One of the many aspects of the ketogenic lifestyle that you will notice reported again and again as you research ketosis is cognitive gains. People are motivated to adopt the keto lifestyle for a whole range of reasons. Perhaps the most common is weight loss, closely followed by general health. Less common factors the need to mitigate type 2 diabetes symptoms or wanting to adopt a low inflammation diet, as in my case. Whatever the original motivation though, you will notice after a time that many of these neophytes report an interesting advantage that they weren’t expecting: cognitive gains.
This post will examine whether these claims are yet another example of people exaggerating due to enthusiasm for their new diet, or could they actually be reflecting something very real.
High Carb Problems
These reports often mention a previous mental of ‘mental fog’ and lack of clarity before adopting keto. This is perhaps particularly the case when the previous diet was the Standard American Diet or low-quality versions of a vegetarian or vegan diet. These diets suffer both from inclusion and exclusion, at one and the same time. They tend to have an excess of foodstuffs that are positively harmful and, simultaneously, they also lack many of the essential nutrients you do need. For example, the diets mentioned involve excessive amounts of carbs in general and sugar in particular. On the other hand, they are also often lacking in such vital nutrients as many of the B vitamins, healthy fats and omega 3 essential fatty acids.
Because of the exorbitant amount of carbs consumed on these diets, these people will often be suffering from some form of metabolic syndrome. They will regularly be experiencing sugar spikes, their energy levels shooting up only to be followed shortly thereafter by a deficit. Mood swings and excessive tiredness are often experienced on a daily, even hourly, basis.
On the deficits side, the lack of such vitamins a B3, B6 and B12 will result in the brain fog, or lack of mental clarity, that many of these people report. Added to this, diets lacking in animal products, particularly seafood, will make it very difficult to obtain enough of the DHA and EPA that the brain needs to function adequately.
After years of exposure to such poor , low fat diets, the metabolic damage will build and build. Eventually, this may express itself in a number of ways, but perhaps the most common are pre-diabetes and type 2 diabetes itself. Over time, it is not just the body that is negatively affected, but the brain too. The ravages of insulin insensitivity in the brain will, slowly but surely, worsen over time resulting in a range of mental and psychological problems.
Alzheimer’s and Dementia
One of the most pressing fears as we grow older is that of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia. This is a concern that I personally share. The notion of becoming less physically capable as I move towards my seventh decade is far from pleasant. For the most part, though, I feel I can adopt a range of interventions to deal with such challenges. The far greater fear is, however, that of mental decline.
In a previous blog, we discussed some of the recent developments in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. There is a growing amount of evidence that would seem to connect Alzheimer’s with insulin insensitivity in the brain. This is so much so that some researcher’s are calling the disease ‘type 3 diabetes’. What we think of as general insulin insensitivity in the body is type 2, whereas type 3 refers to insulin insensitivity in the brain.
As the insulin insensitivity becomes more and more pronounced over time, the neurons can find themselves with a surplus of glucose yet be quite unable to process it. The ketogenic diet offers hope at both a preventative level and as a way of arresting the development of the disease. There are even some reports of improvement for Alzheimer’s cases on a ketogenic diet.
The Promise of Ketones for Cognitive Gains
Many of the improvements noted by the various studies that examine the effect of a ketogenic diet on Alzheimer’s have been attributed to ketones. Ketones form an alternative energy substrate when the body no longer has sufficient glucose. Ketogenic diets are specifically designed to deprive the body of glucose and push it toward the production of ketones, a state know as ketosis.
The brain seems to be more than happy to run on a preponderance of ketones rather than glucose. While it is true that some areas of the brain do still require some glucose, these relatively small amounts can be created by gluconeogenesis, without the need to ingest more carbohydrate.
Many people following a ketogenic lifestyle report an overall impression of greater mental clarity and focus. I can attest to this personally. My own ability to focus on a given subject seemed to improve quite markedly, even in the first few weeks. Productivity levels also increased, and I found myself taking on and completing projects that had been ‘on the back burner’ for quite some time.
