experience increased memory capacity when taking MCTs. 

In one study, participants with mild cognitive impairment showed significant improvement in paragraph recall after consuming a drink containing MCTs. In another study, following a low-carbohydrate diet (that induced ketones) was positively correlated with memory performance in older adults with mild cognitive impairment[10][11]

What's more, animal research suggests that MCTs' benefits for brain structure and learning may go beyond the direct impact of ketone bodies and are perhaps also due to MCTs themselves. However, more research needs to be conducted in this area[12]

Dementia and Alzhiemers 

The primary hallmark of many neurological diseases is a dramatic reduction in glucose metabolism. It makes sense then that adding in a fuel source that provides ketones would yield positive results for those suffering from conditions like Alzheimer's Disease (AD), Dementia, and Parkinson's[13][14].

The research conducted on AD thus far has proved this theory correct. In fact, one study showed that taking MCTs can enhance energy metabolism in the brain of Alzheimer's patients in direct correlation to the number of ketones produced[15]

In another study, a group of participants with AD consumed a formula containing MCTs for 12-weeks. After the trial, 16 of the 20 patients showed significant improvement in their immediate and delayed logical memory tests compared to their baseline scores. This led the researchers to conclude that ketones have direct and positive effects on verbal memory and processing speed in patients with AD[8].

Furthermore, research also suggests that ketones may act as anxiolytic, helping to calm anxiety in patients with AD, which is a common symptom of this disease[16]

Takeaway

There are many factors that contribute to brain health. Diet and lifestyle play a huge role in cognitive function, and of course, just like any other muscle in your body -- you either use it or lose it. 

MCTs are a fantastic add-on to a healthy lifestyle if your focus is optimal brain function. Although the research thus far has skewed towards supporting brain function in older populations, there is some promising data to show that MCTs can also boost brain function in younger people as well. 

Either way, MCTs provide an efficient source of fuel that your brain can readily utilize to support its many vital functions.

References:

  1. Cunnane, Stephen C., et al. "Can ketones help rescue brain fuel supply in later life? Implications for cognitive health during aging and the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease." Frontiers in molecular neuroscience 9 (2016): 53.
  2. Wood, Thomas R., Brianna J. Stubbs, and Sandra E. Juul. "Exogenous ketone bodies as promising neuroprotective agents for developmental brain injury." Developmental neuroscience 40.5-6 (2018): 451-462.
  3. Anstey, Kaarin J., et al. "Association of cognitive function with glucose tolerance and trajectories of glucose tolerance over 12 years in the AusDiab study." Alzheimer's research & therapy 7.1 (2015): 48.
  4. Messier, Claude, and Michèle Gagnon. "Glucose regulation and brain aging." JOURNAL OF NUTRITION HEALTH AND AGING 4.4 (2000): 208-213.
  5. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/hypoglycemia/symptoms-causes/syc-20373685
  6. https://diabetes.diabetesjournals.org/content/58/5/1237.full
  7. Salim, Samina. "Oxidative stress and the central nervous system." Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics 360.1 (2017): 201-205.
  8. Ota, Miho, et al. "Effect of a ketogenic meal on cognitive function in elderly adults: potential for cognitive enhancement." Psychopharmacology 233.21-22 (2016): 3797-3802.
  9. Miranda, Magdalena, et al. "Brain-derived neurotrophic factor: a key molecule for memory in the healthy and the pathological brain." Frontiers in cellular neuroscience 13 (2019): 363.
  10. Krikorian, Robert, et al. "Dietary ketosis enhances memory in mild cognitive impairment." Neurobiology of aging 33.2 (2012): 425-e19.
  11. Reger, Mark A., et al. "Effects of β-hydroxybutyrate on cognition in memory-impaired adults." Neurobiology of aging 25.3 (2004): 311-314.
  12. Wang, Dongmei, and Ellen S. Mitchell. "Cognition and synaptic-plasticity related changes in aged rats supplemented with 8-and 10-carbon medium chain triglycerides." PloS one 11.8 (2016): e0160159.
  13. Dunn, Laura, et al. "Dysregulation of glucose metabolism is an early event in sporadic Parkinson's disease." Neurobiology of aging 35.5 (2014): 1111-1115.
  14. https://www.alzdiscovery.org/cognitive-vitality/ratings/medium-chain-triglycerides
  15. Croteau, Etienne, et al. "Ketogenic medium chain triglycerides increase brain energy metabolism in Alzheimer’s disease." Journal of Alzheimer's Disease 64.2 (2018): 551-561.
Kashiwaya, Yoshihiro, et al. "A ketone ester diet exhibits anxiolytic and cognition-sparing properties, and lessens amyloid and tau pathologies in a mouse model of Alzheimer's disease." Neurobiology of aging 34.6 (2013): 1530-1539.

More Brain Health

Medical Disclaimer
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.

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