Just like bees, fats are good friends of ours. Also like bees, there’s a buzzword in the world of fats right now. Have you heard the term ketogenic diet? These days, eating keto is hotter than a toaster on 10. Branch Out's Research Director, Ty McKinney, shares some of the research on how it works and what it means for your brain and body health.
I’m sure this is no surprise, but your brain LOVES glucose (yay cake!)! This simple sugar is the brain’s main form of energy, so you might expect that depriving it of glucose is a bad thing. Indeed, when we have extremely low glucose levels, the body activates alternative metabolic pathways to create glucose to satisfy its needs. Curiously, these alternative metabolic pathways have some beneficial properties. The ketogenic diet (KD) promotes these pathways, and thus may be able to treat some neurological conditions.
Based on your gut response (see what I did there?), you wouldn’t think the diet is actually healthy. A key feature of KD is the removal of carbs, dairy, and sugar (think bread, milk, and cookies), which puts the body in a state that needs alternative fuel. The diet supplies this from high amounts of fat and protein (think some fatty Alberta Beef, #notsponsored), which promotes building ketone bodies. Its counterintuitive, but if you eat a lot of meats, oils and vegetables, while cutting out pasta, your body could better deal with some neurological conditions1.
Inflammation can be promoted by normal parts of our diet, like carbs, dairy, and sugar2. It just so happens that those are all things removed from your diet when you start trying to get those ketones. As a result, the KD has anti-inflammatory effect3, which you might guess could be great for inflammation-based conditions, like multiple sclerosis (MS)4. Unfortunately, the KD has been less well studied in humans, with no studies testing if it could help out people with MS (sad face!). There is some promising animal research being done however, including some led by Dr. Jong Rho (funded by Branch Out!) at the University of Calgary, that hopes to provide the foundation to start looking at how the KD could be a treatment for MS and neurological disorders. There is some human-based evidence that 3 months of the KD is effective in treating epilepsy, particularly for kids (Meta-analysis)5. There is even some research suggesting that the KD may be able to help kids with autism6 and people at risk for Alzheimer’s7.
The ketogenic diet has a lot of promise as a treatment for a wide variety of neurological conditions, but it has a few drawbacks to consider as well. Sticking to the diet is hard (especially if you’re a linguine alfredo and ice cream guzzling beast like me). The diet hinges on both caloric restriction and keytones, so an innocent cheat day could ruin several days keytone build up and their beneficial effects. Furthermore, doing it improperly can actually be dangerous (if you don’t replace the glucose metabolism with ketones you’re really just starving yourself). In contrast to most types of neuroCAM, which are not risky, starting the ketogenic diet should really be done with medical professionals involved. It has a lot of potential, but needs to be done safely. But if you can tough it out, it has the potential to help with many areas of brain health, which is something worth giving up cake over.
|Ty the Neuro Guy is a cognitive neuroscience graduate student at the University of Utah and the Research Director for Branch Out Neurological Foundation. Inspired by the creative knowledge translation, Ty helps promote scientific literacy through this blog. You can look forward to an article each month helping explain the science of NeuroCAM. If you have any questions or comments about this article or overall blog, feel free to email Ty McKinney at firstname.lastname@example.org.|
- Rho, J. M., & Stafstrom, C. E. (2012). The ketogenic diet as a treatment paradigm for diverse neurological disorders. Frontiers in pharmacology, 3, 59.
- Hwang, C., Ross, V., & Mahadevan, U. (2014). Popular exclusionary diets for inflammatory bowel disease: the search for a dietary culprit. Inflammatory bowel diseases, 20(4), 732-741
- Ruskin, D. N., Kawamura Jr, M., & Masino, S. A. (2009). Reduced pain and inflammation in juvenile and adult rats fed a ketogenic diet. PloS one, 4(12), e8349.
- Hao, J., Liu, R., Turner, G., Shi, F. D., & Rho, J. M. (2012). Inflammation-mediated memory dysfunction and effects of a ketogenic diet in a murine model of multiple sclerosis. PloS one, 7(5), e35476.
- Henderson, C. B., Filloux, F. M., Alder, S. C., Lyon, J. L., & Caplin, D. A. (2006). Efficacy of the ketogenic diet as a treatment option for epilepsy: meta-analysis. Journal of child neurology, 21(3), 193-198.
- Evangeliou, A., Vlachonikolis, I., Mihailidou, H., Spilioti, M., Skarpalezou, A., Makaronas, N., ... & Sbyrakis, S. (2003). Application of a ketogenic diet in children with autistic behavior: pilot study. Journal of child neurology, 18(2), 113-118.
- Henderson, S. T., Vogel, J. L., Barr, L. J., Garvin, F., Jones, J. J., & Costantini, L. C. (2009). Study of the ketogenic agent AC-1202 in mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, multicenter trial. Nutrition & metabolism, 6(1), 31.