The keto diet is best known as a weight loss diet. Studies have shown that going on a keto diet can reduce cravings, increase fat burning, and help keep blood sugar low. These are all positive metabolic changes. It has been shown that practicing a keto diet is also good for the brain. That’s right. Researchers have identified a number of potential mechanisms by which a keto diet can reduce brain inflammation, suppress chronic inflammation, and support healthy cognitive performance. Read on to learn more.
What is Brain Inflammation?
This is an inflammatory condition of the brain that can cause a burning sensation in the brain. This burning sensation is often accompanied by brain fog, which can make it difficult to think clearly or concentrate. Other symptoms include fatigue, headaches and dizziness. While these symptoms can be very debilitating, there are options to help reduce inflammation and improve brain function.
There are several things that can cause inflammation in the brain. One is an infection. Another is an autoimmune disease or a weakened immune system, where the body attacks itself. Finally, it can be caused by trauma or chronic mechanical tension in the brain tissue.
What’s Brain Fog?
If you’re feeling forgetful, confused and lacking focus, you may be experiencing brain fog. This is one of the most common symptoms of brain inflammation, making it difficult for neurons to communicate with each other and leading to slower brain function.
When your brain cells don’t communicate well with each other, it can lead to symptoms such as confusion, forgetfulness, lack of focus and mental clarity. When neurons in the brain do not communicate effectively, it is common to see reduced brain function, memory loss, fatigue, flu-like symptoms, and even hearing loss.
Without proper treatment, brain fog can be a serious condition. However, most people can fully recover from the most common symptoms, provided they get a timely diagnosis, identify the primary cause of the medical condition, and seek immediate care.
5 Ways A Keto Diet May Lower Brain Inflammation
Inflammation is a complex phenomenon driven by a myriad of proteins, genes, enzymatic pathways and other biological factors. Some are within your control and some are not.
In most cases, diet is within your control. It’s true: how you eat affects inflammation in the brain and elsewhere.
Along these lines, the keto diet/ketosis has been shown to:
- Protect brain cells of rats after TBI[*]
- Reduce inflammation and seizures in mice[*]
- Improve a mouse-model of multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disorder[*]
- Enhance cognitive performance in non-demented elderly people[*]
Why these positive results? The next several sections offer a variety of mechanisms to explain.
#1: NADH:NAD+ Ratio
Researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, recently discovered a unique pathway related to the anti-inflammatory effects of ketosis. It was a clever experiment. They induced ketosis in rats by blocking glucose metabolism and noticed a significant reduction in brain inflammation in the rats after a period of time.
Here’s why. When you reduce the availability of glucose (as in a keto diet), you reduce an important energy ratio called NADH:NAD+. This reduced ratio activates a protein called CtBP, which in turn tells your genes: turn off inflammation! This is the anti-inflammatory effect. The anti-inflammatory effect of this manipulation is not small.
The verdict? Reducing the availability of glucose with a keto diet has downstream anti-inflammatory effects.
#2: Lower Blood Glucose
Keeping your blood sugar, or glucose, low is like taking out an insurance policy for your brain. This is because in cases of brain injury or encephalitis, high blood sugar (hyperglycemia) can exacerbate brain damage. High levels of glucose in the brain may even impair cognitive abilities.
One cause of hyperglycemia? A diet high in carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are a type of sugar, and when you eat them, your blood sugar rises as a result of that meal. Then insulin – your blood sugar boss – comes along and cleans up the glucose mess, pushing the sugar into muscle and liver cells for storage.
But a long-term high-carb, high-sugar diet – especially when combined with a sleep-deprived and sedentary lifestyle – can, over time, lead to insulin resistance. Insulin resistance? That’s when your cells stop listening to insulin, causing blood sugar to stay high. Unfortunately, this is a recipe for systemic inflammation.
A keto diet may help. Why?
- The keto diet is very low-carb, and minimizes blood sugar spikes
- Ketone bodies like BHB suppress blood sugar levels[*]
- Keto lowers ghrelin — your hunger hormone — so you don’t crave as many carbs[*]
Bottom line? Keto helps prevent high blood sugar, which may reduce brain inflammation.
#3: More Adenosine
Adenosine is a brain chemical – released in times of injury or illness – that reduces pain and inflammation. In other words, adenosine makes you feel better.
What else stimulates adenosine? Yes, a keto diet.
This has been demonstrated in mice. Researchers fed mice a keto diet and noticed two main things: fewer seizures and more adenosine.
The lesson learned? More research is needed, but ketosis may promote anti-inflammatory adenosine in the brain.
#4: Fewer ROS
Reactive oxygen species, or ROS, are molecules produced as a byproduct of normal energy metabolism. At reasonable levels, ROS have important immune signaling functions. However, in excess, these free radicals can damage and stimulate every organ system, including the brain.
Burning sugar produces large amounts of ROS. Burning ketones, on the other hand, produces fewer ROS – and also stimulates the clean enzymes that sequester free radicals (such as glutathione peroxidase).
Most of the evidence is animal evidence. In one study, a keto diet improved a mouse model of multiple sclerosis, probably by reducing ROS. In another study, researchers showed (in mice) that a ketog diet reduced ROS and increased energy output.
Simply put, your cells seem to run cleaner and more efficiently on ketone bodies than on glucose. More energy, less waste.
And less ROS, all things being equal, means less inflammation.
#5: More GABA, less glutamate
Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is an inhibitory neurotransmitter known for its relaxing effects. Related to this: higher GABA levels may have neuroprotective effects.
How might ketones help? In one study, rats fed ketones showed higher levels of GABA in certain parts of the brain. Ketones, In humans, have also been associated with increased GABA levels.
In direct contrast to GABA is an excitatory (stimulatory) Neurotransmitter called glutamate – whose higher levels lead to brain inflammation. Ketone body acetoacetate may help reduce glutamate toxicity, but this has only been demonstrated in test tubes, so more research is needed.
What’s the bottom line? By increasing GABA and decreasing glutamate toxicity, ketone bodies may promote an anti-inflammatory neurotransmitter environment in the brain.
Like any other organ, the brain is susceptible to inflammation. Whether this damaging immune response is caused by acute trauma, infection or chronic inflammation – the net effect can be devastating to both short and long-term cognitive health. An anti-inflammatory lifestyle is your best defense against this chronic, low-grade inflammation. This lifestyle may include a high-fat, low-carb ketog diet. Ketones help keep blood sugar low, lower the NADH:NAD+ ratio, suppress the inflammasome, and provide a variety of other potential brain benefits. More research is needed, but for now – keto show promise for reducing brain inflammation.