MCT Oil: Benefits, Usage, and Side Effects

The popular dietary advice on fatty acid intake has been to take more unsaturated (healthy) fat and reduce trans and saturated fat. But recently, a type of saturated fat called MCTs is healthy. Some research studies have associated certain health benefits with MCTs, such as increased energy and improved brain function. MCT oil is a dietary supplement made of these fats.

Key takeaways:
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    MCT oil is a synthetic oil that contains medium-chain fatty acids.
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    More studies are needed to rate the benefits and effects of MCT oil.
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    MCT oil may boost energy, help with weight loss, support digestion, improve brain function and lower cholesterol.
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    It is considered generally safe, but avoid it if you are pregnant, lactating, diabetic, or have liver disease.

What is MCT oil?

MCT oil is a dietary supplement composed of MCT fats, which are fats present in dairy products, coconut oil, and palm kernel oil.

Fatty acids are made up of carbon chains, and the number of carbons in a chain classifies them. This leads to classification into short chains (<6 carbons), medium-chain (between 6 to 12 carbons), and long chains (more than 12 carbons) fatty acids. MCT (Medium-chain triglycerides) is a type of saturated fatty acid that contains medium-chain fatty acids.

MCT oil is perishable and would go bad eventually. However, it has a long shelf life and stays in a good state when stored under favorable conditions. Changes in color, taste, or rancid odor indicate that the oil has gone bad and is unfit for consumption.

How is MCT oil different from other oils?

What distinguishes MCT oil from other oils is how it is quickly metabolized, absorbed, and used in the body. The majority of other fatty acids need to be digested by the bile and enzyme secreted by the pancreas, and then they move into the lymphatic system before they are transported to the liver. MCT oil does not require digestion by the bile and pancreatic enzyme.

It is also directly absorbed in the small intestine and transported to the liver. This is why your body can readily use it as an instant source of energy.

Other oils, which are good sources of medium-chain triglycerides, can be used to replace MCT oil. These include coconut oil and palm kernel oil. Coconut oil is the closest option that you can use to substitute MCT oil. It contains 63-65% medium-chain triglycerides.

MCT oil vs. coconut oil

MCT oil is a 100% source of medium-chain fatty acids. It mainly contains capric or caprylic acid, while coconut oil contains more lauric acid (47%).

MCT oil has a low smoke point which makes it less suitable for cooking, while coconut oil has a high smoke point and is more ideal than MCT oil for cooking.

MCT oil is more suitable for a ketogenic diet than coconut oil. It is easily converted to ketones by the body for energy compared to coconut oil. This is because coconut oil has more lauric acid content, which is the least ketogenic medium-chain triglyceride.

Coconut oil has less tendency to control appetite compared to MCT oil.

MCT oil vs. olive oil

Olive oil contains many long-chain fatty acids, such as oleic acid and stearic acid. They do not get metabolized as quickly as medium-chain fatty acids. As a result, olive oil will not serve as a readily available energy source as MCT oil does.

Olive oil's smoke point is higher than MCT oil's. It has a smoke point of 163°C, while MCT oil has a smoke point of 130°C. This makes olive oil more suitable for cooking and deep frying.

Olive oil is richer in antioxidants than MCT oil. Antioxidants play a role in preventing cell damage.

Health benefits of MCT oil

Some potential health benefits of MCT oil include the following:

  • Increased energy;
  • Helps with weight loss;
  • Optimized digestion and improved gut health;
  • Improved brain function;
  • Improved heart health by lowering cholesterol.

It is essential to speak with your healthcare professional before adding this supplement to your diet and to stick with the dose advised by your healthcare provider.

Helps with weight loss

Although some studies have shown no correlation between MCT oil and weight loss, other studies' results showed a positive relationship between the two. Further studies are required to confirm the actual relationship between MCT oil and metabolic rate.

MCT oil can help to control appetite in individuals who want to lose weight. It has been shown to increase the production of leptin and peptide YY, hormones that give the feeling of fullness, thereby controlling appetite. When used to lose weight, the recommended dose of MCT oil is usually not more than a tablespoon and should be taken one hour before meals.

