The ketogenic diet has become popular in weight loss and biohacking. It’s also effective in treating epilepsy and has been used for that for over 80 years(1). However, less has been talked about the astonishing mental benefits for everyday brain functioning. In this article, I summarize the mental and brain benefits of the ketogenic diet. First, the basics of the ketogenic diet are summarized – if you are already familiar with the basics, you can skip this part and jump straight into the research findings at the end of the post.
The ketogenic diet allows you to eat a lot of fat, but almost no carbs
The ketogenic diet is a diet of low amounts of carbs, high amount of fats and some proteins.
FAT = 70 %
PROTEIN = 25 %
CARBS = 5 %
Your brain craves carbs but needs fat: why fats are a better energy source?
Your body gets energy from food, oxygen. Everyday eating habits have a major impact on daily energy levels and overall health.
All food consists of 3 materials: carbohydrates (sugars), fats, and proteins (amino acids). The body has a different way of converting each one into ATP molecules, which is the “currency” of energy in the body. ATP is the universal energy carrier that is used for protein synthesis, heart contraction, moving muscles, digestion, breathing, thinking and other bodily functions.
Carbs from the diet offer the cells the quickest source of ATP (energy). That is why mental fatigue increases cravings for carbs like fruits, pasta, bread, or sugar.
Fats can also be used as energy, but they are converted to ATP at a much slower rate, and this is why we rarely grave nuts, eggs or oils when we are tired (…unless when you are on a keto diet – keep reading to find out why).
You can compare the fast and slow systems to a cooking process: If you are extremely hungry you probably choose to go to grocery shopping by car (fast method) instead of walking (slow method) and warm your food in the microwave (fast method) rather than in an oven (slow method). In both cases, the outcome is the same; you get food and energy. However, the speed of the process is very different. How your body “cooks” energy from carbs or fats, resemble those processes; energy derived from carbs is the fast method, energy derived from fats is the slow method.
It is as intuitive as it sounds, if you are hungry or fatigued during the day, surely you would like to feel energized faster and thus carbs may seem like a tempting option.
This is how all carbs you eat increases energy and makes your happy
When you eat carbohydrates, the fast energy ingredient, it goes into the bloodstream in the form of glucose. This makes the liver secrete insulin which binds to the glucose. Insulin and glucose then travel together to the outer surface of the cell, which initiates a cascade of reactions that make glucose move into the cell. It travels all the way to the energy factory of the cell; the mitochondria. At the same time, the brain releases opioids and dopamine to make you feel happy and rewarded for having had food. This is also why it’s said that sugar has an addictive potential (R). Having many carbohydrate-rich meals per day guarantee that the cells get a steady supply of sugar from the bloodstream for walking, thinking, breathing and living.
How you burn body fat with restricting carbs?
So if our body and brain use carbohydrates as energy, what’s the point of not having it?
We have two energy systems – fast and slow. The idea of the ketogenic diet is to restrict the fast energy system, burning carbohydrates, to activate the slow energy system, burning fat. In other words, by restricting carb intake and blood glucose, your cells have to use an alternative way of creating energy. When this happens, the body starts to burn fat and form ketone bodies, which can be used as energy.
If you ever have had a more than 2-hour run or a long walk after fasting, you know that after that complete exhaustion you start feeling quite good. In running this is also called runners high. This is when you start using fat as fuel.
The glucose storage of the body runs out fast, but there are plenty of fat storages available all over the body (we don’t run out of it similarly to blood glucose), and thus fat is a more sustainable energy source in the long run. Using fat as the main energy fuel requires for you not to consume carbs (almost) at all because it learns to use the fat of the body. However, as soon as you introduce a normal amount of carbs back to your diet, the body will start again relying on them as the main source of energy.
How does a ketogenic diet (KD) improve mood and mental energy?
The ketogenic diet is not only an effective fat burn method. Instead, it has been shown to have tremendous mental benefits as well. For example, it has been an invaluable tool for treating severe epilepsy for the past 80 years.
