3 Reasons Why Your Brain Loves Ketogenic Diet
Since the past few years, ketogenic diets or keto diets are popular mostly due to their weight loss benefits. But did you know that a keto diet and brain function are closely related and can make you more focused and attentive? Did you know that adopting a keto diet can decrease your risk of developing neurodegenerative conditions and even make your brain more efficient at harvesting energy from food? Read on to know why a ketogenic diet is good for your brain!
What is a Ketogenic Diet?
Very simply put, a ketogenic diet is a diet plan which coaxes our body to replace (carbohydrate derived) glucose with (fat-derived) ketones as its primary energy source.
That’s Not Really Simple. Care to Explain?
Glucose (dextrose, to be more precise) is our body’s primary and preferred source of energy. Our body releases glucose while processing carbohydrates. The cells utilize glucose to produce energy or stored in the liver and muscle cells for future use, in a form called glycogen.
Now, a ketogenic diet plan is a high fat (70%-90% of the total diet), low carbohydrate (less than 20g/day) diet plan, which is specifically designed to ensure your body isn’t getting sufficient carbohydrates. This forces your body to be in a perpetual state of ketosis.
So, Ketosis is Just a Fancy Way of Saying Fat Overloaded and Carbohydrate Starved?
Absolutely not. Ketosis is a metabolic state characterized by elevated levels of ketone bodies in the blood. One way to look at it could be that if an elevated level of ketone bodies in the blood is the cause, ketosis is the effect.
Ketone Bodies: The Body’s Backup Energy Source
Carbohydrate-deficient diet starves your body of glucose. When the body is glucose-starved, it switches to a backup energy source (like all well-engineered systems). This backup energy source happens to be ketone bodies.
Ketone bodies are chemically prepared in the liver from dietary fatty acids and body fat. Once the liver produces the ketone bodies, which then releases into the bloodstream. This triggers a state called ketosis. Our tissues can easily capture these ketone bodies from the blood and metabolize them to meet their energy requirements.
Many of our tissues can directly break down fatty acids to produce energy but our brain depends on glucose and ketone bodies to fuel itself. Consequently, ketone bodies are responsible for meeting most of the brain’s energy demands during ketosis.
Let’s understand now why a ketogenic diet is good for your brain!
Keto Diet and Brain Function
Research over the years has revealed several unexpected benefits our brain may enjoy when it is mostly fuelled by ketone bodies. Some of them are as follows.
Ketogenic Diets Keep You Attentive, Focused and Productive
The Human Brain, In A Nutshell
Most of what we regard as cognition relies on a complex interplay of chemicals called neurotransmitters and brain cells called neurons. Neurons carry electrical signals throughout the brain just like wires in an electrical circuit.
Everything starting from your memories, your thoughts, your intellect and even your personality is a result of these circuits working closely together in perfect harmony!
Excitation and Inhibition
Neurons carrying electrical signals undergoes excitation while others are inhibited. Excitation and inhibition can be thought of like the on and off states of an electrical circuit in the brain.
Neurotransmitters directly interact with synapses (junctions where different neurons interconnect) to excite or inhibit the connecting neurons.
Striking Perfect Harmony in the Brain: The Glutamate-GABA Balance
Glutamate and GABA (Gamma Amino Butyric Acid) are the two neurotransmitters which are responsible for excitation and inhibition respectively.
It is extremely important to have a proper Glutamate-GABA balance in the brain for maintaining a complex balance between excitation and inhibition of the different electrical circuits present in our brain.
Too much glutamate and not enough GABA might make it difficult for you to focus, pay attention and even relax. What’s even scarier is that nerve cells can become damaged or killed by excessive stimulation of glutamate. Conversely, too much GABA can lead to impaired memory and coordination, forgetfulness, disorientation, etc.
In a recent study published in the Metabolic Brain Disease journal, the Glutamate/GABA ratio was 37.41% depressed in autistic children as compared to the normal healthy ones. This illustrates how critical the Glutamate-GABA balance is, both in the short and long term.
In order to maintain this delicate balance, glutamate interconverts to form GABA by the brain. The rate and efficiency of this interconversion are subject to a variety of complex biochemical factors and also requires energy. Let’s delve deeper into understanding the role of the keto diet and brain function.