Increased energy

Other types of fatty acids are stored in the body and used as energy in the ketone form when glucose is absent. However, MCT oil is not stored in the body as fats because it is easily broken down and converted to energy. The shorter a fatty acid carbon chain, the easier and faster it is digested, absorbed, and used up as an energy source.

MCT oil has been demonstrated to enhance endurance and has become quite popular among athletes and bodybuilders who use it to boost exercise performance.

If you are on a keto diet or an intermittent fast, MCT oil will not break a fast because it does not get digested like other oils and will not be stored as fat. It can even serve as a good energy support to help you get to the finish line.

Supports digestion

Our digestive system has a large population of healthy bacteria that help us strengthen the gut barrier and prevent the invasion of dangerous microorganisms. MCT oil has been shown to promote the growth of these bacteria. This helps to optimize digestion and prevent digestive problems such as bloating, constipation, and diarrhea.

In a three-week study, MCT oil was found to reduce gastrointestinal candida infection in preterm babies.

However, you should note that when taken in large doses, MCT oil can cause vomiting, nausea, and diarrhea. Therefore you should stick to the dose recommended by your healthcare provider to avoid gastrointestinal disturbances.

May lower cholesterol

Research results on the effect of MCT oil on cholesterol levels have shown that it may decrease the levels of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL), known as bad cholesterol and increase the level of high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL), the good cholesterol.

A study demonstrated that MCT oil positively affected the lipid profile by lowering total cholesterol. It also significantly lowered LDL cholesterol, which is called bad cholesterol, because of its effect on cardiovascular health. LDL cholesterol forms plaque in blood vessels (arteries) which builds up and affects blood flow. This increases your risk of peripheral artery disease, heart attack, and stroke.

However, some studies have shown no effect on cholesterol levels. Therefore the actual effect isn't definitive and requires more research studies.

Improves brain function

Ketones from MCT breakdown can serve as an energy source for the brain. There are claims that it makes the mind sharper, although this was only demonstrated in people with cognitive disorders.

MCT oil has been reported to impact brain function, particularly learning and memory. In a pilot study conducted on Alzheimer's disease patients, researchers found that MCT oil increased cognitive function in people with mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease. However, due to limitations in the study, the result might not be dependable. Hence, further studies are needed.

Where to use MCT oil

MCT oil is available in capsules as supplements for people who want to augment their diet. Alternatively, there is the powdered form which is the dried form of the oil. MCT oil is not suitable for cooking because of its low smoke point, but you can use it in foods that do not need heating.

MCT oil is tasteless and odorless, so you do not need to worry about taste or flavor change. If you are interested in incorporating MCT oil into your diet, you can do so by:

  • Adding it to your salad dressing, smoothies, protein shakes, fruit juices, or beverages.
  • MCT oil can be used as a carrier oil in aromatherapy and massage therapy and in cosmetology as a non-greasy, non-comedogenic emollient.

Can you use MCT oil in coffee?

Yes. Examples of coffee recipes with MCT oil include biohacker’s coffee, bulletproof coffee, and other keto coffee recipes. It can give you a quick boost of energy when added to your coffee in the morning and after breaking a fast.

Adding MCT oil to coffee helps you feel fuller and reduces your chances of wanting to eat three hours after taking the coffee. This makes coffee with MCT oil a great addition to the ketogenic diet and can significantly help if you’re just transitioning.

MCT oil side effects

MCT oil is generally considered safe and is tolerated quite well by most people. Mild side effects that have been reported include gastrointestinal issues such as abdominal pain, diarrhea, vomiting, and nausea. However, this is common when you start taking too much MCT oil as a beginner. You can reduce gastrointestinal problems associated with MCT oil by taking it with food and starting from a small dose before gradually increasing it. For example, start with one teaspoon and gradually increase it to one tablespoon.

If pregnant or breastfeeding, it is advisable to avoid using MCT oil because its safety profile has not yet been adequately assessed.

MCT oil should also be avoided by diabetic patients, especially when it is uncontrolled, because of the risk of ketoacidosis caused by the accumulation of ketones in the body.

The liver metabolizes MCTs; therefore, people with liver problems such as liver cirrhosis should avoid it.

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