MCT oil is everywhere right now because companies and trend-setters say it's a brain-nourishing oil that can make you thin while turning you into a better athlete. MCT oil is an essential ingredient in a morning cup of “bulletproof coffee” and it’s a popular supplement for people on the ketogenic diet...
...plus it’s also the base oil in high-quality CBD oil products, including Wellness Tonic as well as Pleasure and Awaken Arousal Oil with CBD (and it may be the secret behind the rapid absorption of these products).
But what is MCT and why is it so popular? This article has all the information you need on why so many people love it, how it works with our bodies, the science that supports it, as well as some advice & precautions if you’re looking to boost your intake of MCTs (medium-chain triglycerides).
What is MCT Oil?
Olive oil comes from olives and avocado oil comes from avocados, but there’s obviously no such thing as an MCT plant. Instead of describing its source, MCT describes the structure of the oil molecules: Medium-Chain Triglycerides.
Medium-Chain Triglycerides are a type of oil molecule found in naturally-occurring fats. “Triglyceride” is just the scientific term for fat and oil molecules. We rate the size of a triglyceride based on how many carbon atoms it contains. These carbons are all lined up like beads on a string, or links in a “Chain.” Most fats and oils primarily contain Long-Chain Triglycerides (LCT) which have 14 or more carbon atoms, while MCTs have Medium-sized chains (containing 6 to 12 carbon atoms). Why is this important?
Why Molecule Size Matters
It might seem like a small difference, (after all, carbon atoms are tiny!) but MCT vs LCT makes a huge difference in our bodies.
Everyone knows that oil and water don’t mix, but that’s not entirely true. There’s actually a spectrum of how hydro-phobic oils are. The larger the oil molecule, the more stubborn the oil is about “not mixing” with water. And the less our food mixes with water, the harder it becomes for our water-based bodies to digest and absorb it.
Normally, when we consume fats and oils, our bodies cannot digest LCTs without the aid of bile and tiny fat packages (called chylomicrons) that help the LCTs travel around in our water-based circulatory systems. These little packages distribute the LCTs throughout our bodies — and they’re often stored as body fat.
On the other hand, MCTs are small enough that they blend easily into water, so their fatty acids don’t need the extra assistance. Our digestive tracts can send them straight into our bloodstreams (via the portal vein). This means that when we consume MCT oil, those calories catch an express train to the liver and beyond, where the fat is much more likely to be converted into energy instead of being stored as body fat.
This difference between how our bodies metabolize long- and medium-chain triglycerides is the basis of most of the health claims behind MCT oil. Some of the most common claims include:
- Improved cognitive function
- Weight loss
- Improved athletic performance
- Greater success with a ketogenic diet
Health Benefits of MCT: The Research
That all sounds great, but how much evidence is there that the benefits are legitimate? We’ve put together the science so you can judge best for yourself.
Weight loss? Good Evidence *with caveat.
There are two main reasons why people claim MCT oil can help you lose weight.
Weight loss reason 1: MCT oil might boost your body’s ability to burn calories. A 24-hour study of healthy young men who consumed ~2 tablespoons of MCT oil found they burned an extra 120 calories compared to those who consumed a dosage of 2 tbsp LCT. A similar 27-day study of overweight women found they burned nearly 50 calories extra per day when they substituted 50% of their fats with MCT oil. Beyond these studies, numerous rodent experiments have demonstrated the same thing: MCT oil helps us burn more calories and gain less body fat.
Weight loss reason 2: MCT oil is also reported to make people feel more full and choose to consume fewer calories. A few human studies have reported similar findings; that a little MCT oil in the morning reduces hunger throughout the day. However, a similar number of studies have found no effect on hunger, so this theory is currently a work in progress.
Weight loss caveat: Even if both these reasons are true, the danger with taking MCT oil to lose weight is that it is a source of dietary calories. One tablespoon contains 130 calories of saturated fat — more than it tells the body to burn. Extra MCT oil every day (without changing anything else in your diet) means extra calories every day. MCT oil works best in a weight loss plan if you consider it a calorie replacement instead of a supplement.
Ketone Booster? Yes.
For those of us on the ketogenic diet — a very low-carb diet that stimulates our bodies to generate ketones — MCT oil can be a great support. For anyone unfamiliar with ketones, they are the energetic currency our livers produce from fat when we run out of glycogen, which happens during fasting, intense exercise or on a low-carb diet. When people on a ketogenic diet consume a high ratio of MCT:LCT oil, they can also consume more nutritious fruits and vegetables while maintaining high ketone levels. And even without joining the ketogenic bandwagon, you can temporarily boost your ketone levels with a dose of MCT oil in the morning after an overnight fast, aka “sleep.”
Cognitive Function Booster? Maybe.
Your brain uses more energy than any other organ in your body, and feeding it enough to keep those neurons firing can sometimes be a struggle. One hurdle to keeping your brain well-fed is a heavily guarded gate called the blood-brain barrier that separates your brain from the main bloodstream. The only types of energy that can easily gain entry across this gate are glucose and ketones.
Unfortunately, as we age, some regions of our brains become less effective at taking up the glucose they need — which might be linked to cognitive decline. On the other hand, those same regions have no problem taking up ketones — if they’re around.
