Nearly everyone has at least heard of the ketogenic diet by now. Most of the buzz is centered around its ability to help us shed unwanted fat. Pretty much everyone knows someone who is praising the ketogenic way of eating, you may even know an evangelist or two. (They drive me crazy too…it’s okay to admit it.)
Look around, mental health issues are steadily on the rise. You can’t scroll your social media feed without some reference to mental health. Depression and anxiety are more prevalent than ever. More and more cases of bipolar disorder and schizoaffective disorder are added to the mix as well.
While many limit the mental health field to psychiatry, there are neurological components to many mental health disorders. At the hub of your neurological system is your brain. The brain is a very powerful tool and it needs fuel to carry out its many functions.
Fun Fact: The human brain only amounts to 2% of total body weight yet uses approximately 20% of the energy supply. Greedy little bugger, eh?
What is the Connection?
The honest answer is nobody really knows for sure. There have been studies of course, but researchers are vastly under-funded and the data isn’t completely reliable. And then there’s the research bias that runs amuck in many academic circles…this is something that must be taken into consideration when reading any “research”.
Inadequacies range from either the ketones and state of ketosis not being verified, no control group involvement, people dropping out of the study, or mental health care providers were simply relaying a few success stories on their own clients while lacking an official study. And those are just a few of the many variables when designing a proper study.
The studies needed to prove correlation between the ketogenic diet and reduced or eliminated mental health issues would take years to complete and tons of money. And people. People who can stick to the ketogenic diet.
From the information that has been gathered to date, researchers are lead to believe the fuel provided to the brain could be responsible for the decreased mental health problems in those following the ketogenic diet.
Deductive reasoning (a skill lacking in many) leads us to connect some critical dots. Since both mental health issues and seizures have neurological factors, logical thinking leads us to believe the same positive benefits could apply to a wider range of people.
Ketogenic Diet vs Standard American Diet
In case no one has explained it yet, the ketogenic diet restricts carbohydrates (20-50 g daily) and uses a higher (healing) fat content with adequate protein strategy. Limiting carbs forces the body to switch from being a glucose-burning machine to a fat-burning machine.
This is called the ketogenic state. It usually takes less than 48 hours to get into a ketogenic state and somewhere around a month to be fully adapted.
The Standard American Diet (SAD) doesn’t limit carbs and it’s not unheard-of to consume 200 carbs in a single day.
In any Italian restaurant it’s entirely possible to eat that amount of carbs in a single meal; Bruschetta appetizer, spaghetti and meatballs as the main dish and of course the tiny loaves of bread to nosh on while waiting to be served. In my mind bread was just a handy vehicle for butter. So now I just say “hold the bread, bring extra REAL butter!”
The Brain: Glucose Fuel or Fat Fuel?
This is where science should be giving the answers, but as noted above, researchers are basically winging it on what is known to date. There are several changes when fat-burning takes over and glucose is no longer the main fuel source: the presence of ketones, lower blood sugar and less insulin production.
Is it one of these biochemical responses or the combination that creates a happy brain? And it might be years before anyone really has a definitive, scientifically based answer. The body and brain love synergy, so I am prone to think it is the combo of these positives that creates a trifecta of brain bliss.
The general consensus is the brain may prefer ketones as fuel due to their anti-inflammatory properties.
Let’s apply this to one of my favorite topics…food! What snack would make for a happier brain?
A plate of pizza rolls, or a plate of ham wrapped, cream cheese slathered dill pickles?
Think of it this way…which one leaves you feeling bloated, groggy, brain-dead and seeking a nap? While the alternate provides a clean fuel that sustains steady energy until the next mealtime.
Double Whammy of the Best Kind
Not only can the ketogenic diet be beneficial for weight loss, the studies are showing promising results for mental health issues as well!
When one loses weight, it feels good on the inside and the outside. Fueling the body with the right ratio of macronutrients (proteins, fats and carbohydrates) is like using premium gas for your vehicle.
As the inside is working much more efficiently and weight loss begins, body image gets a hit of positivity.
The ketogenic diet could also be an alternative to those who are unable to afford psychiatric medications or who just want to try a more holistic approach. It is certainly worth giving it the ol’ college try! Maybe mental health related medications haven’t been as successful for you as expected. Or maybe you’re one of the many who experience nasty side-effects from them. The reasons to try ketosis are endless and the list of reasons not to try pales by comparison.