Coconut and MCT oils may have nootropic properties. The idea of bulletproof coffee and the introduction of “healthy” fats into the modern western diet are increasing as research and interest on nootropic substances increases.
Among others, the benefits include increased energy and overall cognitive function, decreased stress, and even weight loss. Coconut and MCT oil have also been shown to be beneficial in minimizing symptoms related to Alzheimer’s disease and epilepsy.
But, what exactly is MCT oil, and how does it act as a nootropic?
What Is Coconut Oil?
Coconut oil is a fatty oil that is extracted from mature coconuts. Coconut oil has grown in popularity in recent years, with many people using it in sweets, smoothies, coffees, and a wide range of other foods. It has also become a common ingredient in make-up, shampoos, and other beauty products.
What Is MCT Oil?
A large proportion of coconut oil is made up of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs). MCT oil is, therefore, an oil supplement made entirely from these fatty acids that are found in coconut oil. MCT oil is largely used for people wanting to undergo weight loss or as a supplement to increase the effectiveness of a workout (1). Recently, MCTs have become a popular health alternative and people are incorporating this powerful oil more and more into their diets for numerous reasons.
The nootropic benefits of MCTs are something that has been researched a lot more over the past five years. Many diets have started to incorporate high MCT levels and there is also an increasing number of MCT oil supplements available. The world is, therefore, beginning to recognize the potential of MCT oils on brain function and overall health.
The Main MCTs
There are four main MCTs, that differ in the number of carbon chains attached to the fatty acids. These are C6, C8, C10, and C12 (2). All four of these are found in coconut oil and have been shown to exhibit nootropic benefits in people.
The main four MCTs are outlined below:
- C6 – Caproic Acid: C6 is a fatty acid with six carbon chains attached. It is commonly broken down into ketone bodies, which can provide direct fuel to the brain.
- C8 – Caprylic Acid: C8 is made up of eight carbons attached to the fatty acid. There are only small amounts of this MCT found in coconut oil, but it has been shown to improve energy metabolism.
- C10 – Capric Acid: C10 has 10 carbon chains attached. It is one of the easiest MCTs to digest and therefore provides readily available energy to fuel the body.
- C12 – Lauric Acid: C12 has 12 carbons attached and makes up approximately half of the coconut oil. As the largest, it has to pass through the liver in order to be metabolized, making it slightly less effective than the other MCTs.
MCTs As A Nootropics
MCTs have become increasingly popular nootropics in recent years. More and more research has gone into the impacts of MCTs on brain health and function.
There are four key areas that have been found to be improved by the introduction of MCT supplements into the diet, which include:
- Cognitive function
- Weight control
The primary nootropic properties of MCTs coming from their ability to produce large bursts of energy in order to fuel the brain. MCT oils do not need to enter the lymphatic system and are easily passed from the gut to the liver, where they can be metabolized (3). This means that having MCT oils in your morning coffee will allow for a quick energy boost to start your day.
The main reason they promote “brain energy” is because MCT oils are metabolized into ketones (4). Ketones are one of the many sources of fuel in the body, however, unlike other fuels, ketones have the ability to fuel the brain (5). The brain is unable to utilize fat as a primary fuel source, something that other parts of the body (including muscle) are able to do (5, 6). The brain is also unable to store energy, therefore it relies heavily on daily food intake to function (5, 6). The brain can rely on ketones for approximately 70% of its energy requirements given an insufficient consumption of carbohydrates. This is because ketones have the ability to pass the blood-brain barrier (7).
The blood-brain barrier is a membrane that separates the blood, the body’s key transport system, from the brain. It is a selective barrier that only lets certain molecules pass through it in order to keep the brain safe from dangerous agents being transported in the blood (8). Ketones have the ability to cross this barrier, meaning they are the major fuel source for brain cells (7).
This is therefore why MCT oils are known to promote brain energy. Through being broken down into ketones, they produce the ability to directly power and energize the brain. When the brain cells are receiving a lot of energy in the form of ketones, every cell interaction and energy process is amplified (4). This, therefore, correlates to increased alertness and memory function.
