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Keto for brain health: Can the ketogenic diet make you happier?

Published Jul 21, 2023 | Updated Feb 8, 2024

There are new diets emerging on a regular basis, with some diets backed by evidence. Keto diet is a popular diet which is marketed as a do-all diet. It was developed in the 1920s for patients with epilepsy [1], and now this unique diet has been purported for weight loss, Alzheimer’s, and everything in between. Read to find the link between keto and mental health, and if its worth forgoing your carbs for brain benefits. 

What is the ketogenic diet?

Glucose, the primary carbohydrate, is the main source of fuel that the body and brain use to produce energy. Your brain is an energy-intensive organ and requires a constant supply of fuel. Fasting for an extended period of time (12-36 hours) [2] can use up stored glucose, after which the brain relies on fat for energy. The fuel switch is called ketosis, and brings about many metabolism changes, some of which include beneficial effects. Another way of entering ketosis is to consume a high fat-low carbohydrates diet, also known as the ketogenic diet. A medically accurate ketogenic diet generally comes in the ratio 3-4g of fat to 1g carbohydrates and protein. This can make adhering to the diet difficult since 80-90% of the diet will be composed of fat [3]. It is only recommended under medical supervision. 

Keto effects on brain anatomy- what happens when you go low carb-high fat?

When the brain has insufficient glucose and turns to fat for energy use, this situation is treated as a stressful event. The brain starts building up resilience [3], thus strengthening brain networks. Most of the keto brain benefits are attributed to the products produced when fat is used for energy. These products are more energy efficient than glucose, providing the brain with 27% more energy [4]. Using fat for energy has also been shown to increase the amount of energy producers in brain cells. These products also decrease the production of harmful brain compounds [4], thus having protective benefits.

What are the brain benefits of the ketogenic diet?

Ketogenic diet has shown to have cognitive benefits. In studies among healthy adults, including older adults with lower cognitive scores, following a ketogenic diet improved their memory and attention scores [6].

There have been studies on the benefits of the ketogenic diet for Alzheimer’s disease as well. Animal studies found that the ketogenic diet reduced Alzheimer's  harmful compounds by 25% and had protective effects on brain cells [4].

However, most of the research supporting use of ketogenic diet is for epileptic children among whom medication was less effective. In some instances, 24% of them were seizure free after a month on the ketogenic diet [5].

Keto and serotonin: Can it alter your mood?

Your brain relies on your dietary intake to produce sufficient levels of different brain chemicals. This includes your happiness brain chemical, serotonin. Serotonin’s production depends on intake of a specific protein called tryptophan. The link between a low carb diet and serotonin levels reduction is established due to their restricted intake on a ketogenic diet. This affects the amount of tryptophan available to produce serotonin. Within 3 weeks on a ketogenic diet, there was a reduction in tryptophan levels [7]. It was also found that the limited tryptophan that was available was favoured for energy production instead of serotonin production [7]. Another study found a reduction in serotonin levels in those who followed the ketogenic diet for 3 months [8]. Though a ketogenic diet may have many brain benefits, a deeper insight is needed to assess its use in individual cases. If you are looking to regulate your mood and work on boosting your serotonin levels through nutrition, other diets may be better suited.  If you still want to pursue a ketogenic diet while keeping your mood up, it is worth considering the direct building block of serotonin, called 5-HTP. It bypasses the need for tryptophan and enters the brain for direct conversion to serotonin. brain feed has produced the world’s smallest dense tablet of 100mg 5-HTP that can naturally and safely increase serotonin levels, regardless of the diet you follow. Read more here.

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  1. Wheless J. W. (2008). History of the ketogenic diet. Epilepsia49 Suppl 8, 3–5.
  2. Gudden, J. et al. (2021). The Effects of Intermittent Fasting on Brain and Cognitive Function. Nutrients, 13(9), p.3166.
  3. Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Nutrition, Trauma, and the Brain; Erdman J, Oria M, Pillsbury L, editors. Nutrition and Traumatic Brain Injury: Improving Acute and Subacute Health Outcomes in Military Personnel. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2011. 11, Ketogenic Diet.
  4. Sethi, S. et al. (2022). The Role of Ketogenic Metabolic Therapy on the Brain in Serious Mental Illness: A Review. Journal of psychiatry and brain science7(5), e220009.
  5. Taub, K. S. et al. (2014). Risk of seizure recurrence after achieving initial seizure freedom on the ketogenic diet. Epilepsia55(4), 579–583.
  6. Altayyar, M. et al. (2022). The Implication of Physiological Ketosis on The Cognitive Brain: A Narrative Review. Nutrients14(3), 513.
  7. Effinger, D. et al. (2023). A ketogenic diet substantially reshapes the human metabolome. Clinical nutrition (Edinburgh, Scotland)42(7), 1202–1212.
  8. Dahlin, M. et al. (2012). CSF levels of dopamine and serotonin, but not norepinephrine, metabolites are influenced by the ketogenic diet in children with epilepsy. Epilepsy research99(1-2), 132–138.

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