Since the ketogenic diet is a little “out there” when it comes to traditional dieting methods, one might wonder whether or not their brain will function optimally when on the diet.
The keto diet is a high fat, very low-carb diet that might seem odd from outsiders looking in.
Drinking coffee with grass-fed butter, drizzling coconut or olive oil on practically everything, and consuming almost no fruit is what you can expect to be your new normal on this diet.
Yes, at first glance, this diet defies what common sense tells, but it flat out works.
It not only has been highly successful for people looking to lose weight, but it’s also been used as a treatment for epilepsy in children as well as neurodegenerative diseases, autism, headaches, and certain cancers.
What’s Happening In Your Brain On Keto?
In reality, the ketogenic diet has similar characteristics to starvation.
Even though you’ll be eating plenty of food, the goal of the diet is to put your body into a state of ketosis or a fat-burning mode.
Traditionally, our bodies have adapted to our eating habits and primarily get the energy it needs from sugar.
Carbs break down in the body into glucose. This is either used as energy or is stored in the body in the liver or muscle.
The recommended number of carbs to eat daily is no more than fifty grams or about five percent of your total daily calories.
When your body no longer has carbohydrates as its main fuel source, your body needs something to run on. Your brain alone takes up about twenty percent of your total energy for the day.
Once the glycogen stores in your liver have been depleted, it now has to switch to a backup source which is ketones.
These ketones are then sent into the bloodstream and used by the body. The brain and other organs start to use this as fuel.
How Your Brain Works On Ketones
Being in ketosis means that your brain is now getting the energy it needs to function from the ketones your body is producing.
So why is being in ketosis helping different brain diseases? One explanation is energy.
Since diseases, in general, have their differences, the main component of them is they don’t allow the body to produce as much energy.
When the body is stressed from disease, the alternate fuel source ketones help maintain a normal metabolism for your brain.
One big ketone, known as Beta-Hydroxybutyrate (BHB), is now considered a more efficient fuel source than glucose.
It’s being studied more and more, but studies show that it provides more energy per unit of oxygen used.
Your mitochondria, which oxidize glucose to provide energy, are increased in brain cells on the ketogenic diet (1).
The hippocampus, a part of the brain used for memory and learning, has cells that will degenerate due to diseases in the brain.
This leads to losses in memory and cognitive dysfunction like visual and auditory processing, brain processing speed, and motor functions.
On the ketogenic diet, this new reserve of energy, the body has been shown to deal with the stressors that can kill cells.
Ketones And Brain Neurons
When neurons are firing correctly, they transmit signals, process information, and form a healthy brain function.
If neurons are too active, they die. The brain is always trying to be in a state of balance through neurotransmitters.
In the early 1930s, scientists found that injecting ketones into rabbits prevented seizures that were chemically induced.
“Neuroprotective strategies such as the KD, if implemented early, might exert an antiepileptogenic effect, and could prevent associated learning and memory deficits (2).”
In another study of epilepsy where scientists used a chemical on mice to induce damage since the mice were on a keto diet, anti-seizure effects and neuroprotection remained present.
This leads us to believe that as the ketogenic diet affects the body in its entirety, both calorie restriction and Leptin regulation have play a big role in brain function.
Keto And Neuroprotection: Multiple Studies
A published study where twenty-three people with cognitive impairment showed that while on a keto diet, the patient’s memory after six weeks was shown to improve (3).
In another study, one hundred and fifty-two people in a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial with Alzheimer’s were put on a ketogenic diet or given a placebo and maintained a normal diet.
After three months of the study, those on the ketogenic diet showed higher markers in improved brain cognition than those in the placebo group (4). This was due to the level of ketone markers in their blood.
In another study with patients with Parkinson’s disease, when sticking to the keto diet for 28 days, they showed reductions in their symptoms (5).
Being on the ketogenic diet or ketosis for a long time has not been shown to have serious side effects.
There are pros and cons to the ketogenic diet, where some people report side effects of constipation, electrolyte imbalances, deficiencies in micronutrients, and dehydration.
However, if you navigate the common mistakes people make on the keto diet, you can bypass the side effects mentioned above.
Keto And Brain Function Summary
The studies mentioned above and the longer-term studies around the keto diet are very promising.
Thanks to the keto diet, there are now possibilities for people to reduce symptoms of diseases.
While this is not medical advice, there are plenty of studies showing the benefits of the diet and how it’s affecting people positively worldwide. Please do your research and consult a doctor.
While this article is not saying to ditch traditional medicine, as more studies are being conducted, we’re excited to see how the ketogenic diet affects people long term.
Again, if you start the ketogenic diet or any diet for that matter, please consult your physician to learn more and if it’s right for you.