MCT’s. A Functional Fat For Health & Performance?
Fats, as I am sure you know, come in saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated forms. With the category of saturated fats, there are 15 different fatty acids, categorised by short chain, medium chain and long chain. Far from arbitrary delineations, these categories are based on how these different fats behave once inside your body. The medium chain fast are particularly special in their behaviour, functions and strategic applications. They are so specifically useful, that we class them as a functional fat.
These fats can boost energy, are basically impossible to store, improve brain function, including improving symptoms of Alzheimers, epilepsy and cognitive decline, and can make dieting easier and possibly more effective.
Function & Physiology
What makes MCTs so special?
Absorption, treading their own path.
Most fats, when they get absorbed into the body, have to go to the liver before being used by peripheral tissues. As they are absorbed through the intestines, they are transported by the lymphatic system to the liver, where they are processed before becoming available in the blood. This allows the liver to use the right fats for the right functions and regulate fat levels in the blood to some degree. MCTs, quite uniquely, get absorbed directly into the blood and are immediately available for energy production. Because of this, they do not affect cholesterol levels and due to the form in which they get absorbed, are basically not storable. This leads to their rapid conversion into ketone bodies and use for energy production.
Respiration, no chaperone needed
For most fats, once they get to the cell and are to be used for energy production, require a shuttle bus to get them into the mitochondria (the energy factory of the cell). This chaperone system can be a rate limiting factor in energy production. This shuttle is an amino acid called carnetine. In some people, carnetine deficiency (sometimes caused by low meat consumption and sometimes caused by genetic diseases), can cause a very low capacity to burn fats for fuel, making the individual extremely dependent on glucose and manifesting in poor metabolic flexibility. Meaning they cannot burn fat efficiently and have fewer options when it comes to diet, making them reliant on frequent meals and carbohydrate heavy diets. MCTs have the unique ability to be able to run directly into cells without a chaperone. Making them very easy to turn into energy, the applications of which will be elucidated later.
Ketones, here we come
MCTs, because of their unique physiology in absorption and respiration, cause ketone bodies to rise quickly in the body after ingestion. This can have numerous uses as we will cover in the coming sections. From reducing hunger, to improving cognition, to reducing the occurrence of seizures in epileptics.
Clean energy, less ROS
Another huge advantage of metabolising MCT oils is that they are a very clean source of energy. When mitochondria respire glucose for energy, a by product is reactive oxygen species (ROS).
To be covered in more detail in coming articles, so only in brief here. ROS cause oxidation in the body, you may have heard of antioxidants, well they are good for us because they haunt oxidation. As oxidation occurs, it damages tissues throughout the body, damage enough tissue in an organ and the function of that organ becomes compromised. MCTs (and in fact all fats) produce far less ROS when metabolised than does glucose.
Double benefit for energy, mitochondrial biogenesis.
So not only do MCTs produce easy to use, ‘clean’ energy for the body very readily, but they also actually facilitate mitochondrial biogenesis. By making more mitochondria your are able to make more energy and mitochondrial density is correlated with health in myriad ways. There are two MCTs, designated C8 and C10 fatty acids. C8 is more effective than C10 at increasing ketone levels and directly producing energy, but C10 is the only one of the two that leads to increased mitochondrial biogenesis. Which is why I like to use a combination oil instead of the popular pure C8 oils available, which are very popular among those seeking augmented ketosis.
MCTs boost your mental and physical energy levels, how?
Two fuel sources are better than one
Simply put, if your cells have the choice of both glucose and ketones to use for energy, you can produce more total energy than if you’ve only got glucose. Furthermore, the brain actually functions very well on ketones, up to 25% more efficiently than on glucose, so the mental boost can be quite significant and appealing.
In the context of calorie restriction MCTs can provide a source of physical and mental energy that will not be in danger of bing stored. Because of their unique physiology described above, MCTS can mitigate hunger caused by restricting calories. As anyone who’s ever been in calorie restriction will tell you, hunger is the leading cause of diet failure and termination. So if you can decrease hunger while also supporting cognitive functioning and providing physical energy without risking storage of excess, you’re supporting your diet efforts in very efficacious ways.
In the context of maintenance calories, MCTs will again control hunger and energy levels, mitigating the two most common risk factors for unwanted digressions from your nutritional plan. In well controlled studies, scientists have given MCTs in a double blind manner to the study group and a placebo to the control group at breakfast. Then given various sham tasks for the morning and observed what participants ate at lunch. The MCT group consistently eats fewer total calories and less junk.