One study in Quebec, Canada looked into ketone levels following MCT oil ingestion (9). Participants were given MCT supplements over a month and ketone levels were measured both before and after supplementation. The researchers found that ketone levels increased in participants post-MCT use compared to before. This proved that MCT oil produces ketones, a known key fuel for the brain. The researchers also concluded that the supplementation had no side effects for healthy individuals who regularly consumed a western diet.
As ketones are known to have the potential to act as the brain’s primary source of fuel, an increase in ketones naturally means that the brain is receiving more energy and is able to function to a higher level. This, therefore, correlates to the increased energy, memory and overall cognitive function benefits seen in those who utilize MCT oils.
MCTs have also been shown to decrease stress, as they are known to have high levels of antioxidants. Oxidative stress in the brain is when there is the formation of “free radicals”. Free radicals are constantly formed throughout the body, but when they are present in high number they cause oxidative stress. This stress has been linked to numerous diseases including cancer, arthritis, and other neurodegenerative diseases (10).
Most molecules have an even number of negative and positive charges. Therefore, the charges balance and the molecules are deemed neutral. The formation of free radicals is when molecules lose or gain one of their negative charges, meaning they have an overall charge. This charge can then react with other molecules in the body, causing potential destruction. This is especially an issue when these free radicals interact with DNA, causing it to alter which potentially leads to health issues (11).
The obvious way to counter this issue is to introduce another molecule into the body that can bind to these free radicals and neutralize them. This is the role of antioxidants (11). Antioxidants are natural molecules that have the ability to bind to free radicals in the body and neutralize them. MCT oils are high in antioxidants, therefore containing the appropriate molecules to bind to free radicals and minimize oxidative stress in the brain.
A study in Malaysia looked into the potential antioxidant and anti-stress properties of MCT oils (12). The researchers induced stress injuries in mice to assess the effects of MCTs on this response. MCTs were shown to restore oxidative stress in these mice compared to normal. Additionally, mice receiving MCTs were shown to produce a higher level of antioxidants in the brain. This higher level of antioxidants is able to minimize free radicals, further minimizing oxidative stress in the brain. The researchers concluded that this “suggests the potential value of VCO (virgin coconut oil) as an anti-stress functional oil”.
Another study done in India reinforces the findings of the Malaysian researchers. Lab rats were fed an MCT high diet for 45 days and the antioxidant levels were assessed following the experimentation period (13). This study found that levels of antioxidants were increased in mice that received the MCT supplements and the researchers concluded that it is “beneficial as an antioxidant”.
These studies show promise for MCT oils as antioxidants to reduce oxidative stress and allow for optimized overall brain function.
MCT oils have also been shown to improve overall cognitive function. Through providing ketones for the brain, MCT oils are able to improve overall cognitive function and memory. Providing this increased fuel source for the brain allows cells to act to their full potential. So, instead of just feeling energized, you will also be functioning at a higher level.
This has even been proven in health conditions that are associated with mental and memory impairment. An example of this is Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s disease is a degenerative cognitive disease that is characterized by memory loss, personality changes, disorientation, dementia, and overall decreased cognitive function (14).
Although there are still debates within the scientific community about the cause of Alzheimer’s disease, the primary consensus is that it is caused by the formation of amyloid-beta peptides in the brain, which aggregate to form plaques. Amyloid-beta plaques are formed by proteases cleaving amyloid precursor protein (15). The formation of these plaques leads to irreversible neurological damage. Unfortunately, there is no current cure for Alzheimer’s, and the disease gets progressively worse with age.
There is some preliminary research into the potential benefits of MCT oils on the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease. Some early mice studies have found that ketones from MCT oils decrease the toxic effects induced by amyloid-beta plaques (16). While the exact mechanism of action is not yet clear, there are a number of promising findings in this area.
A study at the University of Newfoundland compared the effects of MCT oils on cortical neurons treated with amyloid-beta plaques in vitro versus a control group that did not receive MCT oils (16). They found that the application of MCT oils resulted in overall increased neuron survival when compared to the control group. This pilot study shows promise for the future of Alzheimer’s disease and the aging population, as well as the potential benefits of MCT oils.
