Is The Ketogenic Diet Advantageous For The Brain?
The ketogenic diet is an unorthodox, high-fat, low-carb diet, which conflicts with everything we’ve ever been told about nutrition. This diet is becoming popular among start-up tech entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, to those wanting to lose weight and even for treating cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. Your brain is 60% fat, so what happens when you eat a lot of it?
Carbs Or Fat?
Any freakin’ diet works for weight loss. We all know this. But, there seem to be some possible advantages to certain diets for our cognitition.
There are certain foods you can eat to improve your cognitive function, sure, but the reason the ketogenic diet may be so good directly impacting the brain is due to the metabolic shift you experience in ketosis.
Many think that glucose is the only source of fuel body can utilise, but this is simply not the case. Some parts of the brain do need glucose, but only some (which protein can supply enough of), but the majority of the brain can be fuelled by fat and many will argue it wants to be.
It’s not fat directly which acts as the fuel, fat is converted into “ketone bodies” once the glycogen in the liver is depleted from consistently eating 5% of your macronutrients from carbohydrates and/or practising fasting or even through enough exercise.
Ketone bodies – hydroxybutyrate (BHB), acetoacetate and acetone – are released into the blood after they are metabolised in the liver and are taken up by the brain and body which then fire ketone bodies into the mitochondria.
Is Ketosis Natural?
Is ketosis natural? Yes, ketosis is a natural metabolic state. Let’s take a newborn for example. Breast milk is very high in fat, especially saturated fat and a newborn tends to spend a lot of time in ketosis when being breast-fed.
In this study, it was shown neonatal (newborns) experience ketosis and it’s not rare and in fact around half of these normal newborns experienced the development of ketosis, most likely due to the fatty nature of breastmilk.
You, me, your grandma, any healthy individual shifts into light ketosis unintentionally too. This happens when you wake up in the morning as you’ve been fasted for a number of hours and have depleted your glycogen stores overnight.
If you’re not hungry in the morning this may be an indication that you have a strong metabolism since you’re in ketosis.
But the difference with fasting for longer periods or entering nutritional ketosis through the foods you eat you begin to enter a deeper state of ketosis and you begin to produce and utilise more ketone bodies.
Given enough time your body will become keto-adapted. This simply means your primary source of fuel has shifted from glucose to ketone bodies.
Your Brain In Ketosis
Countless anecdotes report mental clarity, improved concentration and even alleviated depression when on a ketogenic diet. The same occurs for fasting.
It makes sense that one would have improved mental clarity and cognitive performance when in ketosis. Ketosis implies that food is scarce and something needs to be done.
Nutritional ketosis is basically fasting while being full.
Since the ketogenic diet originated as a means to cure epileptic seizers, it’s clear there’s a relationship between ketosis and the brain.
Research is now revealing potential uses of ketosis as a means to treat Alzheimer’s, other cognitive disorders and even cancer. The reason is that cancer cells are fed by glucose so you essentially starve these cells when on a ketogenic diet.
It should be noted that the research is still in its early stages and none of this should be taken as a solution to any sort of disorder.
In all mammal nervous systems, GABA is a major inhibitory neurotransmitter. GABA is made from glutamate which is a major excitatory neurotransmitter which epileptics suffer because of.
Glutamate is important, but our lifestyles tend to produce too much and this can lead to cognitive issues.
Ketogenic diets cause glutamate to become GABA instead of aspartate more often.
The ketone bodies produced by ketosis increase GABA where neurotransmitters are released (synapses) in the brains of rats and some epileptic patients.
GABA is beneficial for your sleep, focus and attention and increases in various narcotics which causes feelings of euphoria and cognitive focus, one common example is nicotine.
In my experience blood glucose is tightly linked with willpower.
Alzheimer’s is often referred to as type 3 diabetes as the brain becomes insulin resistant.
We know that inflammation plays a key role in the role of the development of insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is inclusive of the brain and is a strong cognitive marker for brain-based ailments.
