Are you so mentally drained that every day feels like Monday morning?
Do you have a family history of cognitive disorders like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s or epilepsy?
You may not think these two are related, but what if you learned diet may play a major role in both these issues?
See, your brain steals roughly 25% of the calories you eat just to get everything on its to-do list checked off. This means your diet has a substantial effect on the state of your mental health.
Today we’ll be discussing what happens to your brain specifically when you switch from the Standard American Diet (SAD) of running on carbs to a ketogenic diet of thriving on ketones.
Our guide will cover topics such as:
So before we explore the effects ketones have on your brain, we have to get to know more about them first.
A typical American consumes between 200–300 grams of carbohydrates every day on the SAD.
Your body breaks down the carbs you eat into glucose, which your cells use as its main source of fuel.
During digestion, this glucose hops on your bloodstream subway and hops off when it gets to the cells screaming for energy.
Whatever doesn’t get used is stored in your liver and muscle tissue (as fat, which can lead to weight gain).
Switch to a ketogenic diet and you’ll take away this sugary fuel source so your body will run on the fat you eat, your reserved fat stores and ketones instead.
Finally, we officially meet the word ketone. So what the heck are they?
As your body runs out of glucose, your liver goes into ketone production overdrive.
Your body can use ketones instead of glucose to supply your cells with the energy they need to get their jobs done.
This process of creating and using ketones isn’t a new trend for your body.
You actually produce a small amount of ketones when your body enters a fasted state, like during the weekends when you sleep in or when you’re hiking long distances without constant meal breaks.
Though you may not be on a keto diet, these ketone bodies make sure your brain and muscles are able to function even though you’re running low on glucose.
Just think about how hangry you are when you skip meals on the SAD. Humanity would be doomed if our bodies only relied on sugar; that’s why they’re set up to run on fat too.
Your body can make three different types of ketones for energy when you stop feeding it carbs:
- Acetoacetate (ACA)
- Beta-hydroxybutyrate (BHB), one of the main molecules helping your body produce energy in the absence of glucose.
Even if your body makes too many ketones, it’s awesome at getting rid of them:
Too many ACA and BHB ketones are eliminated when you pee; excess acetone ketones peace out via your breath. These are what’s responsible for the strange smells in your urine and morning breath.
On the other hand, when you have too much glucose, you get stuck with high blood sugar levels. This can lead to insulin resistance and developing serious medical conditions like type 2 diabetes, heart disease and obesity.
So if ketones can do glucose’s job just as well — if not better — does your brain need any carbs or sugar at all?
Does Your Brain Still Need Carbs?
Though ketone bodies may work more efficiently (more on this next!), your brain still needs a bit of glucose.
When you’re on a ketogenic diet, the low amount of carbs you do eat will go towards this. Then your body will make up the rest.
It’s called gluconeogenesis, and it’s the scientific name for the process of your liver creating all the glucose needed by your brain.
Since you don’t need to feed your brain carbs (thanks, liver!), what really happens to your noggin when you switch from carbs to fat?
Even though ketogenic diets aren’t new, we don’t officially know all the ins and outs of the long-term mental effects of being on one for a sustained amount of time.
Here’s what we know so far:
Ketones Beat Glucose as the Better Fuel Source for Your Brain
When you compare all the benefits ketones do for your brain, glucose will look like a total slacker:
Ketones are more energy-efficient. Ketone bodies improve the way your body produces energy, which results in feeling like you have more of it. Scientists noticed rats on a keto diet had better scores on both physical and cognitive tests than those on carb-heavy, low ketone-body diets[*].
They don’t have to be converted before being used. Your brain has a protective feature known as the blood brain barrier that prevents certain materials in your blood from reaching your brain. One of these off-limits guys happens to be glucose.
Since your brain can’t absorb glucose, it has to wait around for your body to convert it into a usable form and then circulate throughout the rest of your body. This may be one reason why you feel mentally drained after you chow down on a bunch of carbs.
Ketone bodies can be used as soon as your body starts producing them — no slumps, mental fogs or afternoon crashes.
Ketones stop glucose uptake issues. Having too many carbs and an excess of glucose in your body has been linked with several medical conditions, including:
But it’s also thought to contribute poorly to your brain’s health too.
When glucose uptake is compromised, there are higher instances of age-related cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and epilepsy — and that’s all well before any true signs of cognitive decline appear[*].
Many people whose brains have a hard time using glucose see amazing benefits from switching their bodies to ketones.
Ketones May Protect Your Brain and Brain Cells
Ketones display antioxidant qualities. Studies show ketone bodies may have antioxidant properties to protect your brain cells from free radicals, oxidative stress and damage[*].
They bring out the best in BDNF. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is a protein that supports specific neurons in your nervous system and boosts the production of new neurons and neural pathways.
