The majority of people are attracted to the keto diet because of its ability to help them lose weight. Many are surprised to discover that the ketogenic lifestyle also dramatically improves their brain function. In this article we’ll discover the ways that going keto boosts your cognitive ability.
The ketogenic diet started out back in the 1920’s as a treatment for pediatric epilepsy. It proved to be the only thing that was effective for children who had uncontrollable epileptic seizures. That was the first inkling that going into ketosis could have some type of mental benefits. Since then, we’ve discovered that the keto diet can dramatically improve our mood, our memory, and even lower our risk of degenerative brain disease.
How Does Ketosis work?
Most people are burning sugar for energy. When we eat a high carb diet that is full of breads, grains and lots of sugary foods, starches and fruits, our blood sugar rises and insulin is released. Insulin’s job is to take that sugar out of the bloodstream and transport it onto our cells. The body then starts to use that sugar, or glucose, for energy.
The ketogenic diet is a low carb, high fat, moderate protein eating pattern. When we’re on it, our carb intake is so low that our glucose levels fall. The body then makes use of of its stored glycogen stores. Then, however, it needs another energy source.
The body makes use of an enzyme called lipase to break down triglycerides from either dietary fats or from stored body fat. Those fatty acids are then transported to the liver where they’re converted to a water-soluble compound called ketones.
There are three types of ketones; acetone, aceto acetic acid and beta hydroxybutyrate (BHB). The one that has the most effect on the brain is BHB.
When most people (i.e. those who are sugar adapted) eat a meal, they release a lot of insulin. Then, because the insulin transports the sugar to the cells, the blood sugar level drops. This can cause a hypoglycemic response. When the blood sugar level goes down, the brain is starved and cells begin to die. This can lead to such things as dizziness, headache, nausea and irritability.
Now let’s consider a person who is keto adapted. When they eat a meal, if there is a little bit of carb content, they will have some level of blood glucose. There will also be a small increase in insulin release. These will stabilize very quickly allowing the person to maintain a moderate level of blood sugar. There will be no hypoglycemic like response because the body is using ketones as its alternative fuel source.
The brain is able to produce between 30 and 50 percent of its energy from ketones. That makes ketones a superior source of fuel for the brain. It is able to negate the effects of oxidative stress because ketones are an extremely clean source of energy. This results in reduced levels of stress and inflammation in the brain.
To get into ketosis, we need to adjust our macronutrient intake. We need to eat a lot of fat (60-80 percent), moderate amounts of protein (20-30 percent) and low amounts of carbs (5-10 percent). Good fats include avocado, grass fed butter, coconut oil, olive and MCT Oil. Protein sources should include grass fed meats, organic free-range eggs and wild caught fish. Carbs should come from vegetables that are non-starchy such as broccoli, cauliflower, etc.
Key Brain benefits of Keto:
Every cell contains mitochondria. It is the energy unit of the cell. The more mitochondria we have in the cell, the healthier the cell is. It produces cellular energy in the form of ATP. It also maintains vital glutathione levels, protects DNA, signals cell reproduction, activates cell apoptosis and maintains the electrochemical integrity of the cell.
Ketones are burnt for energy inside the mitochondria. The more mitochondria you have in your cells, the cleaner your energy source will be and the better you will feel.
Brain derived neurotropic growth factor (BDNF) is a key neurochemical responsible for the growth and maintenance of neural connections. When it is released it tells us that we need more nerve cells and more synapses to communicate between cells.
Researchers at Stanford University studied the brain of Albert Einstein to see if it was different than other people with the same brain volume. What they found out was that he had about the same number of neurons but twice as many synapses between the nerve cells. He had high levels of BDNF in his brain from constantly thinking through complex thoughts and long hours of meditation where he would concentrate on solving higher order problems.
We can improve BDNF through ketosis. Ketone stimulate BDNF production. Having more BHBs in the brain, along with omega 3 fatty acids, help to produce BDNF in the brain. Intermittent fasting is another way to increase BDNF production in the brain. High quality sleep is also important to boost BDNF production, as is regular exercise.
Free radical oxidative stress can cause havoc to our brains. We can think of oxidative stress like rusting. There are various tissues in the brain that are prone to ‘rusting’. When this happens, younger people may get headaches or brain fog, depression and anxiety. But, over the years, as this rusting continues, we might end up with such conditions as dementia, Alzheimer’s. Parkinson’s Disease and other conditions. That is why it is vital that we address the issue of oxidative stress as early as we can.
The ketogenic diet is very helpful in addressing oxidative stress.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
The outer layer of every cell contains fatty acids. Ideally, we should have a 50:50 balance of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids. Because the western diet is heavily slanted toward omega 6, however, the majority of people have far too many omega 6 and far too few omega 3 fatty acids (the average ratio is 20:1 in favor of omega 6!).
This overabundance of omega 6 fatty acids and lack of omega 3 fatty acids has serious consequences. It can lead to a dietary imbalance in the cell membrane. The body will be in a constant state of inflammation. Omega 3 fatty acids and antioxidants can neutralize free radicals that contribute to cell aging, dysfunction and death. Studies have also shown that a diet that is rich in omega 3 can positively affect gene expression. In fact, omega 3 fatty acids are key to healthy cell structure and function.
