How a Keto Diet Can Boost Brain Health
Keto has earned a reputation as a weight loss diet (and rightly so), but at its core, it’s truly a brain health diet.
The keto diet (short for ketogenic) is a high fat, moderate protein, very low carbohydrate way of eating. Keto dieters typically eat 70-80% of their calories from fat, 10-20% from protein, and 5-10% from carbohydrates. This translates to consuming between 20 and 30 grams of carbs per day.
How can restricting carbs and upping fat support your brain health? That’s what we’ll be covering in this article. Here’s what you need to know.
How Does the Keto Diet Work?
To understand how keto works, let’s imagine a caveman named Grok. It’s wintertime and Grok doesn’t have access to carb sources, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. Instead, he’s subsisting on a fatty mammoth carcass. The meat is providing him with essentially zero glucose (the brain’s typical fuel source), yet he’s able to maintain his energy, sharp thinking, and health.
How could this be?
When glucose is scarce, a hormone called insulin is lowered, which signals the liver to start burning fat and produce brain-fueling molecules called ketones for energy.
Today, many people choose to drastically reduce carbs to trigger ketone production, despite having year-round access to them. Why?
Because ketones fuel the brain differently than glucose. Most notably, burning ketones for energy generates fewer reactive oxygen species (ROS)—a key driver of oxidative stress and inflammation—than burning glucose.[*]
Brain Conditions That May Benefit from a Keto Diet
Another big reason people go keto is because this way of eating has been shown to help several brain conditions. Let’s take a look at those now.
The keto diet has been around since the 1920s and was initially designed to treat children with epilepsy—a brain disorder that causes recurring, unprovoked seizures. And it did so with great success.[*]
Today, keto is still successfully used to reduce the duration and frequency of seizures in epileptic children.[*] The benefits have also been repeated in studies involving adults.[*]
One possible explanation for these benefits is that the keto diet reduces the amount of glutamate in the brain and enhances the production of the neurotransmitter GABA, making it less likely for a seizure to occur.[*]
#2: Alzheimer’s disease
Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia and the seventh leading cause of death in the U.S.[*] It’s a progressive disease in which the brain develops plaques and tangles that slowly destroy memory and thinking skills.
Based on initial research, it appears the keto diet may be beneficial to people with this degenerative brain disease.
In one study, Alzheimer’s patients on a keto diet showed increased blood flow to the brain and higher levels of cerebrospinal fluid compared to those on a low-fat diet.[*] This is very promising, as cerebrospinal fluid helps clear proteins like amyloid and tau, which are associated with neurodegeneration in Alzheimer’s.[*]
One possible explanation for this effect is that the aging brain often loses its ability to metabolize glucose, yet maintains its ability to metabolize ketones.[*] In fact, many researchers even believe Alzheimer’s should be considered “type 3” diabetes.[*]
#3: Parkinson’s disease
Parkinson’s disease is another neurodegenerative disease caused by deterioration of the basal ganglia—the part of your brain that controls movement.
While research is still in its infancy, the initial research is promising. One human study found that Parkinson’s patients on a keto or low-fat diet showed improvements in motor symptoms, but only those on a keto diet showed improvements in non-motor symptoms.[*]
As with Alzheimer’s, these improvements could be due to the aging brain’s loss of ability to metabolize glucose and continued ability to metabolize ketones.[*]
#4: Traumatic brain injury
When someone experiences a traumatic brain injury, such as a concussion, immune cells are immediately dispatched to the brain to heal the injury. While this is a necessary survival mechanism, this immune response can damage delicate brain cells.
While more research is needed in humans, animal studies show that keto may reduce the extent of this damage.[*]
#5: Brain fog
Brain fog is not necessarily one symptom, but a group of symptoms related to thinking and memory. Some people describe it as an inability to concentrate, focus, or think clearly. Others struggle with attention, memory, or just feeling mentally exhausted.
Fortunately, many keto dieters find that their brain fog drastically reduces or vanishes once they get past the initial keto adjustment period, making way for laser sharp thinking and focus.
The reduction or elimination of brain fog on the keto diet is likely a combination of several factors, including removing certain foods from the diet (i.e., grains, processed foods, sweets, etc.), stabilization of blood sugar, and ketone production (ketones are anti-inflammatory!).[*][*]
#6: Cognitive decline
One of the unfortunate realities of aging is experiencing a reduction in cognitive performance. You may notice you’re not able to remember things as readily or that your processing speed is slowing down. This is true even in people who don’t have dementia.
While not a cure-all, a high-fat, low-carb keto diet could help. In one study, older adults without dementia performed better on a series of cognitive tests while in ketosis.[*]
The keto diet has also been shown to improve cognition in people diagnosed with dementia.[*]
Going Keto for Brain Health
The keto diet may not be suitable for everyone, but it can be life-changing for many. If you’re considering adopting a keto diet to manage a medical condition, it’s essential to consult with your doctor before beginning and to stay under their supervision.
If you get the go-ahead, start switching to keto by reducing your carb intake to 50 (or less) grams of carbs per day.
Simultaneously, increase your intake of protein (meat, fish, eggs, etc.), fat (olive oil, coconut oil, avocado, nuts, seeds, etc.), and low-carb veggies (broccoli, asparagus, leafy greens, etc.).
It can also be helpful to have keto-friendly snacks, such as IQBARs, on hand.
IQBAR is a keto and vegan protein bar made using simple, clean ingredients like nuts, seeds, pea protein, coconut oil, and unsweetened chocolate.
Not only do these tasty bars have 12 grams of plant-based protein and only three grams of net carbs per bar, but they also contain six brain-boosting nutrients, including lion’s mane, MCTs, omega 3s, flavonoids, vitamin E, and choline.
Once you dial in your diet, your brain will become a fat-burning machine, opening the door to better health in brain and body.