Being the part-time nerd that I am, I even tested this using a memory game. Pre-ketogenic diet my scores averaged 7 to 8 for remembered articles, a fairly average result apparently. After following the diet for three months, I regularly scored in the mid-teens, even getting as far as 18 items on one occasion. This despite barely practising in the meantime.
In recent years, researchers have instigated a range of scientific work into the notion that ketones improve cognition. Many of these studies have confirmed the subjective opinions mentioned above, that a ketogenic diet offers the possibility of cognitive gains. This is particularly true in areas such as ketones effects on Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), mitochondrial biogenesis (a fancy way of saying the creation of new mitochondria) and beneficial effects in regards to the action of GABA and glutamate neurotransmitters.
For those of my readers who want to go into this fascinating subject a little deeper, here are some relatively recent studies into keys areas of ketones affect on the brain.
1. BDNF is a vitally important molecule that allows the brain to adapt to changes brought about through learning and memory. As we get older, changes in BDNF expression can manifest themselves in unhealthy ageing processes and psychiatric problems. BDNF helps with neuronal survival and axonal guidance, as well as allowing the healthy adaptation referred to above. A 2017 study showed the beneficial effects of ketones on “adaptive neuronal stress response signalling pathways through brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) to bolster neuronal bioenergetics and mediate neuroprotection.”
2. Mitochondria are organelles, or parts of a cell, that generate the energy required to power the cell’s biochemical reactions. A simple way of thinking about them is as the cell’s batteries. Without mitochondria cells simply cannot function. Ketogenic diets, amongst their many other neurological benefits, can actively assist in the production of new mitochondria within the cells. Simply put, this would mean that the neuron involved has effectively more energy available to it. This review paper is an excellent source of information on the subject.
3. Glutamate and GABA are a pair of neurotransmitters that can react in compensatory ways to each other. Whereas glutamate tends to have an excitatory effect, GABA will tend to do the opposite, having a calming function. Many people, myself included, subjectively report feeling calmer when in ketosis. When ketones are dominant it feels, for me at least, as if emotional responses fluctuate less. One feels generally at peace with oneself and those around you. This 2008 study supports the hypothesis that ketones play a role in suppressing the expression of glutamate whilst simultaneously promoting the conversion of glutamine to the inhibitory (calming) GABA.
Other Thoughts on Cognitive Gains
It would seem clear that adopting the ketogenic diet has the potential to offer considerable cognitive gains, as well as the neuroprotective benefits spoken of previously. For those of us who wish to go further into lifestyle changes that positively affect cerebral function, there are several other areas worth investigating. Regular exercise, for example, has been shown in numerous studies to have a beneficial effect on brain function. Undertaking intellectual challenges, such as acquiring a new language or learning to play a musical instrument, has also demonstrated positive effects in this regard.
On the downside, to acquire cognitive gains it is not enough simply to repeat, ad nauseam, behaviours that you have already learnt. Endlessly completing sudokus or crossword puzzles, for example, is unlikely to have much protective benefit for the brain. Such pastimes are fine in themselves, if you enjoy them then, by all means, continue. Just don’t expect that they will have much of a neuroprotective effect.
Humans, it has often been observed, do have a tendency to wish to repeat behaviours they are comfortable with. In order to grow as a person though, it is often necessary to go beyond our comfort zone. This may be particularly the case in regards to intellectual challenges. Inertia, in this area, as in so many others, is not our friend. All too often we opt for the comfortable, for the familiar. In order to grow, though, either intellectually or simply as a person, we need to be able to take on novel learning and experiences.
It seems clear from much of the above that a ketogenic diet is a useful tool for those wishing to acquire cognitive gains. The brain, and its support structures and chemicals, seem to positively thrive on a keto. We have mentioned the neuroprotective aspects in previous blogs, but beyond that, the diet can be used to positively boost brain function. This change of lifestyle offers cognitive gains, clarity, and long term mental energy simply from a change of diet. Surely, such a prize is worthy of the most serious consideration?