The keto diet helps to favor omega 3 fatty acids utilization in the cell membrane. So, even when we aren’t taking in more omega 3, the very fact that we are in ketosis, helps to improve the omega 6 to omega 3 balance.
To improve the omega 3 content of our diet, we should take out conventional animal products. These animals are fed grains that are high in omega 6 fatty acids. We also want to remove such oils as canola, vegetable, and corn oil. We should replace them with grass fed animal products, wild caught fish and even a quality fish oil supplement.
GABA stands for Gamma-Amino Butyric Acid. It acts in a similar way to the brakes of your car to slow down brain activity and help you to relax and maintain a sense of calmness. It reduces over excitation of the brain. Too much glutamate in the brain leads to hyper excitability. Too much brain glutamate could be caused by an issue in the gut. This could cause leaky gut syndrome which could bring a glutamate to GABA imbalance. Over consumption of such stimulants as caffeine can also lead to too much glutamate in the brain. Too much sugar and chronic stress may also be contributing factors.
The best thing you can do to reduce the glutamate levels in your brain is to get into a state of ketosis. When the brain is using BHB as its energy source, it will help to balance out the glutamate to GABA ratio. This will help the brain cells to be more vibrant and calm us down mentally.
Therapeutic Applications of Keto
We know that the ketogenic diet will reduce epileptic seizures. There are literally hundreds of case studies extolling the benefits of keto to help people with epilepsy. This applies to both children and adults.
Research also shows categorically that the ketogenic state will improve Alzheimer’s and Dementia. It has also been shown to improve the symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease.
Ketosis has been shown to improve the frequency and severity of migraine headaches. It also improves depression, reduces anxiety and improves the healing of traumatic brain injuries.
So how does keto bring about these amazing therapeutic benefits? The keto diet is used to control epilepsy in children by forcing the body to burn fats instead of carbohydrates. Ketones fuel and protect the brain from breakdown. Fueling these cells with a better, cleaner energy source, protects the brain from future seizures and other degenerative disorders.
In a 2009 study, researchers were looking at the effects of a ketogenic diet on Alzheimer’s disease. All of the subjects showed significant improvement in their cognitive performance by using exogenous ketones.
It is clear, then, that supporting the use of ketones in the brain for energy will go a long way toward reducing oxidative stress, which is the root cause of most degenerative brain disorders.
In a 2005 study, seven volunteers with Parkinson’s Disease were put on a hyper ketogenic diet for 28 days. All of them had major reductions in the symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease. Their Unified Parkinson’s Disease Rating Scale (UPDRS) was taken at the beginning of the study and again at weekly intervals. The five subjects who completed the study reduced their UPDRS scores by an average of 10.72 points, which represented an average decrease of nearly 45 percent (a range from 21 to 81 percent) in just twenty-eight days.
A 2006 meta study looked at the neuroprotective and disease modifying effects of the ketogenic diet. It concluded that the ketogenic diet was an ideal strategy to reduce oxidative stress and inflammation, slow the development of brain degenerative conditions and improve the quality of life of sufferers of brain disorder conditions.
It is clear, then, that the ketogenic diet provides wonderful brain boosting benefits. To improve your cognitive functioning even more, add omega 3 fatty acid and antioxidant supplements to your daily nutritional program.
An important study was conducted in 2010 and published in the journal Neurobiological Aging. In this study, 23 people with mild cognitive impairment were divided into two groups. The first group followed a ketogenic diet with between 5 and 10 percent of calories coming from carbohydrates. The second group consumed 50 percent of their daily calories from carb sources. The study was carried out over a period of six weeks.
At the end of the study period the verbal memory skills of the Ketogenic diet group were significantly better than those of the high carb group. In fact, it was seen that the greater their measured ketone levels, the better they scored on the memory test. The lead researcher on the study, Robert Krikorian, Ph.D., concluded that . . .
These findings indicate that very low carbohydrate consumption, even in the short term, can improve memory function in older adults with increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease.
It used to be thought that depression was caused by an inability in the brain to produce such neurochemicals as serotonin and dopamine. However, scientists now believe that depression is caused by an inflammatory process that results in the brain having poor sensitivity to neurotransmitters. Because the cells are so inflamed, they can’t respond adequately.
Inflammation in the brain leads to decreased neurotransmitter metabolism, decreased neuron cell and synapse development, lower levels of BDNF and increased glutamate excitotoxicity. Inflammation causes excess glutamate production which increases excitability and brain fog. All of this damages the brain’s neurocircuitry.
The ketogenic diet has been shown to be very effective in combating all of this. In a 2017 study BHB ketones were shown to decrease interleukin 1 beta and factor alpha that are induced by stress.
So, a ketogenic diet can be a great help for people who are struggling with depression or anxiety.
Traumatic Brain Injury
People with traumatic brain injury can also benefit from being in ketosis. Ketones provide an alternative fuel source to glucose. These have far less free radical production. This means that there is less stress, damage and inflammation in the brain. Ketones also improve mitochondrial function. This means that the cells are able to produce more energy to repair themselves. Ketones also lower inflammation.
In addition to all of the pretty amazing brain benefits, the ketogenic diet will also burn fat and build lean body tissue. It will improve mental focus and concentration. Your blood sugar will be permanently stabilized. Inflammation and pain will be reduced and you risk of chronic disease will be dramatically cut.