The Many Benefits of Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCTs)

Many people have been jumping on the bandwagon of adding MCTs to their morning coffee or shake. If you ask one person, they may say they do it because MCTs help to boost their morning workout, while another might boast the benefits of MCTs for keeping them focused at work, and still, another may explain that MCTs help to curb their appetite. 

The truth is, MCTs come packed with health benefits that could enhance your wellbeing on several different levels. In this article, we'll cover the many research-backed benefits of MCTs and discuss what makes this type of fat so unique.

What Makes MCTs Unique

Medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) are a type of saturated fatty acid that have, as the name implies, a medium-sized length. While long-chain fatty acids make up the bulk of the dietary fats that you find in your food, MCTs are a little harder to come by. 

Whether a fatty acid is considered long-chain or medium-chain depends on the number of carbon atoms they have. More specifically[1]:

  • Long-chain fatty acids have 12-22 carbons
  • Medium-chain fatty acids have 7 to 12 carbons

So what makes MCTs so unique? 

The major difference between MCTs and long-chain fatty acids is how your body absorbs and uses them. Once absorbed, long-chain fatty acids are packed into fat-shuttling particles called chylomicrons, which travel through your lymph and deposit fats throughout your body (including to your fat tissues). 

On the other hand, MCTs are absorbed directly into your portal vein, which is a non-stop ticket to your liver. Once in your liver, MCTs are readily oxidized and converted to fuel -- in other words, they provide an almost immediate source of energy[2].

What's more, MCTs, more so than long-chain fats, convert to an energy source known as ketones, which have unique properties that make them ideal for metabolic and brain health[3]

Health Benefits Of MCTs

MCTs provide a wide range of health benefits relating to metabolism, cognition, and energy utilization. Some of the most well-studied benefits include:

Increased Energy Expenditure

MCTs have been shown to increase the number of mitochondria (energy-producing organelles) in your cells. These little energy powerhouses are responsible for transforming the food you eat into usable energy in the form of ATP.

By upregulating the number of mitochondria in your body, MCTs may directly increase the amount of energy you expend on a daily basis[4].

Improved Endurance and Exercise   

As you can imagine, if your body is making more energy, then that's more energy for you to use during your workouts. Research shows that taking MCTs before a workout can increase your overall workout performance by enhancing not only the duration of the workout but the intensity at which you can exercise as well[5].

In addition, a common unwanted side effect of exercise is the buildup of lactic acid, which leaves your muscles sore and achy. Lactic acid comes from lactate, which serves as an alternative energy source when you run out of oxygen to break down glucose. 

MCTs help your body target fat for fuel instead of glucose, which means that you get to avoid the unwanted lactic acid buildup and subsequently may experience a faster recovery time[5].

Improved Blood Sugar Control

Insulin is a hormone that helps to shuttle glucose out of your blood and into your cells to be used as fuel or stored. Therefore, the ability of your cells to respond to insulin is crucial for blood sugar control. 

Unfortunately, many people suffer from diabetes or prediabetes, which leaves them with uncontrolled blood sugar levels, and cells that cannot respond to insulin's signals. 

Research shows that MCT-containing diets can increase insulin-mediated glucose metabolism and clear the blood of excess glucose.

Interestingly, this effect was seen in both diabetic and non-diabetic participants indicating that MCTs may assist with overall blood sugar control[6]

Cholesterol 

Research shows that MCTs may help to balance your cholesterol levels. 

In one clinical trial, participants were given a mixture of oils ( MCT oil, phytosterols, and flaxseed oil) or a placebo for 29 days. Researchers noted a significant reduction in LDL cholesterol in the oil group, along with a change in LDL particle size[7]

Animal research also indicates that MCTs may help remove excess cholesterol from the blood by enhancing the elimination of bile, which is cholesterols' primary route out of your body[8]

Neuroprotection

Due to their ability to synthesize ketones, MCTs offer a unique neuroprotective effect on your brain. 

Specifically, ketones have been shown to protect brain tissue by fighting off inflammation and oxidation while protecting your energy-producing mitochondria.

Neuroinflammation has been identified as a causative factor in several neurological diseases, and a complex called the NLRP3 inflammasome has been identified as a key contributor to the development of neuroinflammation.

Research shows that the ketone body beta-hydroxybutyrate (BHB), which is the primary ketone produced via the ingestion of MCTs, can inhibit the NLRP3 inflammasome, and therefore may protect against its downstream inflammatory effects[9][10]

Furthermore, the lipid-rich content of your brain, paired with its high oxygen consumption, makes this tissue highly susceptible to oxidative stress. Oxidation is another factor that can lead to neurodegeneration and can specifically target your mitochondria. BHB also functions as an antioxidant in your brain, helping to combat some of the oxidation that's naturally produced and protecting this vital tissue from degeneration[11][10].

Improved Cognition

Research shows that consuming MCTs can enhance your cognitive health in several ways. 

Beyond the protection they offer to your brain tissue, it appears that the production of ketones also creates a unique benefit for your brain's energy needs. Typically, your brain's primary fuel source is glucose. Unfortunately, glucose is not always the most reliable source of energy. This is especially true in people with diabetes, but suboptimal glucose utilization can also impact young, healthy people as well[12]

One of the key markers for declining cognitive function is your brain's inability to properly use glucose, which makes offering an alternative type of energy for your brain particularly beneficial. 

