Dr. Anthony Gustin is a board-certified sports chiropractor, functional medicine practitioner, entrepreneur, podcast host, and founder of Perfect Keto.
The brain is a complicated and complex part of the body, which makes treatment of brain trauma just as intricate. So, why are we talking about brain injuries on a blog about the ketogenic diet? —Because there are potential benefits of ketosis for brain trauma.
Nutritional ketosis shows promise for helping in the treatment of many different ailments related to the brain. These ailments include epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, autism, and even cancer. In this article, we’ll discuss the significance of ketosis for brain trauma and its possible benefits.
Before we get into the specific benefits of the ketogenic diet, specifically for traumatic brain injuries, it’s important to understand a little bit about them.
Traumatic brain injury is sudden external trauma that causes damage to the brain tissue. This could be anything from concussions and other injuries considered fairly mild to severe, instances like hemorrhages.
Some of the the main causes of brain trauma are falls, car crashes, or being hit by an object. High-intensity sports like football are also common causes of brain injury by trauma. In the United States, traumatic brain injury is one of the main causes of death and disability.
After a trauma to the brain occurs, several things follow:
Swelling: Like with any body tissue after injury, the brain fills with fluid and swells after a trauma. Since an enclosed skull covers the brain, it isn’t able to expand very far inside, and pressure increases in the head. This can cause further injury to the brain after the trauma, if it is not controlled and decreased.
Disruption of function: The chemistry of the brain is delicate. When injury happens, this chemistry is disturbed and affects the function of neurons in the brain. As a result, behavior and thought processes disrupt and change.
Recovery: The recovery period depends on the severity of the trauma. It can take anywhere from a few weeks to months at a time for the brain’s chemical imbalance to settle and the person’s mental function to improve.
Unfortunately, brain trauma can have long-term complications such as:
- Cognitive impairment
- Disturbances in sleep
- Changes in mood
- Insulin resistance
- Hormone abnormality
Now, let’s look at how glucose plays a role in the changes to the brain due to trauma and how that relates to ketosis.
There are several ways brain trauma can affect glucose in the brain:
Damage to the brain’s cell membranes after an injury causes a huge flowing out of ions and neurotransmitters, especially glutamate, which plays a role in brain development, memory, and learning.
This affects the brain cells’ resting membrane potential, which is important for proper cellular function of the brain. In response, ion pumps (proteins that pump ions across a membrane) activate, requiring a great deal of energy that traditionally comes from glucose.
This increased demand for energy increases hyperglycolysis, or glucose metabolism. At the same time, oxidative metabolism (the process by which energy is made from carbohydrates) is impaired. This leads to depleted glucose stores and can impair glucose metabolism in the brain.
Many brain trauma patients show signs of hyperglycemia, or high blood sugar, and the brain’s neurological tissue becomes greatly insulin resistant. This can cause a number of adverse health effects in the brain trauma patient.
What this means is that following brain trauma, the brain isn’t able to effectively use glucose for energy. But at the same time, the brain needs high amounts of energy to heal itself after brain trauma.
The use of nutritional ketosis may show promise for an alternative treatment in those with brain trauma because it provides an alternative form of energy (in the form of ketones) thus reducing the amount of dependence on glucose metabolism.
Conventional treatments for traumatic brain injury haven’t brought widely desirable outcomes so far, and there isn’t yet a standard treatment. Recent research has been done into the ketogenic diet as a means of benefitting and reducing symptoms in those with brain trauma.
So far, most of the research into ketosis for brain trauma is shown in animal studies. Several of them have demonstrated either fasting or being in a state of ketosis as helpful in improving recovery following traumatic brain injury in rats.
In contrast, traumatic brain injured rats given a high-sugar and high-fat diet had a negative effect on recovery and actually made their condition worse.
The anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective effects of the ketogenic diet also show promise in benefiting a brain that has been injured by trauma.
Robb Wolf has talked about the relationship between brain trauma and ketogenic diets, including one case where he worked with a 22-year-old man who had suffered a traumatic brain injury and was experiencing side effects from not getting enough fuel to his brain so it could heal and prevent further damage.
Wolf had the man follow a diet of:
- 28% protein
- 9% carbs
- 63% fat (including MCTs from coconut oil and butter)
He also had the man do only weights and very low intensity aerobic exercise to keep his glucose demand low and blood ketone levels high.
This method of maintaining high ketones and low glucose levels helped the man drastically improve his brain memory, recall, and cognitive function.
In addition, many neurological conditions similar to traumatic brain injuries, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, bring about good results with a ketogenic diet, including its initial use as effective treatment for seizures in those with epilepsy.
In conclusion, we do know that research is needed in humans to fully confirm the benefits of ketosis for brain trauma as shown in animal studies. That being said, what we know so far about ketosis and the brain gives us an optimistic look at the potential that’s available!