March 8, 2018

How the Keto Diet Affects the Brain

How the Keto Diet Affects the Brain

A low carbohydrate diet is a diet where only 5 to 30 percent of your total caloric intake comes from carbohydrates. There is plenty of research to suggest that this restrictive diet can free your brain to do more. The brain needs massive amounts of nutrients to function properly, and it typically gets those from carbohydrates. However, carbohydrates make you slow and the preferred energy source for optimal brain functioning seems to be ketones.

Mechanics of Keto

Many studies that attempt to study the keto diet and the effects on the brain will fall short because the study won't continue long enough or it will be based on an inaccurate perception of the keto diet. As with many things in science, researchers have turned to rats for an answer. The researchers were concerned that there wouldn't be enough glucose for the brain on a low-carbohydrate diet. What the researchers discovered is that while the overall blood glucose level was low, the brain was still getting the glucose it needed and using ketones as a fuel substitute.

The problem with switching to a keto diet is that it takes some time for the enhanced brain benefits to be realized. The brain needs glucose for energy, but the body can learn to make its own. However, this process takes anywhere from one week to several months to start taking effect. By changing the main source of fuel for your brain, the body changes the way it handles amino acids. This results in a reduction in glutamate, which can cause brain harm when it's available in excessive amounts. In short, less glutamate will lead to a lower overall seizure risk and an improved recovery and repair process.

The Ketone Life

Your brain on ketones couldn't be happier. It will have sustained energy, improved overall efficiency and a reduction in disorders like depression, anxiety and eating disorders. All of these issues can affect your brain health and keep you from enjoying the best possible cognition. While it's important to realize that many factors can contribute to diseases and disorders, a healthy diet can help you think clearly and stay focused.

While the ancestor analogy is somewhat overused, it's true that our ancestors most likely started out by eating what they could find in the field when they found it. The body seems designed to be able to quickly absorb carbohydrates and use glucose of energy so that you are able to go out and catch prey that contains higher levels of fats and proteins.

The body can burn and utilize food in whatever form it comes in. If you bring a high carbohydrate meal to the table, your body will eat it and extract the nutrients you need. If you choose to choose a low carbohydrate meal, your body will use the glucose stores in the body for fuel. Then, when it runs out, it will switch to ketones for energy.

Even if you take virtually all carbohydrates, the body can produce the necessary glucose that is needed for energy production through a process known as gluconeogenesis. This means that the body can effectively use fats for fuel, but it must first switch over due to a complete depletion of carbohydrates and glucose.

How the Brain Uses Ketones

Since the brain functions much better on ketones than it does on glucose, it's important to understand how this process works to ensure you can access the correct state for optimal brain health. The Journal of the American Society for Experimental NeuroTherapeutics found that the brain does not efficiently metabolize fats. This means the brain must rely almost entirely on glucose for energy. The alternative is to use a built-in mechanism to create small amounts of glucose for the brain and to use ketones as an alternative energy source.

While the diet seems like a nightmare for any student of nutrition, the diet has been used for more than 80 years in the controlled treatment of various disorders. The diet has been in effect since the 1920s without any serious side effects. As the diet has been in use and studied for almost a century, most of the side effects are already well known.

Essentially, humans love sugar and the brain eats sugar at a dizzying rate. If you deprive your body of carbohydrates and glucose, the liver begins making its own. Ketone bodies serve as a sort of backup to carbohydrates. When you ingest fatty acids, you increase your overall level of ketones in the body. This is necessary since the brain can't directly use fatty acids as a source of fuel.

How the Keto Diet Affects the Brain

The Safety of Using Ketones for Energy

​Many people upon learning about the ketogenic diet become concerned with how well the brain will be able to function without carbohydrates. First, on a good keto diet, you won't be completely eliminating all of the carbohydrates in your system. Second, as learned in the previous section, the body can produce the glucose it needs to fuel the brain.

