Fuel Your Brain for Better Memory

You have over 80 billion brain cells (neurons) making 100 trillion connections to others consuming 22% of all the energy you derive from food. Since neurons are tightly packed together they can’t waste space and time breaking down fat to make energy, as muscle cells do. They need a direct injection of ‘five star’ fuel. That fuel is either glucose, which is what carbohydrates get digested down into, delivered by the blood stream, or ketones. If given the choice neurons prefer ketone fuel.

Watch this film – Fuel Your Brain for Better Memory

Ketones – The Alternative Brain Fuel

Most cells in the body can run on fat or glucose for energy. Fat, called a triglyceride, is shaped like an E – the vertical backbone is ‘glycerol’ which tastes sweet and can be processed into glucose and used for energy. The three prongs are fatty acids (for example omega-3 or 6). Muscle cells, for example, can use fatty acids for fuel. But brain cells cannot. They have to run on either glucose or ketones. Ketones are only made in the liver from certain kinds of fat called medium-chain-triglycerides (MCTs). Coconut, palm and olive oil are sources of MCTs. However, we’ve learnt that almost all ketones are made from a sub-fraction of these fats called C8 (short for carbon 8, or caprylic acid triglyceride, and 8 carbon chain fat).[1] Coconut oil is only 7% C8 while MCT oil, which you can buy in the health food store, is 12% C8. You’re better off getting pure C8 oil if you want to supply your brain with ketones.

Babies are born with 50 trillion brain connections and need to make up to a million a second in the first few months, with the brain consuming 75% of all energy from food! The only way a baby’s brain can get all the energy it needs for rapid building is from ketones. There’s just a limit to how much glucose the brain can use. That’s both why human breast milk is relatively high in fat and babies are born fat. The liver can make ketones from body fat.

You don’t have to generate ketones for the brain to work optimally even though it might help. Normally, the brain is using about 22% of the total energy we take in. You can get all that from glucose. However, if there are ketones in your system the brain will selectively use this suggesting that neurons like running on ketones.

C8 oil helps Parkinsons and pre-dementia

However, people with messed up neurons, in neurodegenerative diseases such as brain cancer, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and perhaps epilepsy, may have messed up glucose metabolism such that giving neurons a break from burning glucose, and switching to ketones, may help. For example, a study of Parkinson’s patients put on a ketogenic, high fat diet, low carb diet had a 41% reduction in shaking symptoms.[2] Ketogenic diets are often recommended. It also helps if you’ve run out of calories or carbs, which is what happens when you fast, because the liver starts feeding ketones into the brain, generated from breaking down body fat.

A study in Canada, led by Dr Melanie Fortier[3], gave people with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) or pre-dementia two tablespoons of C8 oil (30g) or placebo and measured their cognitive abilities, as well as how much energy their brains made. They kept making the same amount of energy from glucose but, in addition, had a 230% increase in energy made from ketones. They found that ‘Measures of episodic memory, language, executive function, and processing speed improved on the C8 versus baseline. Increased brain ketone uptake was positively related to several cognitive measures.’

Another good example of ketone power is the work of Kieran Clarke, Professor of Physiological Biochemistry at Oxford University. Having been approached by the American Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) she had the opportunity to test ketones as an energy source in combat situations. “They were looking for an energy source that would improve soldiers’ mental and physical performance under battlefield conditions,” she says. “Troops weren’t taking enough rations into action because they filled their rucksacks with extra ammunition instead. As their blood glucose dropped, they become confused, sometimes ended up shooting their own side.”

She had synthesised ketones, and tried them out on the soldiers. “We called it DeltaG which is the biochemical name for energy but also has a military ring to it – Delta Force and all.” She tried the new compound on rats a few years later and found it boosted their physical and mental performance. Those who got 30 per cent of their diet in the form of ketones ran 30 per cent further on a treadmill and were smarter at finding their way out of a maze. Most professional endurance athletes supplement pure ketones when they need a boost.

Pure synthetic ketones, a new nutrient, are not yet available in the EU, temporarily blocked by Novel Foods regulations, but are available in the US. However, by eating a very low carb, high fat diet, or having one or two tablespoons of C8 oil you can make your own. The first step, however, is to get off sugar and refined carbohydrates and eat a lower carb and GL diet.

Food for the Brain is a non-for-profit educational and research charity that offers  a free Cognitive Function Test and assesses your Dementia Risk Index to be able to advise you on how to dementia-proof your diet and lifestyle. By completing the Cognitive Function Test you are joining our grassroots research initiative to find out what really works for preventing cognitive decline. We share our ongoing research results with you to help you make brain-friendly choices. Please support our research by becoming a Friend of Food for the Brain.


[1] Vandenberghe C, St-Pierre V, Pierotti T, Fortier M, Castellano CA, Cunnane SC. Tricaprylin Alone Increases Plasma Ketone Response More Than Coconut Oil or Other Medium-Chain Triglycerides: An Acute Crossover Study in Healthy Adults. Curr Dev Nutr. 2017 Mar 22;1(4):e000257. doi: 10.3945/cdn.116.000257. PMID: 29955698; PMCID: PMC5998344.

[2] Phillips MCL, Murtagh DKJ, Gilbertson LJ, Asztely FJS, Lynch CDP. Low-fat versus ketogenic diet in Parkinson’s disease: A pilot randomized controlled trial. Mov Disord. 2018 Aug;33(8):1306-1314. doi: 10.1002/mds.27390. Epub 2018 Aug 11. Erratum in: Mov Disord. 2019 Jan;34(1):157. PMID: 30098269; PMCID: PMC6175383.

[3] Fortier M, Castellano CA, Croteau E, Langlois F, Bocti C, St-Pierre V, Vandenberghe C, Bernier M, Roy M, Descoteaux M, Whittingstall K, Lepage M, Turcotte ÉE, Fulop T, Cunnane SC. A ketogenic drink improves brain energy and some measures of cognition in mild cognitive impairment. Alzheimers Dement. 2019 May;15(5):625-634. doi: 10.1016/j.jalz.2018.12.017. Epub 2019 Apr 23. PMID: 31027873.