Ketones have been found to nudge BDNF in positive directions for your brain when it comes to crucial areas of your learning, memory and higher thinking.
Ketones Eliminate Mental Fog
Besides the physical and mental energy slumps you’ll experience on the carb and sugar roller coaster, if you have a hard time remembering meetings, struggle to stay focused on your tasks and feel out of it mentally, your neurotransmitters may be to blame.
Glutamate helps you form new memories, learn complicated concepts and gets your brain cells to communicate with each other.
Any time you text, talk or think, you can thank glutamate for helping. But every time it steps in, it gets really excited.
GABA should be able to control glutamate and slow its roll.
Because when glutamate makes your brain cells overly excited way too often, they stop working and eventually die.
This is what’s known as neurotoxicity, or something that’s deadly (i.e., toxic) to your brain cells.
Neurotoxicity has been linked to all sorts of brain trouble: from migraines, strokes and depression to ALS, seizures and Alzheimer’s disease.
Having too much glutamate and not enough GABA to stop that excitement can also lead to brain fog and trouble concentrating, not to mention decreased social behavior and more anxiety.
Here’s the twist: glutamate doesn’t always have to increase out of control; it can actually turn into GABA.
Ketones allows your brain to more efficiently process that extra glutamate into GABA.
If ketones increase GABA and decrease glutamate, you may have a better chance of preventing damage to your brain cells, avoiding cell death and improving your mental focus.
Plus, when your brain has high ammonia levels and low GABA levels, you’ll experience way more mental fog than normal.
Since ketones increase GABA signaling, all that extra ammonia will disappear and you’ll feel sharp as a tack.
Don’t Forget About Essential Omega Fatty Acids
The biggest switch from the SAD to keto is replacing your normal carb intake with fat, which means you’ll be increasing your monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat intake right off the bat.
Science shows adding more essential fatty acids to your diet in the form of omega-3, a polyunsaturated fat, is so beneficial for your brain that many people are already taking supplements for it (most commonly in the form of fish oil).
See, a majority of your brain tissue is made of fatty acids.
Though they’re essential for your brain and body to perform right, you can’t produce them on your own. That means you need to absorb these fatty acids from your food.
You’ll find a huge concentration of omega-3s in your brain so we know the two of them are buds. Omega-3s do everything from protecting the health of your brain cells to allowing them to communicate better[*].
Studies show people with less omega-3 fatty acids in their diet have a higher chance of age-related cognitive decline, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
In fact, when animals eat diets lacking omega-3s, the amount of DHA present in their brains starts to dwindle and they start having trouble learning and remembering things[*].
To understand this better, scientists from one study split 485 older adults with age-related cognitive decline into two groups: one supplementing with DHA and the other taking a placebo every day.
After 24 weeks, the participants taking the omega-3 supplement performed better on both learning and memory tests than those on the placebo[*].
The scientists determined that lower DHA levels can lead to cognitive decline, yet higher DHA intake has been shown to improve cognitive performance and decrease the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Here’s an important factor to note: You must have the right balance of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids.
While omega-3s reduce inflammation (and less inflammation leads to greater memory and cognitive performance), too many omega-6s can actually cause or increase inflammation. Yikes!
Most Americans eat 15–25 times more omega-6s than omega-3s. The biggest culprits of excess omega-6 in the SAD are low-quality oils and processed foods using them.
These oils can be found in pretty much every aisle of the grocery store, from crackers and salad dressing to peanut butter and mayo:
When you’re on a keto diet, your omega-3 to omega-6 ratios usually stay balanced and between 1:1 and 1:4. That’s because you’re avoiding processed foods and turning to healthy fats such as:
And you’ll find brain-healthy omegas in keto-approved foods like:
- Grass-fed animal meat
- Fatty fish (i.e., salmon, tuna, mackerel, trout, herring and sardines)
- Seeds (chia, flax and hemp)
- Nuts (walnuts, pecans and macadamia)
So now that we have four possible reasons for why ketones and a diet high in healthy fat may be beneficial for your brain’s health, let’s check out what the science says about applying this intel to real-world diseases and conditions.
We’re only just starting to understand the power of ketone bodies for the longevity and health of our brains.
Research so far as shown promise in using ketones to prevent or treat neurological issues such as:
Alzheimer’s Disease. Did you know certain smarties in the scientific and medical communities are now referring to Alzheimer’s disease (AD) as type 3 diabetes?
That’s because when you have it, your brain has a hard time absorbing and using the glucose in your blood, as we touched on earlier.
This excess glucose from carbs and sugar in the SAD is now thought to lead to its development. As your brain’s cells become insulin resistant, they shut down and stop using insulin right, which causes them to stop working[*].
Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia in the US[*].
And since the number of people with insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes is rising just as fast as AD, the connection between diet and lifestyle choices seems to be a common theme[*].
