Keto and Brain Health: How the Diet Can Give Your Brain a Boost
Brain health is the most important component of our overall health. A healthy brain is what powers us in every other way in our lives, and as we age, it becomes especially important to follow a lifestyle that facilitates brain health.
There have been some impressive findings as far as keto diet effects on the brain as compared to following other diets, and especially the standard American diet (SAD). There are positive links between keto and neurodegenerative disease risk reduction, as well.
What so many people don’t realize is that our lifestyle significantly impacts our brain health. It’s easy to feel like we can’t control the health of our brain because we can’t see the effects of things like nutrition and exercise, but research shows us that if we follow a “healthy brain life,” we’re less likely to develop dementia later in life.
Of course, there’s no way to say for sure whether or not you’ll develop dementia or another neurodegenerative disease in your life, but lowering the risks is important.
Statistics cited by the American Heart Association (AHA) as far as brain health include the following:
- Declines in brain health are described as a public health epidemic
- Three out of five Americans will develop a brain disease during the course of their life
- Our brains start showing signs of cognitive decline as early as our 20s
- The cost of Alzheimer’s dementia and stroke are anticipated to exceed $1 trillion by 2030.
The Cleveland Clinic describes six lifestyle-based pillars of brain health that we should work to maintain. These are:
- Exercise: People who get physical activity regularly have a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s. When you move your body it improves blood flow and can boost chemical changes in your brain that help stimulate learning and memory.
- Nutrition: Something called oxidation can happen in our brains, particularly as we age. It damages brain cells, but having foods that are high in antioxidants and have an anti-inflammatory effect can reduce the effects of oxidation in the brain.
- Health: Controlling medical conditions such as hypertension, obesity, depression, diabetes, cholesterol, and smoking can all help your overall brain health and reduce the risk of dementia.
- Sleep and stress management: Getting enough restful sleep can help reduce the buildup of a protein in the brain called beta-amyloid plaque associated with Alzheimer’s. Meditation and stress management can also help protect against age-related brain health decline.
- Mental exercise: Keeping your brain active can maintain functionality and promote the growth of new brain cells.
- Social interactions: Connections with other people can stimulate your brain, and according to The Cleveland Clinic, studies show the people with the most community and social interaction see the slowest rates of decline in memory.
What Is a Neurodegenerative Disease?
There is research on the impact of going keto for neurodegenerative disease, and the positive effects between the two.
Neurodegenerative disease is a broad term for conditions that affect the neurons in our brains. Neurons serve as the building blocks of the nervous system, including the brain and the spine.
Neurons typically don’t regenerate themselves so if they’re damaged, they can’t be naturally replaced. Neurodegenerative diseases include Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s. Forms of dementia are the most significant in terms of people affected by them within the larger category of neurodegenerative disease.
Alzheimer’s accounts for anywhere from 60-70% of cases of dementia.
Diet’s Effects on the Brain
There are many ways the foods we eat affect our brains. For example, our brain needs constant fuel and that fuel is derived from the food we consume.
Your brain functions at a peak level when you’re giving it high-quality fuel. High-quality brain foods are packed with antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, often lacking in highly processed and refined foods.
These not only provide nourishment to the brain but they also protect against oxidative stress.
If you’re consuming low-quality, low-nutrient processed, or refined foods your brain could be damaged. As an example, if you consume a diet high in refined sugar, it can have an adverse effect on your brain, according to Harvard University.
One reason a high-refined sugar diet could cause damage to the brain is that it alters how your body regulates insulin and this way of eating promotes inflammation and oxidative stress.
Along with links to impaired brain function, diets high in refined sugar are also related to a worsening of the symptoms of mood disorders including depression.
What’s happening when you’re consuming a high-sugar diet is that free radicals and inflammatory cells are in your brain, and they’re not being eradicated. Instead, they’re floating around and contributing to injury of the brain tissue.
Some of the worst foods for your brain include:
- Sugary drinks, including juice, soda, and energy drinks. These not only increase your risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes, but they can increase your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Higher blood sugar levels increase your risk of dementia and most sugary drinks contain high levels of fructose. High fructose intake can lead to diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and other components of metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome may lead to a higher risk of developing dementia. As just one example, a study in rats found a high-fructose diet led to increased weight gain, worse blood sugar control, a greater risk of metabolic disorders and memory impairment.
- Refined carbohydrates are those foods that contain sugar and heavily processed grains, like white flour. Refined carbs have a high glycemic index, so they cause a spike in insulin and blood sugar when they’re consumed. Foods with a high glycemic index and high glycemic load may impair brain function. One reason this may happen is that refined carbs can cause inflammation in the hippocampus of the brain.
- Trans fats are industrially produced and not naturally occurring in animal products such as dairy and meat. Naturally-occurring fats can have a neuroprotective effect, while trans fats such as what’s found in snacks and prepackaged baked goods can increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease as well as lowering brain volume and contributing to cognitive decline.
- Processed foods are packed with sugar, added fat, and salt. They don’t have many nutrients and they can increase what’s called visceral fat, which is fat around the organs. One study found visceral fat is associated with damage to the brain tissue.
As has been touched on, one of the keto diet effects on the brain that may be so beneficial is the diet’s ability to lower inflammation. Inflammation occurs when our cells release something called inflammatory cytokines.
