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The Science Behind MCT Oil: How It Works in the Body

Medically reviewed by 
The Science Behind MCT Oil: How It Works in the Body

Medium-Chain Triglyceride (MCT) oil has gained popularity as a supplement, especially among ketogenic dieters, athletes, and those seeking cognitive and weight management benefits. MCT oil is celebrated for its ability to rapidly provide energy, support fat metabolism, and promote ketone production in the body. 

This article explores how MCT oil works in the body and its potential health advantages, including improved cognitive function, athletic performance, and metabolic support. Understanding MCT oil's mechanisms and benefits can help individuals make informed decisions about its incorporation into their daily routines.


What is MCT Oil?

Medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) are a type of saturated fat primarily derived from coconut oil and palm kernel oil. They are also found in dairy products like butter and cheese to some extent. These fats are metabolized more quickly and efficiently in the body compared to long-chain fatty acids found in most dietary fats, providing a rapid source of energy. 

Composition of MCT Oil

MCT oil primarily consists of medium-chain triglycerides, containing 6-12 carbon molecules compared to long-chain fats that contain more than 12 molecules. 

The most common forms of medium-chain triglycerides in MCTs found in supplements are caprylic acid (C8), and capric acid (C10) which are rapidly metabolized in the body to produce energy. MCT oil may also contain other medium-chain fatty acids like caproic acid (C6) and lauric acid (C12).

Absorption and Metabolism of MCTs

Rapid Digestion

While long-chain triglycerides (LCTs) are absorbed into the lymphatic system and undergo more complex digestion and metabolism, MCTs shorter chain length allows them to be absorbed via the portal system, bypassing the lymphatic system and reaching the liver more quickly. This allows MCTs to be absorbed more rapidly and directly enter into the bloodstream without the need for bile salts or pancreatic enzymes. 

Liver Processing

Once transported to the liver, MCTs are rapidly metabolized to produce energy through beta-oxidation or converted into ketones, serving as an efficient fuel source for the body and brain. This unique absorption and metabolism pathway makes MCTs a readily available source of energy.

Ketone Production and Its Benefits


In ketogenesis, the body can break down fats and ketogenic amino acids to produce water-soluble ketones. MCT oil provides a readily available source of medium-chain triglycerides, which are quickly metabolized into ketones in the liver. 

MCT is particularly beneficial in ketogenic diets for enhancing ketone production since the body relies on ketones for fuel in the absence of carbohydrates. These ketones provide an energy source for the brain and muscles.

Cognitive and Athletic Benefits

Ketones serve as an alternative energy source for the brain and muscles, crossing the blood-brain barrier to provide fuel for the brain and supporting endurance and energy levels during physical activity. 

The boost in ketone production facilitated by MCT oil consumption is associated with cognitive benefits such as improved memory, focus, and mental clarity.

Research also shows that MCT oil can boost performance in endurance athletes, as ketones provide a sustained source of energy during prolonged physical activity, improving endurance, stamina, and overall athletic performance.

MCT Oil and Weight Management

MCT oil may support weight management through several mechanisms, such as: 

Energy Expenditure

MCT oil may increase energy expenditure and fat oxidation, leading to greater calorie burning. This effect may support weight loss efforts by enhancing the body's ability to utilize fat as a source of fuel.

Appetite Suppression

MCT oil also impacts appetite-regulating hormones like leptin and ghrelin. This can lead to feelings of greater fullness and reduced caloric intake resulting in weight loss over time.

Health Benefits Beyond Energy

Beyond energy support, MCT oil offers additional health benefits due to its unique properties. 

Impact on Heart Health

Some studies indicate that MCTs that are rich in coconut oil may have positive effects on lipid profiles, including raising HDL (good) cholesterol levels and improving the ratio of HDL to LDL (bad) cholesterol compared to some other plant oils. These effects may help reduce cardiovascular disease risk factors and promote overall heart health.

Antimicrobial Properties

MCTs possess antimicrobial and antifungal properties, particularly due to the presence of lauric acid. These properties make MCTs helpful for balancing gut flora, supporting digestive health, and combating pathogens such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi. 

Safe Use and Potential Side Effects

Recommended Dosage

The recommended use and daily dosage of MCT oil can vary depending on individual health goals and tolerance levels. To avoid gastrointestinal distress, it is generally advised to start with small doses, such as 1-2 teaspoons per day, and gradually increase to 1-3 tablespoons daily.

Since MCT oil is odorless, flavorless, and has a light texture, it is ideal for blending into beverages like coffee and smoothies and adding to recipes like salad dressings without altering the taste or texture. 

Side Effects

In some people, MCT oil consumption can induce gastrointestinal distress, such as diarrhea, stomach cramps, or bloating, especially when starting with higher doses. Consuming MCT oil with food and starting with small doses and gradually increasing intake over time can allow the body to adjust. Additionally, choosing a high-quality MCT oil and ensuring proper hydration can further support digestive tolerance.


Key Takeaways

  • MCT oil is derived from coconut oil, palm kernel oil, and dairy products and contains medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) like caprylic acid (C8) and capric acid (C10).
  • Because of its structure, MCT oil is rapidly absorbed and transported to the liver. 
  • This allows MCT oil to be converted into ketones for rapid energy production.
  • It also promotes fat oxidation and favorably influences appetite-regulating hormones.
  • MCT oil’s diverse benefits include improved cognitive function, athletic performance, weight management support, potential cardiovascular benefits, and antimicrobial properties.
  • For those interested in ketogenic diets, cognitive enhancement, or weight management, incorporating MCT oil into their diet may offer advantages, however, moderation and adherence to recommended dosages are crucial to minimize side effects and optimize benefits.
The information provided is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always consult with your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider before taking any dietary supplement or making any changes to your diet or exercise routine.
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