In the context of fasting MCTs are a great hack as they do not break the fast. If you put blood work that indicates metabolic state (such as blood sugar, triglycerides etc) next to one another with one from you fasted and one from you fasted except for a tablespoon of MCT, you could not tell the difference. In this, MCTs are quite unique. As such, you can maintain fasting physiology, but reduce hunger, improve cognitive performance (or at least mitigate any drop that may be caused by the fasting) and keep energy high.
MCTs can augment your diet efforts, heres how:
MCTs mitigate hunger. I have mentioned this effect a few times earlier in the section, so let’s take a closer look. One of the trigger of hunger is a dip in blood sugar. This can occur when eating either low calorie or infrequently (fasting). MCT, by raising ketones, can actually have a stabilising effect on blood sugar, as well a providing an alternative fuel source for cells. This leads to a balancing effect on hunger. If you are dieting or fasting, CT can therefore improve adherence through mitigating your hunger levels. One obvious benefit if that this can make fasting a lot easier, without technically breaking the fast. So if you’re choosing to fast for health reasons, including some MCT can make life a little smoother, both for you and those around you!
MCTs facilitate fat adaptation. Part of being metabolically healthy is be ing metabolically flexible. This means being able to switch between glucose and fats as your dominant energy source quickly and smoothly. People who have higher metabolic flexibility are healthier, less likely to be bound to frequent meals and have more options and freedom over their ideal diet. The problem is that a prolonged carbohydrate rich diet and a distinct lack of any time spent in the fasted state (read; eating carbs all three times per day for 30 years never going hungry for more than a few minutes), or the standard western diet, causes a reduction in metabolic flexibility and a diminished ability to utilise fat for fuel. The process of regaining your ability to utilise fats for fuel is a relatively short one, about ten days on average. and the process of becoming fully adept at utilising ketones takes about a month on a very low carbohydrate diet. Days two, three and four are quite hellish for a significant proportion of people. with low energy, low mood, rampant hunger and brain fog characterising the slump. Taking MCTs can ameliorate these symptoms hasten the process of ketogenesis (quicken production of your own ketones) and generally make your a more tolerable person for those few tough weeks.
Brain Health & Performance
MCTs bolster brain energy production
Brain energy production is critical for brain health. The brain takes up only one twentieth of your weight, but utilises one fifth of your energy over a typical day. By far the most costly organ to run, our powerful brains require huge amounts of our energy to function optimally. The brain will function up to 25% better on kettles than it will on glucose and providing the brain with a little of this energy source can have significant effects on mood, cognition and even brain health.
The brain actually runs better on ketones. One of the long term benefits of being in ketosis, or at least, providing ketones to the brain, is the ‘cleaner energy’ principle mentioned earlier. The brain is made from fats, a high percentage of the brain is precious omega 3 fat. Omega 3 is very delicate and easily oxidised. So when our brain mitochondria are producing ROS as a by product of metabolism, oxidative damage can be caused to the delicate fats that make up the brain quite readily. Obviously the body has mechanisms that deal with this damage. but a reduction in the production of ROS, even for a short period of time, makes it easier for the brain to take care of itself physiologically and maintain good health and function. Long term this could have significant effects on brain health, performance and even neurodegeneration.
Studies show that MCTs can improve symptoms and slow progression of Alzheimers. One of the hallmarks of Alzheimers disease is a reduction in the glycolytic capacity of the brain. (the brains mitochondria basically get out of shape and lose the ability to make energy from glucose) This leads to a deterioration of the brains ability to perform, due to a literal lack of chemical energy with which to work. Ketones, which can be provided by MCT oil, can help to improve symptoms and functioning in those suffering from Alzheimers through providing an alternative, easily metabolised and efficient energy source. This is not just theory. Intervention studies (enough for there to be multiple meta analysis) have shown beneficial effect of supplementing with MCT oil in patients with Alzheimers and other forms of cognitive decline.
MCT oil is a readily available functional fat that could help you improve energy, balance and control hunger, make fasting easier and potentially even make your brain healthier and in a higher gear.
In case you want to know. I use Hunter & Gatherer from ketosupplements.co.uk. (no financial affiliation, I make nothing from recommending these). I also rate the Keto8 oil if you’re searching for a pure C8 product. Again no affiliation.