The body is perfectly happy using ketones to power the brain. The problem occurs when the body is starting to cannibalize itself and dip into protein reserves for fuel. Since the body can use protein, carbohydrates or fat for energy, the body will take energy from a bit of all three elements to keep moving. Provided you maintain adequate caloric intake, you'll be able to ensure that you can prevent most of the serious problems associated with the diet.

The problem with most armchair research on the effect of ketones on the brain is that many people still confuse the chemistry behind how the brain uses fuel. People often hear that the brain needs glucose to run and they take that at face value. They tend to not realize that the body can make its own glucose through a process known as gluconeogenesis. While it's true that the brain needs glucose to run, it isn't the only fuel that it can use.

In fact, the brain can use ketones for up to 75 percent of its fuel. The other 25 percent can be manufactured in the liver. The truth is that if the body could only survive on glucose, people would be dropping dead after just a few days of not eating. So, while it's generally safe to stay on a low-carb diet as long as you're getting enough calories, the real question is whether it's safe for the brain.

When you consider people who have impaired glucose utilization. This includes people who suffer from Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and other cognitive degenerative diseases, you'll find that their symptoms improve on a ketogenic diet. In some cases, the patients will completely eliminate the symptoms. While there is little research on whether the same cognitive benefits can be transferred to healthy individuals, it seems likely that using ketones to fuel the brain can produce more rewarding cognitive ability.

Look at some of the facts. People who suffer from Type 1 diabetes often suffer from reduced cognitive function due to low blood sugar. These issues can often be quickly erased using a ketogenic diet that places an emphasis on medium-chain triglycerides. A low carb diet also improved memory in older adults with a correlation in rising ketones.

The Effect of a Keto Diet on the Brain

Since there are obvious benefits for certain segments of the population, you have to wonder what is happening to produce these results. Start with a concept known as brain mitochondrial biogenesis. It's a mouthful, but what it means is that new power centers are created in the brain to burn ketones. This action is one of the reasons why the keto diet helps individuals who have epilepsy.

Since the brain is able to run on a different set of fuel, people who don't operate so well on glucose can now begin burning fat for fuel. The theory that mitochondrial biogenesis only works on unhealthy brains is something that needs to be studied, but there doesn't seem to be any reason for why this might be the case.

We've all felt that lingering sense of confusion that is commonly referred to as brain fog. This condition is usually the result of elevated ammonia levels and decreased levels of GABA. It's a horrible state to exist in since nothing can get done and all you want to do is crawl back into bed. Ketosis acts like a sort of broom that sweeps up extra ammonia and removes it from the brain. Ketosis can also increase the signaling of GABA. This neurotransmitter helps you to calm down. Through a combination of ammonia reduction and GABA signaling, your brain is more able to cope with changing situations.

Finally, ketones may also help you increase your sense of elation. Too much euphoria can affect your ability to think clearly and analyze the consequences of your choices. While euphoria and elation are not present in all people who enter ketosis, it does tend to be a common side effect for many. 

How the Keto Diet Affects the Brain 2


Ultimately, what this all comes down to is that neurodegeneration that occurs after a bout of oxidative stress will limit the body's ability to repair glucose. Recovery also seems to be hampered by a process known as glycolysis. When there is a defect in the ability for the body to metabolize glucose, ketones can be enlisted to provide a suitable energy supplementation. This can be accomplished without having to alter the levels of oxygen consumption.

Countless studies have shown that brain function is maintained during a period of starvation where an individual entered ketosis. Additionally, oxygen levels were also kept high, which is essential to ensuring a fully operational brain. For those who are worried about the lowered levels of glucose in the brain, data from a recent study has indicated that glucose consumption is only decreased by about 10 percent in relation to "servings" of ketone bodies. 


For better overall brain function, it makes sense to switch to a keto diet. While it can take some time to get past the initial side effects of the diet, it seems to be a cleaner form of fuel that can help you get hold of your hunger levels. By suppressing key hunger-activating compounds, you'll experience a more stable system that doesn't yell out to be fed every 4 to 6 hours.