Research shows that when participants with cognitive impairment consume MCTs or ketones, it enhances their cognitive function and specifically improves memory and learning[13][14]

This may be in part due to the impact that ketones have on something called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF is a key molecule related to changes in your brain responsible for memory and learning. Ketones can upregulate the activity of BDNF and stimulate your brain's architecture to support cognitive function[15][16]

Enhanced Satiety

Another benefit of ketones is the impact they have on your appetite. Specifically, ketones can impact two hormones that regulate your desire to eat and feelings of fullness; ghrelin and cholecystokinin (CCK).

Ghrelin stimulates your desire to eat, which is why it's known as your “hunger hormone.” Research shows that when you have ketones in your blood, it suppresses this hormone and therefore curbs your appetite[17].

CCK, on the other hand, is a hormone that makes you feel full. When ketones are in your blood, it helps to sustain CCK levels, helping you feel more full and satisfied[18]

Weight Loss

Due to MCT's impact on satiety, energy expenditure, and exercise performance, it should come as no surprise that they can also support weight loss. 

Research shows that MCTs may help your body target body fat as a fuel source instead of tapping into glucose stores. This results in a greater loss of adipose tissue (fat tissue)[19]

Long-term research also shows that consuming MCTs results in less body fat accumulation over time, suggesting that MCTs are an excellent ally and potential long-term solution for weight maintenance[20]

Takeaway

Due to the versatility of MCT's health benefits, almost anyone could find a good reason to add these nutrients to their dietary plan. It should be noted for the long-term benefits of MCTs, making them a part of your daily regimen is your best bet. 

Many people substitute coffee creamer for MCT oil powder or add some MCTs to their morning or afternoon shake. 

However, including MCTs in your diet could be as easy as mixing them in water and drinking it down. 

Whether your goals are centered around cognitive health, metabolic health, blood sugar regulation, or enhanced exercise endurance -- MCTs offer a one-stop-shop to support your body in a myriad of ways. 

And the exciting news is that research into MCTs is still relatively new, with more studies coming out all the time to elucidate the supportive role that these fatty acids may play in your body. 

References

  1. Schönfeld, Peter, and Lech Wojtczak. "Short-and medium-chain fatty acids in energy metabolism: the cellular perspective." Journal of lipid research 57.6 (2016): 943-954. 
  2. St-Onge, Marie-Pierre, and Peter JH Jones. "Physiological effects of medium-chain triglycerides: potential agents in the prevention of obesity." The Journal of nutrition 132.3 (2002): 329-332.
  3. Yeh, Yu-Yan, and Paulus Zee. "Relation of ketosis to metabolic changes induced by acute medium-chain triglyceride feeding in rats." The Journal of nutrition 106.1 (1976): 58-67.
  4. Wang, Ying, et al. "Medium chain triglycerides enhances exercise endurance through the increased mitochondrial biogenesis and metabolism." PloS one 13.2 (2018): e0191182.
  5. 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.
  6. Eckel, Robert H., et al. "Dietary substitution of medium-chain triglycerides improves insulin-mediated glucose metabolism in NIDDM subjects." Diabetes 41.5 (1992): 641-647.
  7. St-Onge, Marie-Pierre, et al. "Consumption of a functional oil rich in phytosterols and medium-chain triglyceride oil improves plasma lipid profiles in men." The Journal of nutrition 133.6 (2003): 1815-1820.
  8. Li, Huizi, et al. "Medium-chain fatty acids decrease serum cholesterol via reduction of intestinal bile acid reabsorption in C57BL/6J mice." Nutrition & metabolism 15.1 (2018): 1-12.
  9. Song, Limin, et al. "NLRP3 inflammasome in neurological diseases, from functions to therapies." Frontiers in cellular neuroscience 11 (2017): 63.
  10. 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.
  11. Salim, Samina. "Oxidative stress and the central nervous system." Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics 360.1 (2017): 201-205.
  12. Messier, Claude, and Michèle Gagnon. "Glucose regulation and brain aging." JOURNAL OF NUTRITION HEALTH AND AGING 4.4 (2000): 208-213.
  13. Krikorian, Robert, et al. "Dietary ketosis enhances memory in mild cognitive impairment." Neurobiology of aging 33.2 (2012): 425-e19.
  14. Reger, Mark A., et al. "Effects of β-hydroxybutyrate on cognition in memory-impaired adults." Neurobiology of aging 25.3 (2004): 311-314.
  15. Cunha, Carla, Riccardo Brambilla, and Kerrie L. Thomas. "A simple role for BDNF in learning and memory?." Frontiers in molecular neuroscience 3 (2010): 1.
  16. Kim, Sang Woo, Krisztina Marosi, and Mark Mattson. "Ketone beta-hydroxybutyrate up-regulates BDNF expression through NF-κB as an adaptive response against ROS, which may improve neuronal bioenergetics and enhance neuroprotection (P3. 090)." (2017): P3-090.
  17. Stubbs, Brianna J., et al. "A ketone ester drink lowers human ghrelin and appetite." Obesity 26.2 (2018): 269-273.
  18. Chearskul, Supornpim, et al. "Effect of weight loss and ketosis on postprandial cholecystokinin and free fatty acid concentrations." The American journal of clinical nutrition 87.5 (2008): 1238-1246.
  19. St-Onge, M. P., and P. J. H. Jones. "Greater rise in fat oxidation with medium-chain triglyceride consumption relative to long-chain triglyceride is associated with lower initial body weight and greater loss of subcutaneous adipose tissue." International journal of obesity 27.12 (2003): 1565-1571.
Takeuchi, Hiroyuki, et al. "The application of medium-chain fatty acids: edible oil with a suppressing effect on body fat accumulation." Asia Pacific journal of clinical nutrition 17 (2008).

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