When I started my low carb journey in 2014 it was because my lifestyle and my diet had caused me to become pre-diabetic. Not wanting to be in this position, and concerned for my health, I began my research into a high-raw, low-carb (aka low-sugar) diet. The unbelievable u-turn that my health took was enough for me to found a business based on a ketogenic approach to diet so that I could help others benefit from a low-sugar lifestyle.
Two of the most obvious effects of this new approach were weight loss and a significant increase in my energy levels. There was something else, though, that I wasn’t expecting to result from a keto diet but that I was so happy it did - my mood and mental health were drastically improved! Back in 2014 I thought this was a happy coincidence, but now, with even more research into this area, we know that a ketogenic diet can be incredibly beneficial for brain health. We’re going to discuss why that is but let’s quickly recap what ketosis is.
What is ketosis?
Ketosis is a metabolic state where the body burns fat for fuel instead of glucose. Babies are actually born in ketosis and it’s not something we need to be afraid of. These days it’s actually really hard to get into a ketogenic state, because we always have a constant supply of glucose coming in via the diet. As humans we have these two metabolic states because historically we wouldn’t have always had an abundance of food at our fingertips. Our hunter gatherer ancestors might have gone a few days without eating, or may have just consumed protein or just roots and fruit - so they swung between burning stored body fat for fuel, consuming zero sugar or consuming a bit of both - summer berries, roots and tubers for example. It’s important that we are able to move in and out of these two metabolic states, but few of us rarely do.
Why is ketosis beneficial for brain health?
When the diet is low in sugar but high in fat and we’re burning stored body fat or dietary fat and protein for fuel instead of glucose, we produce something called ketones. If you're metabolically able to do this, i.e. you’re ‘fat adapted,’ you have almost an unlimited amount of available energy to burn (unless you are very underweight).
Ketosis has been shown to increase a neurotransmitter, called GABA, in the brain. Evidence suggests that various mental disorders, such as anxiety, result from a lack of GABA in the brain.
In disorders involving seizures, GABA has been shown to improve mental clarity and focus and reduce stress and anxiety. Moreover, the keto diet is showing promising benefits on Alzheimer's progression by helping to slow the progression of amyloid plaques in the brain.
Secondly, although the primary source of fuel for our brain is glucose, it’s actually really happy running on ketones (i.e. fat for fuel). Ketones such as beta hydroxybutyrate, produced from fat, can provide an alternative, and really efficient, fuel for the brain. Research suggests that ketones may even be a more efficient fuel for the brain than glucose.
Thirdly, a ketogenic diet can be really anti-inflammatory if done well, and this is because it has the potential to reduce oxidative stress in the brain. Not only does it boost levels of glutathione (our most potent antioxidant), but it also naturally avoids quite inflammatory foods like grains and sugar.
Finally, from a blood sugar perspective, it’s unnerving and unsettling to be bouncing up and down throughout the day, needing a quick fix from carbohydrates. Maintaining steady blood sugar can help balance hormones and keep your energy stable and high throughout the day, and this involves eating enough protein and fat, as carbohydrates spike blood sugar and trigger insulin release.
The good news is that you don’t need to go full on keto to reap some of these benefits. Just by avoiding processed grains and too much added sugar and instead opting for loads of lovely vegetables and low sugar fruits like berries (rather than say, mangoes), alongside lots of healthy fat and good quality protein, you can feel the effects of a calmer mood, more energy and less anxiety that the keto diet has to offer.
Not sure where to start? Check out our range of keto breads and snacks - we like to make it simple for you!
Yours in health,
Anticonvulsant mechanisms of the ketogenic diet – Kristopher J. Bough, Jong M. Rho. Center for Drug Evaluation & Research, Food and Drug Administration, Rockville, Maryland.
Regulation of GABA level and effects of ketone bodies – Erecińska M, Nelson D, Daikhin Y, Yudkoff M. Department of Pharmacology, University of Pennsylvania, School of Medicine, Philadelphia, USA.
The ketogenic diet increases glutathione levels – Stuart G. Jarrett, Julie B. Milder, Li-Ping Liang, Manisha Patel. Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, University of Colorado Denver, Denver, Colorado, USA.