If you made it through high school science, you might just remember your biology teacher explaining why the body, including how the brain needs glucose. Glucose, which comes from carbs, is your cells’ first choice when it comes to fuel sources. It stands to reason that depriving the body of glucose might have catastrophic effects.
But in fact, your body knows exactly how to deal when carbohydrates are drastically reduced or even removed from the food-energy equation—as they are on a low-carb or ketogenic diet. Your body adapts by first using up glycogen stores and then resorting to burning other dietary macronutrients, particularly fat and protein.
Protein is more of a last resort, though. By eating enough fat, you can ensure that your body uses fat, and not protein, as fuel. Within a few days, the body reaches a metabolic state known as ketosis, and produces ketone bodies, a by-product of fat metabolism that is produced in the liver.
YOUR BRAIN ON KETONES
Recent studies have pointed to distinct neuroprotective effects and brain benefits of ketone bodies. But before we talk about the many ways in which ketones can protect and benefit your brain, let’s take a quick look at the history of the ketogenic diet.
You might be surprised to learn that keto is much more than your typical fad diet—in fact, it’s not a fad diet at all. The keto diet has been in clinical use for almost a century, primarily as a form of treatment for epilepsy among children.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE KETO DIET
It all began when, in the early twentieth century, two French doctors authored a scientific report claiming that fasting improved symptoms of epilepsy. As in the keto diet – fasting sends the body into ketosis.
Of course, suggesting that epilepsy patients simply fast to improve their symptoms presented other obvious problems. Not only is it difficult to be constantly restricting calories, but fasting can have other dangerous side effects, such as unhealthy weight loss and nutritional deficiencies. In short, fasting was not an ideal solution.
ENTER: THE KETOGENIC DIET
The new knowledge that ketones could help epilepsy sparked scientists to try to come up with a diet that would mimic the metabolic effects of fasting on the body, minus the actual not-eating part.
An American doctor made the connection in 1921 between a fat-based and protein-based diet and a state of ketosis that was comparable to that induced by fasting. He reasoned that feeding the body a diet that was high in fat, adequate in protein, and low on carbs might just help the body to stay in a state of ketosis so that epilepsy patients could reap the benefits of fasting without actually having to fast. He was right.
Though the ketogenic diet was largely replaced by anticonvulsant drugs in the 1930s, it was still prescribed as a complementary treatment for epilepsy, particularly among children whose symptoms are not successfully controlled with medication.
So what kind of effect, exactly, does the presence of ketones have on the body and specifically the brain?
Ketones and “ketone bodies,” as they are sometimes called, are actually umbrella terms for three separate molecules: β-hydroxybutyrate (BHB), acetoacetate, and acetone. All three of these substances circulate in the blood stream and are delivered to the brain’s neurons and glial cells, where they can be used for energy.
Excess ketones are eliminated in the urine and sometimes in the breath.
A FEW OF THE SURPRISING BENEFITS OF A KETOGENIC DIET
Studies have shown that when it comes to the human brain, ketones do much more than just provide energy. The following are just a few of the reported benefits when ketones are present.
Epilepsy. According to this follow-up study, a ketogenic diet is an effective tool in treating hard-to-control seizures in children.
Traumatic brain injuries and stroke. This animal study found that ketones may reduce healing time after a head injury.
Parkinson’s disease. In this study, patients who were able to stick to a month-long ketogenic diet at home showed improvements in Parkinson’s Disease Rating Scale scores.
Type 1 diabetes. Hypoglycemia is a complication of insulin treatment among diabetic children that can lead to permanent cognitive impairments. This study found that a ketogenic diet reduces neuron death caused by hypoglycemia.
Alzheimer’s disease. In this experiment, a ketogenic diet was found to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s in mice.
While more research needs to be done to confirm these effects, so far, the ketogenic diet sounds pretty good.
HOW DO KETONES CONFER BRAIN BENEFITS?
Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer to this question. The scientific jury is still out as to the mechanisms behind the keto diet’s purported brain benefits and neuroprotective effects. Whatever’s going on, it’s complicated.
For one, research has shown that ketone bodies, and particularly BHB, may be a more efficient source of energy compared to glucose.
One theory suggests that this increased fuel efficiency makes things easier on neurons, allowing them to stand up to challenges that would normally exhaust them and contribute to cell death. It’s not all that different from filling up your car. If you consistently use the more efficient, premium-grade fuel, it may help to prolong the life of your engine.
Another possible mechanism has to do with antioxidants. Ketone bodies have been shown to reduce the production of free radicals, a type of reactive molecule that can trigger disease when it’s over-present in the body. Researchers are also investigating the role of ketones in protecting against a phenomenon known as “programmed cell death.”
Last but not least, ketosis has been shown to have an influence on the body’s inflammatory response, which plays an important role in the development of conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, chronic pain, lupus, inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes, and psoriasis, among others.
SO, CAN KETONES REALLY MAKE YOU SMARTER?
The short answer? No. Your IQ doesn’t really change—at least not substantially—after adolescence, and ketosis isn’t a wand you can wave to jack up your score. With that said, ketones do appear to play a role in maintaining brain health, most likely through a bunch of complex and varied mechanisms.
For now, the ketogenic diet, along with other low-carb varieties, is the only way to achieve ketosis. As an added plus, it’s a dependable way to lose weight and conquer hunger.
Best of all, some research has suggested that reaping the cognitive benefits of ketosis isn’t a lifetime commitment. That is, you don’t have to eat keto forever to notice the side effects—adopting a keto lifestyle for as little as a few weeks may be enough.
Pass the bacon, anyone?