Truth: People with type 2 diabetes are at an increased risk for developing AD[*].
As a progressive disease, Alzheimer’s only gets worse over time. There’s currently no cure so the best any of us can do is prevent AD through dietary and lifestyle changes[*].
When 23 older adults with mild cognitive impairment were randomly given either a high carbohydrate or very low carbohydrate diet for six weeks, those following the one resembling keto improved their[*]:
- Verbal memory performance
- Waist circumference
- Fasting blood sugar levels
- Fasting insulin
Researchers noted that “ketone levels were positively correlated with memory performance” and show very low carb diets are fantastic — even in the short term — for strengthening memory function in older adults who are at an increased risk for developing AD.
With greater ketones thanks to a very low carb diet, older adults in another study saw improved memory as well[*].
To learn more about ketosis for Alzheimer’s disease, be sure to check out our guide after this one.
Epilepsy. The ketogenic diet was originally created to combat epilepsy back in the 1920s. We discussed everything about using ketosis for epilepsy so just to recap:
Ketones can create new “energy factories” in brain cells (scientifically called mitochondria), and these have anticonvulsant properties which may prevent seizures[*].
A ketogenic diet combines a three-pronged approach that’s been successful at reducing epileptic episodes including[*]:
- Calorie restriction, which decreases seizure frequency no matter the macros.
- Acidic foods only, which creates more ketones to help brain cells and neuron membranes become less excited.
- Low sugar intake because lower glucose levels mean a higher threshold for seizure activity.
Parkinson’s Disease (PD). When participants with PD tried a ketogenic diet for just four weeks, 43% of them noticed fewer PD-related symptoms[*].
Strokes. Clinical trials on humans are still being done, but animal studies have shown a ketogenic diet (or supplementing with exogenous ketones — more on this later!) may be beneficial for reducing strokes and also improving stroke recovery[*].
Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) is a life-threatening neurodegenerative disease that will weaken your muscles over time and decrease your physical ability. Animal studies examining the effect of ketones on ALS show they may slow or halt this devastating disease’s progression[*].
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). In one study, 45 children with ASD between the ages of 3–8 were split up in three groups and put on one of three diets: keto, a gluten free/casein free (GFCF) diet or balanced nutrition (the control) for six months.
While both the GFCF and keto diets showed significant improvements in both Childhood Autism Rating Scale (CARS) and Autism Treatment Evaluation Test (ATEC) numbers, the children on keto scored better results in cognition and sociability[*].
Migraines and headaches. Inflammation has been blamed as the cause of severe headaches and migraines, so it may not be a surprise a low-carb keto diet has been studied for its positive effects here[*]. If you suffer from frequent headaches, don’t hesitate to learn more about ketosis for migraines.
Gliomas are one of the most common types of brain cancer — and one of the most rapid. Half of those affected don’t live longer than 15 months after their diagnosis. Studies show a ketogenic diet may be effective at controlling the progression of certain glioma[*]. Find out more about ketosis for cancer treatment here.
Depression and anxiety. The SAD has contributed to growing numbers in obesity, type 2 diabetes and mental health issues like depression, anxiety and eating disorders. Studies have highlighted the use of ketosis for depression with glowing results.
With the positive ketones/brain connection established, let’s talk about how you can start feeling the effects today.
Follow a ketogenic diet and get into ketosis and you’ll take advantage of all the health benefits ketones offer for your brain.
But there will be times when you won’t have a steady supply of ketone bodies available, such as when you’re:
- Just starting out with a keto diet
- Getting back into ketosis after a cheat day
- Burning through your supplies quickly with intense exercise
If you find yourself in this boat, exogenous ketones will become your lifesaver.
Exogenous ketones work just like the ones your body makes, only they’re from an outside source (hence the fancy word exogenous). It’s kind of like how your body makes protein and you can drink a protein shake.
Since it flows freely in your blood and can be used by your tissues, most exogenous ketone supplements are based off the ketone body BHB.
They can be immediately used by your brain and body for fuel ASAP.
So when you’re in need of a mental or physical boost, like for an important project or tough workout, try taking exogenous ketones on an empty stomach and they’ll quickly cross the blood brain barrier for you to use.
For more info, check out our guide on exogenous ketones and when you should use them.
Your Brain Says Start a Keto Diet
Ketone bodies improve cognitive performance, keep your brain’s neurotransmitters in healthy balance, lower inflammation and protect your brain cells from damage.
They’re a way more efficient fuel source for your brain so you’ll find it easier to stay focused on difficult tasks and have more mental energy to tackle any challenge headed your way.
Switching from glucose to ketones may also help people suffering from a variety of mental health issues such as Alzheimer’s, epilepsy and depression — but that’s only what we know so far.
Our library of knowledge concerning why ketones lead to better brain health is still expanding and we’re excited to see what comes next.