Ketogenic Diets and the Glutamate-GABA Balance
A ketogenic diet results in an elevated level of ketone bodies in the blood. Ketone bodies provide the brain with a source of energy which is more energy dense than glucose.
The nature of the biochemical pathways associated with ketone metabolism allows the brain cells to convert the extra glutamate into GABA more efficiently. This keeps you attentive, focused and productive, even in high-stress situations. Thus, a ketogenic diet is good for your brain.
Ketogenic Diets Help Your Body Fight Free Radical Damage
The Threat Of Free Radicals
Free radicals are extremely unstable charged particles which can bind to almost anything they touch. This is bad for biological systems such as ourselves as free radicals can enter our cells and randomly bind to any biomolecule, causing mayhem. This is the basis of cellular oxidative damage. In fact, the idiom “bull in a china shop” is probably an apt way to describe what free radicals exactly do inside the cell.
Oxidation damage caused by free radicals is one of the well-known causes of ageing, cellular damage, and even cancer. Free radical damage in the brain is particularly concerning as it can cause neurodegenerative diseases. Our body produces free radicals in response to stress. Other factors can also cause oxidative damage to our body.
Free Radical Damage Prevention & Control in Our Body
Our body has developed its own countermeasures to prevent and control the oxidative damage. Our body has a chemical army of antioxidants which actively seek out, capture and eradicate free radicals before they can cause oxidative damage.
Glutathione peroxidase is an important member of this chemical army. Learn more about antioxidants here!
Ketogenic Diets and Free Radical Damage Prevention & Control in Our Body
A ketogenic diet produces ketone bodies, as we already discussed. In order to successfully transition to a ketogenic diet, the body has to optimally utilize ketone bodies as its primary energy source. To do this, several intricate yet profound biochemical changes occur inside the body cells. Some of these changes increase the activity of glutathione peroxidase.
Glutathione peroxidase directly inhibits the production of free radicals and enhances their breakdown, thus protecting our brain from oxidative damage.
In today’s world, where pollution and stress are at a record high providing an environment ripe for free radical growth; we all need protection from these hazards. Ketogenic diets play their part in equipping our body to fight these critical health challenges. Thus, as you can clearly see, a ketogenic diet is good for your brain.
Ketogenic Diets Make Your Cells More Energy Efficient
Mitochondria – The Cell’s Power Plants
“The mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell.” – this is a snippet of information some of us may have come across during our school days. In other words, mitochondria are miniature power plants present in our cells, which convert the food we consume into energy our cells can use to do work.
Ketogenic Diets and the Cell’s Power Plants
The ketogenic diet can cause complex gene level changes, which stimulate the formation of a new mitochondrion. In simpler terms, a ketogenic diet coaxes the cell to set up more power plants! Although this was observed in lab rats, the biochemistry concerning mitochondria is central to life itself, so this might be valid for humans as well.
This not only enhances the capacity of the brain cells but also helps protect them from neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, later in life. Several studies indicate the potential benefits ketogenic diets may have on individuals suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Thus, the keto diet and brain function are more closely related than many would think.
Beyond Neurodegenerative Conditions
Mitochondria also have other important biological roles in almost all systems of the body.
A study published by JMIR Diabetes in 2017 including hundreds of type 2 diabetics following a ketogenic diet for a period of several months. For the first 10 weeks of the study, glycated haemoglobin (HbA1c) decreased below the diagnostic threshold in more than a third of patients. Prescription medication was reduced or eliminated for more than half of the patients. In other words, this benefits diabetics on a ketogenic diet as it helped more than half of them reduce or eliminate their drug dependence.
This may be because ketogenic diets replace almost all the carbohydrates in the diet with fats. This eliminates the blood sugar spikes characteristic of unmoderated carbohydrate consumption. Thus, diabetics can manage and even reduce their blood sugar levels.
In summary, not only are ketone bodies a cleaner source of fuel for the body and the brain, but they also have a broader set of brain health benefits associated with them. The keto diet and brain function are closely related but the health benefits of it don’t end with the brain. Do you think a ketogenic diet is good for your brain? Let us know in the comments below!