We know that those with diabetes have cognitive impairment directly due to the changes in blood sugar and the effectiveness of insulin to allow the hormone to work correctly.
The ketogenic diet and intermittent fasting (its close cousin) are both extremely effective treatments for type 2 diabetics which suffer from insulin resistance.
In an intervention, 10 obese patients who had type 2 diabetes were on a normal diet for one week. The following week they were put on a high fat, low carbohydrate ketogenic diet for a subsequent 2 weeks. The 10 subjects experienced a 75% increase in insulin sensitivity (which is a lot). Triglyceride levels decreased by 35% and cholesterol decreased by 10%, which is all fantastic.
Mitochondria are the power plants of our cells, this is where energy is produced. Mitochondria act like a small digestive system. Mitochondrial bring in nutrients and break it down into energy-dense molecules for cells through cellular respiration.
You’ve probably heard of the supplement creatine before, something which I recommend for physical and mental optimal performance. Creatine helps regenerate adenosine triphosphate (ATP).
Inside the membrane of mitochondria, this is where ATP is produced. When ATP is produced for energy there’s waste that’s left behind in the process. The cool thing about ketone bodies (which are the primary source of fuel in ketosis) is that these are far more clean and efficient.
A common analogy given to describe the difference between ketone bodies and glucose is like an electric car (ketones) vs a gasoline car (glucose).
Ketone bodies leave behind less mitochondrial waste. What this leads to is an easier time for the brain to restore membranes. The consequence and good thing for us are that there are less free radicals.
The study found that with increase energy receivers neurons can ward off disease easier which would usually kill the cell in the presence of waste from excessive glucose due to a greater expression of the genes for mitochondrial enzymes in the hippocampus, which is a key part of the brain involved with learning and memory.
Within the last few decades, the therapeutic mechanisms of ketosis have been appreciated more.
Leading researchers such as Dom D’Agostino who is an assistant professor at the Department of Molecular Pharmacology and Physiology is known for making big leaps in cancer research, showing us that the ketogenic diet can be an extremely powerful tool to starve off cancer cells.
One study shows us that the ketogenic diets may actually exert neuroprotective properties, from the enhanced GABA neurotransmission which we just covered but also due to increased brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which also occurs during fasting.
BDNF is basically fertiliser for neurogenesis (the birth of new brain cells).
Keto Gone Wrong
Now if you do the ketogenic diet wrong and you mess up your gut health, you eat too much saturated fat and too little omega-3 polyunsaturated fat and/or you eat too much omega-6 fat/hydrogenated trans fats then you’re setting yourself up for increased inflammation, decreased BDNF and a whole host of other problems.
It’s about how you do the ketogenic diet. It’s not magical and it never will be. There are some people that the ketogenic diet will never be right for no matter what. Nutrition is not a one size fits all.
I’ve written a lengthy post about 10 foods to increase brain power. The ketogenic diet is just one strategy among many. As with most goals in nutrition, whether it be weight loss, brain health, it mostly comes down to what you don’t eat rather than what you eat.
The key foods you should avoid are:
• Trans fats
• Excessive artificial sweeteners
• Omega-6 in excess
Overall, more research needs to be done. But from what we’ve seen so far and the copious amounts of anecdotal accounts it seems likely that the fat-fuel brain has specific advantages for certain people.
Fasting evidently provides a lot of benefits for the brain and the ketogenic diet in many ways mimics fasting in so parallels are being noticed. Fasting and the ketogenic diet are like close cousins.
I’m not a proponent of this diet for everyone and I think a well-balanced Pegan or Mediterranean diet is ideal for most people.
However, the simple fact that we can potentially treat the irreversible effects of cognitive ailments through dietary interventions and also improve and optimise already healthy people is profound.
When I’m in ketosis I’m far more productive, the “refrigerator hum” of anxiety we’re often ‘gifted’ seems to dissipate and I’m able to focus more on the here and now.
So does the ketogenic diet improve cognitive performance? In many ways yes.
Does this apply to everyone? In many ways no.
Trial and error people!