Since the 1920’s, people have been using the keto diet to promote weight loss and mental well-being. With its promotion of high saturated fat and very low carb intake, many consider this diet as every nutritionist’s nightmare.
Imagine a diet that encourages you to eat a block of cheese and feast on strips of bacon, or drink coffee with butter and eat little to no fruit at all!
If you haven’t tried keto, most likely you are just going to end up waving it off as a fad diet that defies all common sense! But what’s interesting about the keto diet is its ability to cure different neurological disorders like epilepsy, autism, and brain cancer with no side effects at all!
What’s it about the keto diet that allows it to have these special neuroprotective effects? What’s going on inside a brain on keto?
Keto Diet’s Effect on the Brain
You’ve probably read from mainstream sources that glucose is the only thing that can run your brain. Well, that’s not true. Your brain can derive up to 75% of its fuel from ketone bodies, which your liver produces through fatty acids.
These ketones function just like glucose, allowing your brain to function as it should even in the absence of its original energy source. See, if your brain really only runs on glucose, you will never be able to make it longer than a few days without food intake.
You will also drop dead as soon as your liver gets exhausted churning out glucose, and you will end up like a skeleton in a few days with no food as your lean tissue instantly dissolves into amino acids to make up for the absence of glucose in your system. But no, your brain doesn’t work that way.
Low-carb diets like keto have a fascinating way of providing your brain with energy, even without the glucose you get from high-carb food. A keto diet essentially mimics starvation, allowing your body to go into a metabolic state when it is deprived of dietary carbs.
As a backup energy source, your liver produces ketone bodies, which it releases into your bloodstream until they reach your brain and other organs. Your liver particularly shuttles these ketones into your brain’s energy factory, mitochondria, so your body can use it up as fuel.
So what happens when your brain derives energy from ketones instead of glucose? And how does this serve as a protective against a variety of brain disorders and diseases?
One has to do with energy. Did you know that all the neurological diseases known today have one thing in common? They are, in one way or another, caused by a deficiency in energy production.
When your brain uses ketones as an alternative source of energy, it is able to maintain its normal brain cell metabolism. In fact, these ketones are even more efficient fuel sources than glucose, as they provide more energy per unit oxygen used in your brain.
As your brain increases its energy reserve, the neurons in your brain are able to ward off disease stressors that commonly exhaust and kill brain cells. As you may know, dead brain cells lead to different brain disorders like Alzheimer’s Disease.
The keto diet also directly inhibits the major source of neuronal stress, oxidants, which bombard into your brain’s proteins and membranes and wreck their structure.
The more oxidants you have, the more prone you are to aging, stroke, and neurodegeneration! Once you go keto and reduce your carb intake, you reduce glucose oxidation in your brain, stabilizing your mitochondria!
Keto Brain Fog
Now let’s talk about this brain condition called “brain fog.” You’ve had it at least once in your life—when you think everything is muffled, when your consciousness is all clouded and you don’t get any work done. Normally, you suffer from this when your brain has elevated ammonia levels and depressed GABA levels.
So what does keto have to do with brain fog? It has a lot to do with it! With ketosis, you increase your brain glutamine synthetase, which mops up all the unnecessary ammonia in your brain and makes you more prone to neuronal injury and neurodegeneration. It also boosts your GABA signaling, which is crucial in your cognitive function.
Keto and ADD/ADHD
It’s important to understand the role that food plays in ADD/ADHD. Sugar and gluten exacerbate and even cause symptoms of ADD/ADHD, and other learning disabilities and behavioral issues. This is because these substances cause a spike in blood sugar, which impacts your ability to focus and increases hyperactivity.
Insulin – in chronic doses – will cause an increased release of cortisol, the stress hormone. Your body views this chronic dose of insulin as a stress – as a trauma – so the body will release cortisol, which has an impact on your brain.
Cortisol impacts your brain by inhibiting the release of dopamine – a hormonal neurotransmitter – whose job is to help you learn, memorize, and sit still.
When you are low in dopamine, you start to fidget, move around, and can’t sit still. If dopamine is severely low, you are diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease.
Low dopamine causes you to have difficulty learning, remembering, and sitting still. You may also seek an increase in dopamine by “thrill seeking” –possibly through being interruptive, needing to be constantly active, picking fights, etc.
So what’s the role of keto here? When you load up on healthy proteins, fat and fiber, your blood sugar remains stable. Simply put: if you can raise the level of ketones in your blood, that will then reduce the impact of insulin and the release of insulin in your body.
This is EXACTLY what you do when you go keto and consume low-carbohydrate, moderate-protein, high healthy-fat meals. This is ketogenic living!
Keto and Alzheimer’s
Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive, irreversible brain disorder and is the most common cause of dementia in older people. It slowly destroys your skills related to thinking and memory. Simple tasks become difficult to perform, and most Alzheimer’s symptoms first show up in a person’s mid-60s.
One of the earliest signs associated with Alzheimer’s disease is your brain not being able to use glucose effectively, which leads to a “starvation” of your brain. If you are at risk of developing the disease, it’s in this relation to glucose that ketosis might benefit you!
Insulin resistance has shown to be one of the major factors in mental decline; some researchers have even referred to Alzheimer’s as “type 3 diabetes” because it may be a late-stage of type 2 diabetes, which involves a lack of insulin. If there is indeed a strong link between diabetes or blood sugar and mental decline, alleviating or reversing the symptoms of blood sugar-related disorders might be beneficial in protecting your brain, too!
Thankfully, ketosis puts your body into a state of metabolism that increases your insulin sensitivity, helping decrease your blood glucose levels and reduce spikes in your blood sugar through the strict management of carbohydrate intake.
Keto and Brain Cancer
You’ve probably heard about the keto diet’s role in helping cancer patients. Over the last decade, there have been studies about the effect of altering cancer cell metabolism through the keto diet, and the results of these studies suggest that keto actually helps patients with malignant brain tumors!
Nowadays, many experts suggest that if you have a brain tumor, you go on a therapeutic keto diet as soon as possible to boost your anti-tumor immune response. The keto diet is no fad! And it’s not just a diet—it is a regimented metabolic therapy that deprives cancer cells of the fuel it needs for growth.
When you go keto, you consume less carb, so little to no glucose comes into your body. What most people don’t know is that glucose is what basically fuels cancer cells’ rapid growth! The more carbs you consume, the higher your chances of developing cancer!
Just as you’ve probably learned in recent years that conditions like heart disease can be reversed through diet, there is promise for the potential to slow or reverse symptoms of brain disorders if the risk factors are caught early enough and addressed. Making sure you’re eating a diet that’s high in brain-supporting healthy fats and anti-inflammation is one good place to start!