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Why Are Ketones So Good for Your Brain?

Unless you’re living on a freshly colonized patch on Mars, you’ve probably heard about the ketogenic diet. It seems like everyone and their great aunt is raving about the benefits of keto these days. They’re crowing about weight loss and showing off transformation photos. But did you know that keto could benefit your brain, too? Those reports of improved cognition and brain fog disappearing are just some of the benefits of ketones for brain health. 

But why are ketones so good for your brain?

Turns out, ketones could help lower inflammation in the brain. They may also help encourage GABA synthesis, reduce levels of glutamate, and stimulate BDNF.

What Are Ketones?

The human body is typically fueled by fats, carbohydrates, and proteins. When you eat these macronutrients, your body digests them and turns them into lipids, glucose, and amino acids. From there, your body is able to use those nutrients to perform various bodily functions.

But — if you deprive your body of glucose by way of restricting the amount of carbohydrates you eat, or fasting, your body turns to ketones as a replacement fuel.[1]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK554523

Ketones, or ketone bodies, are produced when your body enters ketosis. Ketosis is the metabolic process by which your body breaks down fat into usable energy. So instead of glucose (derived from the breakdown of carbohydrates), your body uses ketones (derived from the breakdown of fats) as its primary energy source. In other words, when you eat a keto diet, or fast, your liver produces ketones instead of glucose for your body to use as fuel.

What Is The Ketogenic Diet?

The ketogenic diet, also known as the keto diet for short —  is designed specifically to put the body in a state of ketosis. The keto diet is comprised of high fat, moderate protein, and low carbohydrates.[2]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK499830/  

Most keto diet proponents agree that a good macronutrient ratio to aim for when trying to induce ketosis is as follows:

  • 70% fat
  • 25% protein
  • 5% carbohydrates

Everyone’s body is different, and some people may enter nutritional ketosis when their diet consists of 15% carbohydrates…and others may have to drop down to less than 5% carbohydrate intake when trying to induce ketosis. 

History Of Ketogenic Diet

So what exactly is the history of keto? How did the keto diet come to be? And who started the keto diet?

In order to understand how the current iteration of the keto diet came to be, we have to look back to at least 500 BC — when healers used the practice of fasting to treat epilepsy. 

Fast forward to the early 1900s. Western doctors began experimenting with a diet that would mimic the effects of fasting for epileptic children. Rather than forgoing food for days at a time, the theory went, kids could eat a reduced carbohydrate diet and still experience the benefits of fasting. 

Sure enough, when children with epilepsy were put on the ketogenic diet, they seemed to experience improvement in their condition. Some claimed complete control of their seizures and some reported improvement.[3]https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1528-1167.2008.01821.x

After anti-seizure medications were developed, the keto diet mostly fell out of favor. But the idea was revived in the 1970s when Dr. Atkins began promoting it as a means for inducing weight loss.

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Does Ketosis Improve Brain Function?

So why does ketosis help people with seizures? And since ketones seem to be beneficial for those battling a brain disorder, does it follow that ketones are a preferred energy source for the brain? 

The truth is, we don’t really know for sure. 

What scientists do know is this — when your body metabolizes fat, it produces ketones. Ketones are able to cross the blood-brain barrier. When they do so, your brain can use ketones as its fuel, rather than the glucose it typically uses when carbohydrates are metabolized.

One of the benefits of ketones in the brain is that they appear to reduce levels of glutamate (an excitatory neurotransmitter) and encourage gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA (an inhibitory neurotransmitter) synthesis.[4]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2722878/[5]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17240074/ This is good for your brain, since overly excited neurons often die. High levels of glutamate are related to stroke, neurodegeneration, and seizures.[6]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7098326/[7]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12671283/[8]https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnins.2015.00469/full[9]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/7970002/#:~:text=Microdialysis%20studies%20show%20an%20increase,uptake%20contributes%20to%20seizure%20initiation[10]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4526718/

Another benefit of ketones is that they also could help to reduce inflammation in the brain.[11]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5981249/ Inflammation in the brain can be associated with dementia, and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.[12]https://academic.oup.com/brain/article/143/3/1010/5803192[13]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6214864/[14]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7408280/ It’s also been linked to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) — the condition triggered by repeated head injuries.[15]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30482357/

And, it also appears that ketones can help to stimulate brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) — which means ketones could help you to learn and remember things better.[16]https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22787591/

Want steady brain energy without the jitters and foggy crash? Take this quiz to see what might work for you. 

Ketones And Brain Function

Interestingly, nutritional ketosis has been explored as a treatment for traumatic brain injury.[17]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK209323/

And, since ketones appear to be so good for your brain, science is also considering therapeutic ketosis as an Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s treatment.[18]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6720297/[19]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6356942/[20]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6175383/

A review of 10 studies looking at the role of the ketogenic diet in Alzheimer’s treatment seemed promising.[21]https://academic.oup.com/advances/article/11/6/1583/5864685?login=true And animal studies indicate ketogenic diets can improve cognition and even extend lifespan.[22]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6286979/

Research is a long way off from recommending a ketogenic diet for any of these diseases, but it is definitely interesting. 

Will Keto Make You Lose Weight?

A discussion of ketones, ketosis, and the ketogenic diet wouldn’t be complete without the mention of weight loss. After all, the diet has gained such popularity in recent years, not because of its brain health benefits, but because people swear by it as a weight loss tool.

Ultimately, it appears that keto can induce weight loss.[23]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6371871/ It also seems like it could be beneficial for those with type 2 diabetes.[24]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6566854/ 

However, research also indicates that it’s not really any more effective at helping people lose weight than any other calorie-restricted diet.[25]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6371871/[26] … Continue reading 

Ultimately, some people gain weight on keto, and some lose. Nutritional ketosis can be very difficult for some to stick to since many foods (even vegetables) have carbohydrates in them — and the slightest misstep can kick you out of ketosis.

Are Ketogenic Diets Dangerous?

While there do appear to be several potential health and brain benefits from encouraging ketones to circulate in your body, many also wonder if keto is safe in the long term. After all, can downing red meat, butter, and bacon on a daily basis for years lead to health consequences?

Ultimately, we don’t really know the answer to that. There haven’t been long-term studies following keto dieters over the course of many years. One study looked at obese patients who went keto for 24 weeks. Researchers found no side effects. And the patients had decreased BMI, lowered cholesterol levels, improved triglyceride levels, and significant improvements to blood glucose.[27]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2716748/ 

Still, other research warns that LDL or the “bad” cholesterol levels can rise on keto.[28]https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnut.2021.702802/full#h1 And many of the foods typically increased in a ketogenic diet like processed meats and red meat have been shown in many studies to be linked to poor health outcomes, like heart disease.[29]https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/news/2020/new-study-shows-eating-red-meat-processed-meat-increases-heart-disease-risk  

There are a few more dangers to consider before embarking on a quest for more ketones:

  • Anyone with kidney disease should not try the keto diet unless recommended by their doctor.
  • Pregnant women should consult their doctor before eating a ketogenic diet.
  • Because the ketogenic diet consists mainly of fats, many vitamins and minerals that your body relies on to function properly are missing from it. In fact, in the 1970s several people died from trying a shake-based ketogenic diet that didn’t include adequate minerals. So before embracing a keto lifestyle, be sure to work closely with your doctor to ensure your safety.

Other Ways To Pump Up Your Brain Power

While sticking to a strict fasting regimen or reducing your carb intake significantly may be beneficial for your brain…there are other (dare we say easier?) ways to get your brain firing on all cylinders.

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