The ketogenic diet is a popular diet for weight loss and mental clarity.
Ketogenic diet means limiting carbohydrate and protein intake and eating a lot of fats. Basically, your macro ratios should be as follows: 5 % of carbs, 25 % of protein and 70 % fat.
Keto diet has become very popular amongst scientists and bodybuilders for its ability to burn fat at a fast rate, aid weight loss, and increase muscle mass.
Currently, it is also widely studied because it has been noticed to have many beneficial effects on mood, stress levels, memory, and energy production in the brain.
This article looks at the “mental clarity” effect on ketogenic diet.
In this article:
- Ketogenic diet put simply
- Why do you get tired?
- How do carbs provide energy to the cells
- How to activate fat-burning?
- How does ketogenic diet relate to mental health?
- Benefits of the ketogenic diet for the mind
- acts as a stress relief
- improves memory and learning
- may protect from Alzheimer’s
- brings more mental energy with less metabolic waste
- reduce symptoms of ADHD, anxiety, and depression and improve mood
- treatment for epilepsy
- potential treatment for anorexia?
- Learn more about the ketogenic diet
1. The ketogenic diet put simply
The ketogenic diet is simply a low-carb diet where you eat a lot of fat (70 % of daily kcal, some protein (25 % of daily kcal) and almost zero carbs (5 % of daily kcal).
It has been used in treating epilepsy for over 80 years, and it is also an efficient weight loss and fat burn method. (1)
2. Why do you get tired?
Your body gets all the energy for moving, thinking and living from foods that you eat and oxygen that you breathe, and that is why your eating habits determine how energized and healthy you feel.
All food consists of 3 raw materials called macronutrients: 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 we crave carbs when we are mentally or physically tired. Foods high in carbs include for example fruits, grains, beans, chocolate, and pasta.
Fats are converted to energy 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 outcome is the same, just the method changes. 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 quite fast and thus we go for carbs.
3. How do carbs provide energy to the cells?
When you eat carbohydrates, the fast energy ingredient, it goes into the bloodstream in the form of glucose. This makes liver to secrete insulin which binds to the glucose. Insulin and glucose then travel together to the outer surface of the cell. When insulin hits the receptor at the outer surface of the cell, it initiates a cascade of reactions that opens the cell’s “glucose gate” and glucose moves inside the cell and all the way to its energy-producing factory, mitochondria. At the same time, the brain releases opioids and dopamine to make you feel happy and rewarded 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 doing whatever you like doing.
4. How to activate fat burning?
So if our body uses that sugar as energy, what’s the point not having it? Would that not be bad?
As mentioned in the introduction, 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 thus the ready supply of 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 are using fats as fuel.
As glucose is not stored (in high amounts) in the body, but there are plenty of fat storages available, fat is ultimately more sustainable energy source. Using fat as the main energy fuel requires for you not to consume carbs (almost) at all because as soon as your body gets those carbs in again, it will start using that as the main source of energy.
5. How does ketogenic diet relate to mental health?
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 ketogenic diet is such a good treatment for epilepsy. Recently, the evidence is emerging that it may act as prophylaxis for a chronic migraine as well, although its precise mechanism is still unclear (R)
The reasons for 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)
6. Benefits of the ketogenic diet for the mind
1) 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 calmer mind and better mental focus.
2) The ketogenic diet may improve memory and learning (S)
Studies have found that ketones can protect the brain cells from oxidative damages caused by free radicals. In animal studies, it has been demonstrated that inflammation in the brain 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.
3) The ketogenic diet may protect from Alzheimer’s (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.
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.
Ps. I love MCT-oil! I normally add it to my morning coffee or smoothies for extra energy. Check out for example: WoldoHealth I 500ml MCT Oil I C8 and C10 I pure 100% coconut I flavorless & odorless I Bulletproof Coffee
4) 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)
5) May reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and ADHD, and stabilize mood
In 2017, a systematic review concluded that KD diet show 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 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)
6) 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)
7) Potential treatment for anorexia? (S)
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.
Learn more about the ketogenic diet:
Siim Land explaining Ketogenic Diet and why to do it – very informative and well-explained clip with a dash of humor (10 min)
Keto experts Dr. Dom D’Agnostino and Dr. Eric Verdin in Dr. Rhonda Partics’ podcast:
- Tim Ferris’ Dominic D’Agnostino: very good podcast episode about the keto diet
- The Current Status of the Ketogenic Diet in Psychiatry. – NCBI
- Ketogenic Diets for Psychiatric Disorders: A New 2017 Review – Psychology Today 30.1.2017
Avena, N. M., Rada, P., & Hoebel, B. G. (2008). Evidence for sugar addiction: Behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 32(1), 20–39. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2007.04.019
Barbanti, P., Fofi, L., Aurilia, C., Egeo, G., & Caprio, M. (2017). Ketogenic diet in migraine: rationale, findings and perspectives. Neurological Sciences: Official Journal of the Italian Neurological Society and of the Italian Society of Clinical Neurophysiology, 38(Suppl 1), 111–115. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10072-017-2889-6
Bostock, E. C. S., Kirkby, K. C., & Taylor, B. V. M. (2017). The Current Status of the Ketogenic Diet in Psychiatry. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 8, 43. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2017.00043
Bough, K. J., & Rho, J. M. (2007). Anticonvulsant Mechanisms of the Ketogenic Diet. Epilepsia, 48(1), 43–58. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1528-1167.2007.00915.x
El-Mallakh, R. S., & Paskitti, M. E. (2001b). The ketogenic diet may have mood-stabilizing properties. Medical Hypotheses, 57(6), 724–726. https://doi.org/10.1054/mehy.2001.1446
Ketogenic diet and mental health. (n.d.). Retrieved April 11, 2018, from https://www.diabetes.co.uk/keto/ketogenic-diet-and-mental-health.html
Lee, J., Bruce-Keller, A. J., Kruman, Y., Chan, S. L., & Mattson, M. P. (1999). 2-Deoxy-D-glucose protects hippocampal neurons against excitotoxic and oxidative injury: evidence for the involvement of stress proteins. Journal of Neuroscience Research, 57(1), 48–61. https://doi.org/10.1002/(SICI)1097-4547(19990701)57:13.0.CO;2-L
Maalouf, M., Rho, J. M., & Mattson, M. P. (2009). The neuroprotective properties of calorie restriction, the ketogenic diet, and ketone bodies. Brain Research Reviews, 59(2), 293–315. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brainresrev.2008.09.002
Scolnick, B. (2017). Ketogenic diet and anorexia nervosa. Medical Hypotheses, 109, 150–152. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mehy.2017.10.011