The ketogenic diet involves a diet high in fat and very low in carbohydrates, with adequate amounts of protein. This diet is geared to trigger ‘ketosis’ which is a metabolic process by which the body breaks down fat and protein and converts them into energy. This leads to rapid weight loss as the body does not have glucose for fuel from carbohydrates, and hence burns fat and protein through ketosis.
While the effects of the ketogenic diet on the physical body in terms of weight management and overall fitness are popular and well documented, there arises a question of what its effects are on brain health and cognitive function. New research done on mice seem to suggest that the low-carb, high-fat keto diet may actually have benefits in keeping the brain healthy and young.
A recent study suggested keto diets may even help stave off cognitive decline. Researchers from the Sanders-Brown Center on Aging at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, KY, conducted two studies on mice which indicate that keto-type diets can protect neuro-vascular function, as well as general metabolic function, which may help maintain healthy cognitive function.
The first study, published in the journal ‘Scientific Reports’, looked at the effects of a ketogenic diet on neuro-vascular function, which includes sensory, motor and circulation functions.
The team worked with two groups of nine mice each, aged 12-14 weeks. One group received a ketogenic diet and the other a regular diet for 16 weeks. At the end of test period, the scientists discovered that the mice on the keto diet had improved blood flow to the brain and also showed better bacterial balance in the gut, as well as lowered body weight and lowered blood sugar levels.
Clearing out beta-amyloid
Most notably, the keto diet further seemed to boost the clearance of beta-amyloid protein in the brain — which are dangerous when they stick together as it forms toxic plaques which interfere with neuronal signalling and could lead to Alzheimer’s disease.
Study author Ai-Ling Lin states “Recent science has suggested that neurovascular integrity might be regulated by the bacteria in the gut,” she adds, “so we set out to see whether the ketogenic diet enhanced brain vascular function and reduced neuro-degeneration risk in young healthy mice.”
‘Using diet to alleviate risk’ of dementia
“While diet modifications, the ketogenic diet, in particular, has demonstrated effectiveness in treating certain diseases, we chose to test healthy young mice, using diet as a potential preventative measure,” she further explains.
“We were delighted to see that we might indeed be able to use diet to mitigate risk for Alzheimer’s disease.”
It is presently unclear exactly which mechanisms are set in motion by the keto diet in this context. The study speculates that a keto regimen essentially inhibits a nutrient sensor named mechanistic target of rapamycin (mTOR). Previous research has indicated that mTOR signaling has a vital impact on the body’s aging processes.
- During a study published by the American Diabetes Association, type 1 diabetics saw a marked improvement in cognitive performance during hypoglycemia after taking medium chain triglycerides (medium chain fatty acids that are a staple food on the keto diet)
- It has been shown that ketones can benefit those with neuro-degeneration issues like Alzheimer’s disease (as mentioned above), Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, and other ageing-related cognitive diseases. The brains of people with the above-mentioned issues cannot use enough of the available glucose for effective congnition. A ketogenic diet serves as a backup energy-source in such cases.
- Studies have shown that those with Alzheimer’s have improved memory scores that might correlate with higher ketone levels.
- Moreover, ketones have been shown to improve mild cognitive impairment in ageing adults.
Most of our brain tissue is made up of fatty acids. Hence they’re vital for the overall health of the brain and important for learning and sensory function.
The human body cannot make essential fatty acids by itself, so they must be obtained through diet; and a healthy ketogenic program can be rich in essential fatty acids. Thus, the keto diet helps maintain a proper balance of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids and prevents an imbalance which leads to oxidation and inflammation that could affect mental wellness.
Besides, in a ketogenic state, the brain uses ketones to generate adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the molecule that carries energy for metabolism within cells. Although glucose remains the primary source of energy for the body, it switches to ketones tin the absence of glucose. What’s interesting to note is that ketones are actually a far more efficient energy source than glucose and reduces the amount of damaging free radicals produced. This helps protect the brain from oxidative stress thus helping fight brain ageing and staving off mental decline.