Food Freedom Friday Edition 127 - Ketogenic Diets & Mental Health

Mental health includes physiological, social, and economic well-being. It dictates how you think, act, and make decisions. Mental health can become compromised due to the presence of free radicals produced by glucose in high carbohydrate diets. To curb this, adopting a predominantly fat and protein-rich diet ebbs the flow of the free radicals in the brain thus supporting mental health.

How does ketogenic diet impact mental health?

Ketogenic diet shows great potential in improving mood, and research shows that these diets affect the brain in a number of positive ways.

1. Improves brain function

Diet is one of the major causes of brain fog, poor mental performance, and lack of productivity.

The typical western diet is often deficient in essential fatty acids which cannot be produced by the body and can only be obtained through foods. Without these essential nutrients, the body and mental health become less efficient.

It is no surprise that a Ketogenic diet is used to treat neuro-degenerative diseases like epilepsy, Parkinson disease, and other age-related cognitive issues. In cases like this, the production of ketone bodies can serve as a backup energy source for the body.

Studies have shown the effect of this diet on mental health. The fat-rich diet increases brain functions in many ways;
During a study published by the American Diabetes Association, type 1 diabetics saw improved cognitive performance and preserved brain function during hypoglycemia after ingesting medium chain triglycerides (derived from coconut oil).

Those with Alzheimer’s have seen improved memory scores that might correlate with the amount of ketones levels present.

Low carbohydrate diets benefit brain functioning via neuroprotective properties. Fatty acids like Omega-3’s are essential for brain function and health. Getting the right ratio of Omega-3 and Omega-6, anywhere between 1:1 and 1:4 is essential for brain health. A benefit of the ketogenic diet is its use of fats that help maintain the proper balance of omega-3s to omega-6s. Examples of natural sources of Omega-3 fats include wild-caught fatty fish, grass-fed and pastured animals and eggs from pastured chickens.

2. Reduces oxidative stress and inflammation in the brain

Various studies point to the fact that Ketogenic diets reduces oxidative stress and inflammation in the body. Inflammation is caused by the abundance of oxygen in the brain tissues. Researchers believe that ketones bodies reduce the levels of inflammation and increase the energy supply to the brain. Furthermore, ketogenic diets are effective in treating seizures in people by increasing the levels of glutathione (which is neuro-protective against oxidative stress).

3. Increases focus

Foggy brain or lack of mental clarity is a major symptom of unbalanced diet. Symptoms are often due to a lack of nutrients:

Glutamate, a neurotransmitter that increases stimulation in the body and is vital for learning and functioning

GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), the principal neurotransmitter in the body that reduces stimulation.

Glutamate is involved any time you are thinking, talking or processing information. In fact, as intelligence increases, glutamate receptors on the cells also increase. As with most things, balance is important: more glutamate may not always imply better function. Glutamate should be able to transform into GABA, but sometimes this is less than efficient.

Glutamate is responsible for majority of the brain’s synaptic connections. The brain can over-process resulting in reduced available GABA to dampen stimulation. When the body contains excess glutamate and insufficient GABA, brain fog results. Additionally, social behavior is decreased and anxiety increases.

Ketogenic diets provide the brain with a higher quality source of energy which allows for efficient processing of extra glutamate into GABA.

By increasing the stimulation of GABA, ketones can then help reduce the amount of extra neurons and improve mental focus as well as possibly reduce anxiety disorders and stress.

4. Improves memory

Memory decreases with age but the decline of a perfect recollection can be thwarted by adopting a Ketogenic diet. Ketone bodies may reduce free radicals in the brain by increasing the energy levels and efficiency of the mitochondria, which create energy for the body’s cells. High (well-sourced) fat nutrition can support the production of new mitochondria and increase the level of ATP in your brain’s memory cells.

The ketogenic diet mental illness

Ketogenic diets have been used since 1920 to reduce the occurrence of epilepsy and seizures in patients. The diet is often a better alternative to anti-convulsive medications with zero to none of the side effect.

It was only within the last decade that psychiatrists and neurologists have begun using this protocol for issues including depression, bipolar disorders, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson, and Schizophrenia.

1. Bipolar disorder

There are more than 5 million cases of bipolar disorders in the US alone. This disorder is accompanied by periods of depression low and manic high with little to no hope of a ‘cure.’ There are numerous medications that can alleviate the symptoms and reduce the occurrence but these come attached with side effects that might impede the daily activities of the user. Many of the medications used to manage bipolar disorders have anti-seizure properties, which has established a link between high-fat, low-carb diet and its effects on the brain.

Although there is not much data supporting the use of a ketogenic diet as a treatment for mental disorders like bipolar, but there are a few clinical cases which have shown promise. For example, a 2013 paper showed that two women with type II bipolar disorder, who went on a ketogenic diet for over two years and achieved better mood stabilization with the diet than with medication.

2. Schizophrenia

Probably one of the most common mental health issues, this disorder is comprised of hallucinations and paranoia. It affects the way people think, act, and feel, making it much more dangerous than many others. Besides medication, low carbohydrate diets and ketogenic diets have been shown to reduce symptoms of schizophrenia in animal studies. Furthermore, there has been some small scale human testing.

With a well-implemented Ketogenic diet, affected individuals can effectively manage schizophrenia through many of the mechanisms of action mentioned earlier, especially the increase in GABA levels in the brain, and by substituting fat and ketones for glucose as the primary source of energy.

3. Dementia

This term is used to describe a scope of mental illnesses that involve loss of memory and mental dysfunction severe enough to disrupt daily activities. Today, studies have shown that higher levels of ketones in the body may help with mild cognitive impairment (MCI); a condition that makes someone more susceptible to develop dementia. One cause of mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is a high level of inflammation in the brain that is due to the build-up of amyloid plaques, similar to those found in Alzheimer’s disease.

More studies have shown that keeping a strict ketogenic diet may be beneficial for reducing the formation of these inflammatory plaques, although further research will be needed to further confirm this claim.

4. Depression

Depression, perhaps, is the most common mental health concern today. There are over 100 million cases of depression reported per year. This disorder comes in different forms; from rare episodes to recurrent ones. It is usually treatable by medical practitioners with the use of anti-depressants, which, again, are rife with side-effects.

Ketogenic diets stand as an alternative to the use of anti-depressants since they come with no side effects. Recent studies in animal test subjects have proved that there may be a case for the use of a ketogenic diet in treating depression. Although the mechanism of action of the diet is still unclear in most studies and research.

There is a popular thought that the ketogenic diet has similar effects to antidepressant drugs. However, further controlled studies are needed in human test subjects to confirm it although anecdotal evidence is extensive.

5. Epilepsy

Perhaps, one of the most popular use for Ketogenic diet in mental health is for epilepsy treatment. This practice started in the 1920’s and initially used to treat epilepsy in children that were not responding to medication. In a test study, about 150 children suffering from frequent bouts of epilepsy were placed on Ketogenic diet. Over half of the children experienced a 50 percent reduction in seizures.

Currently, ketogenic diets have proven to be an effective treatment method for difficult-to-control seizures in children. Additionally, the diet is recommended for children with severe reactions to the side effects of anti-convulsion drugs.

Ketogenic diets have long enjoyed a place in psychiatry and neurology. Since the early 20th century, there have been major accomplishments in treating some mental issues with Ketogenic diets. Sadly, there is still insufficient controlled testing and correlation between the acquired result and these treatments.

Michal Ofer