Inflammatory cytokines, in addition to possibly being linked to the development of neurodegenerative disorders, are also believed to be associated with many psychiatric disorders.
For example, the levels of inflammatory cytokines are often higher in people with mood disorders. Inflammatory cytokines also disrupt our natural production of serotonin and glutamate, which are neurotransmitters that play a pivotal role in mood and psychotic disorders.
One of the best ways you can fight brain inflammation is through diet.
Refined carbohydrates, including all processed sugars and starches, are primary culprits of brain inflammation, and they also spike blood sugar and cause oxidation in the brain. This is because when cells are exposed to too much sugar, also known as glucose, at one time, their chemical pathways are overburdened. This then leads to the production of free radicals that damage DNA.
How Can the Keto Diet Help Brain Health?
There is a lot of discussion right now about going keto for brain health, and keto effects on the brain. Researchers and doctors believe that following low-carb and ketogenic diets may not only help our physical health but our mental health and brain health as well.
A ketogenic diet is one in which carbs are limited to 20 grams or less per day. The goal of a ketogenic diet is to increase the number of ketones in your blood. Ketones are molecules that can replace carbs and serve as an energy source for your brain. When you follow a ketogenic diet, your brain is primarily fueled by ketones.
For people who don’t follow a keto diet, glucose is their brain’s primary fuel.
The idea of the positive keto effects on the brain isn’t necessarily new, although they’re getting more attention. Since 1921 doctors have been using the ketogenic diet to help treat children with drug-resistant epilepsy. In fact, that’s the root of the ketogenic diet.
A diet where someone gets an estimated 90% of their calories from fat has been shown to replicate the positive effects of starvation on seizures.
Keto and Neurodegenerative Diseases
Researchers at the Sanders-Brown Center on Aging at the University of Kentucky found that keto diets may also help prevent cognitive decline. They conducted two studies on mice and found that keto-style diets protected neurovascular function and metabolic function, both of which are factors that can help promote and maintain healthy cognitive function.
The scientists in this research found that the mice on a keto diet had better blood flow to the brain and better balance of bacteria in the gut. The mice following the keto diet also had lower blood sugar and lower body weight.
The keto diet seemed to help give a boost to the clearing out of beta-amyloid protein in the brain, which is what creates the toxic plaques that cause problems with neuronal signaling in Alzheimer’s.
The research team hypothesized that the protective effects of the keto diet on the brain could stem from the fact that following this way of eating inhibits something called the mechanistic target of rapamycin (mTOR). This is a signaling pathway with a major impact on aging processes.
A study cited by University Health News Daily said the keto diet effects on the brain show promising benefits for cognitive impairment and all the stages of dementia.
They point out the link between blood sugar disorders and all the stages of dementia, which include mild cognitive impairment, memory loss and Alzheimer’s. Some researchers have gone so far as calling Alzheimer’s type 3 diabetes.
The standard American diet that’s rich in sweets, starches, carbohydrates, and processed foods contributes to obesity and type 2 diabetes, and that may then, in turn, cause cognitive problems.
Someone who wants to follow a keto diet for brain health should focus on consuming nutrient-dense sources of protein such as grass-fed meat, wild-caught fish, and eggs. The consumption of healthy fats is essential.
Ketones vs. Glucose for the Brain
Researchers are still delving into the specific benefits of keto on brain function, but one theory as to why going keto could be great for your brain relates to energy production. Many neurological disorders and neurodegenerative diseases share something in common, which is a deficiency in energy production.
When you’re experiencing metabolic stress, as is the case on a keto diet, ketones are your alternate source of energy that help you maintain brain function and brain cell metabolism.
BHB, which is a primary ketone, may be more efficient as a brain fuel than glucose, so it would provide more energy per unit of oxygen used.
The keto diet also ups the number of mitochondria in the brain cells, and these are often dubbed energy factories.
When the neurons in the brain have an increased reserve of energy, they are better equipped to combat the stressors that would typically kill the cells.
Ketones can also inhibit our production of harmful oxidants and improve how they’re broken down because ketones increase the activity of something called glutathione peroxidase, which is part of our body’s own antioxidant system.
Another way keto effects on the brain are positive is through the increase of poly-unsaturated fats or PUFAs. PUFAs include EPA and DHA, which you’ll often see touted as brain health supplements.
The high-fat approach of the keto diet helps increase these PUFAs, which then combat the production of oxidants and inflammation.
Keto Diet and Mental Health
A study from 2004 tested the idea that the keto diet can serve as a mood stabilizer. The researchers looked at the effects of a keto diet on rats and found they showed fewer signs of depression and behavioral despair.
Another study from 2014 on rats found that the group on the keto diet had offspring that were more active and had more development in key brain areas. These effects continued even though the offspring weren’t actually put on the keto diet.
These mental health effects again are likely tied to the anti-inflammatory effects of a high-fat keto diet.
Summing Up—Keto Diet Effects on the Brain
Research seems to be showing us that going keto for brain health can be a valuable way to maintain your cognitive function and feel your best. There’s not just one way the keto diet positively affects the brain, either.
There are many direct and indirect keto effects on the brain. For example, a keto diet can reduce inflammation, which is helpful in and of itself for brain health. It can also reduce the likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome, which are linked to neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s.
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