Experiments have found that MCT supplements increase ketone levels and boost cognitive performance in aged dogs. This finding has many people excited about the prospect of using ketones and ketogenic diets to manage Alzheimer’s disease, but the subject is still hotly debated.
Athletic Enhancer? This might be a stretch.
Some people claim that since MCT can be readily converted into a carbohydrate-independent energy source, it could help your body perform better. A study supporting this benefit found that athletes taking a daily teaspoon of MCT oil had reduced lactate build-up and less exhaustion during intense exercise. However, evidence in favor of MCT boosting athletic performance has plenty of criticism and is generally discredited.
Natural — and Sustainable — sources of MCT oil
MCTs are everywhere in nature. Babies consume a lot of MCTs, because breast milk and many infant formulas contain between 5-20% medium-chain triglycerides. As we grow, our MCT consumption often drops because most of the fats in our plant and animal food sources have minimal MCTs, with a few exceptions.
Dairy products can still be good sources of MCTs, but coconut oil and palm kernel oil contain up to 50% medium-chain triglycerides. However, the environmental ethics of oil palms are a disaster (destroying virgin rainforest for palm plantations).
Coconut, on the other hand, tends to be grown more sustainably, often in small-holder food forests that preserve habitat and biodiversity. Coconut is also celebrated as an excellent source of dietary MCTs, and has surged in popularity as a “health food.”
However, natural sources of MCTs are also naturally high in saturated fats. If you want to boost your intake of MCTs while minimizing your saturated fat intake, you might try switching from pure coconut oil to concentrated MCT oil. Just make sure your MCT is sourced from coconuts, not palm kernel oil.
Why CBD Comes in Carrier Oils
If you own a bottle of CBD oil, you may have noticed that the main ingredient is not cannabis oil, but some other edible oil. Although you can purchase hemp seed oil, cannabidiol (CBD) is only found in mature cannabis plants, not the seeds. That’s why the most important molecules found in cannabis – CBD, THC and the full spectrum of other cannabinoids – are not in hemp seed oil.
Instead, cannabinoids need to be extracted from the plant’s leaves and flowers, and then these potent molecules are typically dissolved in an edible oil. Why? A 20mg serving of CBD isolate is equivalent to a few grains of sand. Dissolving CBD in oil (it’s fat-soluble and can’t be dissolved in water) helps you take accurate doses of CBD with a standard dropper.
MCT Enhances Absorption of CBD
Not only does oil help with dosing, but oil also helps our bodies absorb more CBD. Our bodies need dietary fat to help us absorb everything from fat-soluble vitamins to therapeutic molecules like cannabidiol.
This is the same reason why a nice dose of olive oil or a fatty salad dressing helps us absorb more vitamins from salads. Otherwise, these molecules can pass through the digestive tract without ever truly entering the body.
MCT oil is a particularly great match for CBD because it is absorbed by the body so quickly. And many people who take an MCT-based CBD oil report feeling the beneficial effects of CBD much sooner than compared to standard CBD oils. However, any scientific evidence supporting this or explaining why is still years to come.
MCT & CBD: A Perfect Match?
Additionally, some of the reported health benefits of CBD and MCT oil share a surprising overlap. For instance, some preliminary evidence suggests that CBD could also help increase metabolism. And one of the most promising applications of CBD is its potential role in treating Alzheimer’s Disease.
Adding MCT to Your Diet
If you’re looking to boost your daily MCT intake by more than what you’ll find in a dropperful of CBD oil, we’ve got some advice for you:
- Make sure your MCT is certified organic and sourced from coconut, not palm oil.
- Start slow. Most people love a daily dose of MCT oil, but if your body’s not used to metabolizing MCTs, you need to give it some time to adjust. Start with one teaspoon or less per day. If all goes well, gradually increase your dose every few days or so.
- If you don’t start slow, you could experience side effects like gas, abdominal pain, diarrhea or other digestive issues. You have been warned!
- If your goal is weight loss or ketone production, take it in the morning as part of a low-carb breakfast. For instance, most people love substituting a typical breakfast with bulletproof coffee — coffee blended with butter and MCT oil. Your body is much more likely to shift into ketone production when MCT oil is taken in the morning after an overnight fast.
- If you want to find out if MCT oil improves your exercise performance, you might also try consuming it mixed with a little food 30-60 minutes before working out. However, there are no official guidelines, so feel free to experiment!
- MCT oil has a smoke point of 320 degrees, which means you should generally avoid cooking with it. These little molecules are easily broken down by our bodies — and heat!
- Even if it’s shelf-stable, you might want to store it in the refrigerator. Don’t worry — unlike most oils and fats, MCT oil will remain liquid even when refrigerated.
- Purchase MCT oil in a glass bottle or transfer it to a clean, sterile glass container. The plasticizers used in plastic bottles are fat-soluble, and plastic bottles will slowly leach unwanted chemicals into the MCT oil over time (true for all oils!).
- If you’re taking MCT CBD oil, a standard dropperful contains approximately 1/15 of a tablespoon, or just under 10 calories.
Written by: Genevieve R. Moore PhD