The mechanism stays unclear, but it has been shown to have an effect on the neurochemical processes in the brain. Naturally, the brain can use ketone bodies as a source of energy in the same way that any other cell. The diet has shown to have an effect to signaling brain hormones (neurotransmitters) and the consensus view is that the brain functions better and calmer in the ketogenic diet, and that is one theory explaining why the ketogenic diet is such a good treatment for epilepsy. Recent evidence also shows that it may act as prophylaxis for chronic migraine, although the precise mechanism is still unclear (R)
The reasons for the ketogenic diet having such a calming effect on brain remains unclear but there is a lot of evidence that the diet can help a number of mental health conditions. (S)
The science shows that KD diet can improve mental performance and brain function
Ketogenic diet acts as a stress relief (R)
Being in a state of ketosis have been shown to increase production of signaling brain molecule (neurotransmitter) GABA. GABA is a hormone that inhibits neuronal firing, so it decreases the activity in the brain acting as a calming agent. Low GABA levels in the brain have been linked to anxiety, insomnia, and epilepsy. There is some evidence (though mainly anecdotal and still unclear) that supplementing with GABA can reduce anxiety and stress (S). Thus, the increased amount of GABA may be the reason why ketogenic diet leads to a calmer mind and better mental focus.
The ketogenic diet may improve memory and learning
Studies have found that ketones can protect the brain cells from oxidative damages caused by free radicals. Free radicals, when accumulated, can impair learning and memory (S). Keto diet by increasing the amount of antioxidant glutathione in the brain cells, which helps the brain cells to fight against inflammation. (S)
The ketogenic diet may protect you from Alzheimer’s
In one study, 152 Alzheimer patients took an oral ketone supplement MCT (exogenous ketones) for 90 days and their memory, language, praxis, attention, and other cognitive abilities improved significantly compared to the group that did not eat ketones. After they stopped taking the MCT-supplement, they were no longer superior in these skills compared to the other group. (S)
Also, studies have found that ketones can increase the amount of glutathione in the brain. (see point 2). Up-regulation of glutathione may be protective against the oxidative and neurotoxic effects of oligomeric Aβ, which is linked to Alzheimer’s disease.
The ketogenic Diet brings more mental energy with less metabolic waste
When cells make energy from ketones they produce less free radicals than after using glucose as an energy source. Free radicals in excessive amounts can be harmful to the cell and increase the rate of aging of the cell.
In addition, the keto diet can increase the number of mitochondria in brain cells. Mitochondria are the energy “factory” of the cell. (R)
May reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and ADHD, and stabilize mood
In 2017, a systematic review concluded that KD diet shows promising results in reducing symptoms of several mental conditions including anxiety, depression, ADHD and schizophrenia, and it has mood stabilizing properties. (R)
It has also shown to be a potentially sustainable option for mood stabilization in type II bipolar illness in human (S)
Many mental disorders share the characteristic of deficient energy production. It is shown that KD increases energy levels and this might be one mechanism of why it might benefit people with a mental disorder.
Nevertheless, half of the results come from animal studies and many human studies have only a few participants, so the result should be taken cautiously what comes to treating mental health illnesses with the keto diet. Nevertheless, taking the prevalence of most typical mental conditions (for example anxiety and depression), these results are interesting and hopefully, encourage to study this more in the context of human mental health. (S)(S)
KD is an effective treatment for epilepsy
In epileptic patients, the diet is extremely efficient. 60 % has a significant reduction in seizure frequency and 30 % becomes nearly seizure free (S)
KD is a potential treatment for anorexia
In a recent paper, a preventive medicine physician Dr. Barbara Scolnick formed a hypothesis that ketogenic diet might be uniquely anxiolytic and rewarding to patients prone to anorexia, because it mimics starvation, thus allowing the patient to experience the anxiolytic state of ketosis, and yet avoid the morbidity of starvation. Because treatment options for AN remain very limited, and no pharmacological agent has been definitely shown to improve the course or outcome, this theory forms interesting ideas for future research. (S)
This article summarized how the ketogenic diet can improve mental and brain performance. If you have experiences with this, share in the comments! I’d love to hear!
If you liked the article, spread the good – share it with your friends or someone, who is wondering if they should try the ketogenic diet.