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The Ketogenic Diet—How Does it Improve Brain Function?

The Ketogenic Diet and Your Brain

Our understanding of diet changes constantly, and along with it, our understanding of diet’s effect on the brain.

Take glucose for example. Until recently, the scientific community believed that in order to function well, the brain needed a generous supply of glucose. However, recent information has shown that the brain can take 75% of its fuel from ketone bodies.

What on earth are ketones?

Put simply, ketones are molecules produced by fat in the liver. The body uses them for fuel when glucose is in short supply.

In recent years, the ketogenic diet (or keto diet), has emerged as a popular fat loss tool. Created in the 1920s to control pediatric epilepsy, it was thought that the increased level of ketones in the blood resulted in a decrease in epileptic attacks.

To show how it works, let’s take a quick look at how most people eat macronutrients:

Regular western diet: 50% carbs, 30% protein, 20% fat

Now let’s compare it to the ketogenic diet:

Ketogenic diet: 70% fat, 25% protein, 5% carbs

Here’s the big difference—when we restrict carbs, we restrict simple sugar intake, depriving the body of its primary energy source. But, we have to get energy somewhere, right? On the ketogenic diet, the body starts burning body fat as fuel.

Benefits of ketogenic diet on your body

Lots of people do really well on the ketogenic diet, experiencing weight loss, better physical health, and help with cognitive disorders. Here are a few reported benefits:

  • Better fat burning

  • High levels of energy

  • Clear skin

  • Reduced inflammation

  • Reduced hunger pangs

  • Anti-aging

  • Mitochondrial biogenesis and increased mental performance


The science

When you eat very few carbs and a moderate amount of protein, your body immediately breaks them into blood sugar, building ketones. The brain needs a constant supply of energy to function, and it just so happens that brains run pretty smoothly on ketones.

While you maintain a ketogenic diet, the body burns fat to make up for its lack of simple sugar. Of course, you should constantly monitor your ketone and blood sugar levels.

Brain benefits of the ketogenic diet

Among its many benefits, the ketogenic diet can help improve mental performance. Here’s how:

1. Mitochondrial biogenesis

Mitochondria are structures in the cell that produce energy in the form of ATP. Some areas of the body have more amounts of mitochondria than the others. This implies that these cells need more energy to function optimally. One of these mitochondria-rich areas is the brain. If we improve the energy output of the mitochondria cells of the brain, it will have cognitive benefits. A fasting or ketogenic diet is known to improve the symptoms of Mitochondrial biogenesis.

2. BDNF( brain-derived neurotrophic factor)

BDNF regulates the growth of neural connections in the brain. Low levels of BDNF might lead to cognitive disorders like Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s disease, depression, and schizophrenia. Ketogenic diet is a fast-mimicking diet that can upregulate the BDNF, and henceforth improve neurodegenerative disorders. This is owing to the fact that a ketogenic diet supports the growth and development of neural connections.

3. Improved insulin

For sugar to enter cells and be converted to ATP, insulin is required as the taxi service. Sometimes, people develop blood sugar regulation issues (in part due to high carb diets), which results in a sharp rise and fall of sugar levels. This phenomenon could be highly disruptive for the brain and lead to issues like congenital hyperinsulinism. The ketogenic diet could prove beneficial in reducing the side effects associated with the sharp rise and fall in blood sugar levels, and also improve insulin signaling.

4. Oxidative stress reduction

Excessive oxidative stress can cause damage to the mitochondria. It thwarts the energy output of the mitochondria and creates inflammation in the body. This situation will have an impact on every cell of the body. The first organ to suffer damage is the brain, primarily because it relies on the mitochondria for energy. While oxidative stress is a byproduct of the energy production of mitochondria, its levels can be lowered by ketone metabolism, as opposed to glucose metabolism. Ketone metabolism won’t just reduce inflammation—it’ll support the healthy functioning of mitochondria and aid in the treatment of neurodegenerative disorders such as multiple sclerosis.

5. Glutamate and GABA balance

Glutamate and GABA are two neurotransmitters in the body that help with concentration and relaxation. An imbalance between the two is usually the result of an excess of glutamate, and results in impairments like autism, epilepsy, mood disorders, Lou Gehrig’s, and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). Anxiety, depression, and insomnia have also been attributed to imbalanced neurotransmitters. Wen we have too much glutamate, it can lead to hyperactive brain cells, which is the fast track to mood swings and anxiety. A ketogenic diet can help with the conversion of glutamate into GABA, effectively balancing the scales for your brain.

6. Increases omega-3 ratio

Omega fatty-6 acids are essential for the body to heal itself. However, our regular diet can lead to an omega-6 intake that’s way too high, and that excess can lead to chronic inflammation. A ketogenic diet can reduce omega-6 levels and balance them with more omega-3. That can help reduce the risk of heart disease and joint pain, as well as improve brain function.

So there you have it. If you can manage your blood sugar levels, and handle those initial cravings for simple carbs, the ketogenic diet can help improve mental and physical health, and reduce weight and fat levels.

Interested in diet and its impact on the brain? Check out these articles.