Many of the people who promote the ketogenic diet focus on the physical health benefits, such as weight loss or lowered cholesterol levels. However, there are many other benefits to the keto diet that are less obvious. One of the most useful advantages of the keto diet is its ability to protect the brain from damage and promote proper brain function.
How Does the Keto Diet Work?
The ketogenic diet is basically a high fat diet with very low carbohydrate allowances. It is used to put the body into a state of ketosis, which alters how the body’s metabolism functions. Typically, people get energy when carbohydrates are broken down into glucose, a form of sugar that is easily converted into sugar by muscles and organs of the body. However, when a person eats less than 50 grams of carbohydrates a day, the body cannot create enough glucose to power the entire body. When this happens, the liver begins converting fatty acids, which may come from your diet or your body’s fat stores, into ketones. The brain, which uses up 20 percent of the body’s energy, cannot be powered directly from fat, but it can use ketones as an energy source. Meanwhile, a small amount of glucose can be derived from the ketosis process, preventing people in ketosis from having low blood sugar. So not only does the keto diet help people to lose weight by burning fat cells, but it also changes the way the brain receives the energy it needs to work properly.
What Happens to the Brain Mitochondria on the Keto Diet?
The mitochondria of the brain are a component of brain cells that are responsible for creating energy for this very important organ. Though they normally just use oxygen and glucose for energy, it turns out that some types of ketones are actually more efficient than glucose. This means that the mitochondria can create more energy from the amount of oxygen they have to work with if they are being fueled by ketones. The keto diet also increases the overall amount of mitochondria present in brain cells. Overall, this leads to an increased amount of energy reserves in the brain, so neurons are stronger and better able to resist disease or other stressors that could cause them to die. One of the key similarities of major neurological diseases is deficient energy production, so the keto diet might be able to help with these health conditions.
Do Neurons Function Differently on the Keto Diet?
The neurons of the brain need to be balanced by glutamate and GABA, two neurotransmitters that prevent hyperactive neurons from occurring. Glutamate stimulates neurons, and an excessive amount of glutamate actually results in seizures and neurodegeneration because overstimulated neurons can sometimes die. However, ketones prevent neurons from becoming overloaded by glutamate because ketones increase levels of GABA, so neuronal excitability is decreased. Because of this protective function of the keto diet, it has been used to manage epilepsy symptoms since the 1930s.
Can Ketones Protect the Brain?
Another common reason for neurological disease is stress from oxidants. Oxidants are highly reactive byproducts of metabolism that can alter other proteins in the body, leading to damaged cellular structures and heightened inflammation levels that can result in cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and other issues. Since ketones are metabolised differently than glucose, they have an effect on this general process, and less oxidants are produced on the keto diet. The keto diet also has an antioxidant effect because it naturally increases production of glutathione peroxidase, a compound that helps to break up oxidants before they can cause issues.
Have Any Studies Examined the Keto Diet’s Effect on the Brain?
Because of the many changes in the brain of people following the keto diet, medical researchers have done quite a few studies to see if these theoretical alterations actually have a real, noticeable effect on human subjects. A 2009 study from the Nutrition and Metabolism journal tested the effect of 152 patients who had the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s disease. One group of the participants were given an oral medication that introduced ketone bodies to the brain while the other group received a placebo. After 90 days, the patients with higher ketone levels had significant cognitive improvement. Another study published in Neurobiology of Aging found that seniors who followed the keto diet for six weeks had improved memory and improved verbal performance compared to seniors on a regular diet that is high in carbohydrates. These are just a couple of the many studies that have shown the keto diet’s ability to improve neurological conditions, including Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis.
All of this scientific information and medical research combines to show that the ketogenic diet has a definite and beneficial effect on the brain. Anecdotal evidence about people feeling more alert and having better memory on the keto diet was originally dismissed as merely being a side effect of eating healthier, but it turns out that the process of ketosis changes the way the brain functions. The keto diet is able to stimulate brain function while protecting neurons from inflammation, stress, and overexcitation, so it may be able to help people with neurological conditions or keep them from developing in the first place. Even people who are not at risk for neurological issues will still benefit from the improved cognition associated with the keto diet.
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