Another study, this time undertaken in mice, also supports these claims. This study looked at the role of ketones in Alzheimer’s disease (17). Mice were separated into two groups – one being fed a ketone heavy diet, and one receiving a carbohydrate diet. The results showed that mice receiving ketone heavy diets demonstrated reduced anxiety and increased memory and learning performances. Additionally, the amount of amyloid-beta plaques in the brain were reduced in the ketone-fed mice. This means that ketones have a protective potential against the development of Alzheimer’s disease. As MCT oils are broken down into ketones that can be used by the body, this study demonstrates that MCT oils also have a potential protective action against the disease.
Another potential benefit of MCT oils is for the treatment and management of epilepsy. Epilepsy is a neurological disorder characterized by seizures and is commonly seen in children (18). It is the most common brain disorder worldwide.
Recent studies have looked into the potential benefits of MCT oils and ketogenic diets on children suffering from epilepsy. A study on children with epilepsy that were resistant to normal treatments looked at the potential benefits of an MCT heavy diet (19). 50 children were given MCT diets, with some also being prescribed anticonvulsant medication concurrently. While 16% achieved complete control of their seizures, over 90% had the frequency of their seizures also reduced. MCT oils therefore also have the potential to aid in epilepsy and seizure control.
Side Effects And Contraindications
There are no known significant side effects accompany the use of MCTs (20). There have been some reports of minimal side effects including vomiting, diarrhea, nausea and stomach discomfort, however, most of these are known to be minimized when MCTs are taken with food.
Additionally, MCT oils are not recommended for pregnant women as there is not enough research to confirm or deny an interaction. Lastly, as MCTs are processed by the liver, it is recommended that people with liver diseases do not consume MCTs.
All of this information is great, but what can you actually do to reap the benefits?
Whether you are a healthy individual or suffering from one of the many disorders that MCT oils claim to aid in, you can try it.
High-MCT and ketone diets have been all the rage in recent years. The impact of foods that produce high levels of ketones is becoming more and more recognized throughout both the scientific and lay communities. While many of the research focuses on weight loss, there are clearly a number of neurological benefits associated with MCT oils.
Trying out one of these diets, or just incorporating more MCT oils into your diet is a great way to see if you benefit from the nootropic effects. Alternatively, a number of companies now offer MCT oils in the form of a supplement. This could be another great option for seeing if these nootropics are right for you.
Exogenous ketone supplements can also be another way to directly fuel your brain with the ketone body beta hydroxybutyrate (BHB), which is the ketone primarily responsible for the potential cognitive benefits of ketones.
One thing that is becoming increasingly popular in the western world is “bulletproof coffee”. This is a normal coffee supplemented with MCT oils to give you the best kick start to your morning. Imagine how much easier mornings would be if you could activate your brain through both caffeine and the nootropic qualities found in MCT oils. Many cafes are now even offering this as a regular alternative to your normal morning coffee.
There are therefore a number of ways to incorporate MCT oils into your lifestyle and see if you see any cognitive and neurological improvements in your everyday life. As there is also no significant side effects, there is no reason to not give this a go and see how it makes you feel and function.
MCTs, found in coconut oil, show some evident nootropic benefits in humans. Arguably the most important feature is their ability to metabolize into ketones. Ketones, and especially the ketone BHB) are an incredibly potent source of energy for the brain, therefore, increasing ketone levels can also increase brain function and energy.
As well as this, MCTs increase the levels of antioxidants in the brain. This allows them to have an anti-stress effect, minimizing the presence of free radicals. This is important in maintaining brain health as well as minimizing the potential disease development.
MCTs have also been proven to improve cognitive function in both healthy individuals, as well as those suffering from conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and epilepsy.
As well as this there are no known significant side effects, meaning that MCT oil is safe to use and try as a nootropic.
Philip Ghezelbash is passionate about nootropics and presenting complex science in an easy to digest manner. As an ex-personal trainer, science graduate, best-selling author, and freelance writer, Philip has helped educate millions of curious people around the world about science-based health, nutrition, and fitness.