Is the Keto Diet Good or Bad for Brain Health?
You may think the ketogenic diet, or keto diet, is simply the latest trend in weight loss. But did you know that this diet has been used since the 1920s in treatment-resistant epilepsy? Research shows that it cuts seizure frequency in children by more than 50%.
But that isn’t the only positive brain benefit it provides. A review of studies on the diet show improved symptoms related to depression, anxiety, ADD/ADHD, and schizophrenia. Its effects on bipolar disorder and autism spectrum disorder, however, have been mixed.
One of my patients who had a severe case of premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) noticed her moods were significantly better on the diet. Her brain showed severe overactivity right before her period, which lessened considerably on the diet.
The keto diet can be challenging to maintain, but when it works it can be powerfully effective. The main idea is for you to get more calories from protein and fat and significantly fewer calories from carbohydrates. Basically, you cut back on carbs that are easy to digest, such as sugar, soda, pastries, and white bread—something you should do anyway.
When you eat less than 50 grams of carbohydrates a day, your body runs out of blood sugars and eventually (usually after 3-4 days) starts to break down protein and fat for energy. This is called ketosis. People use this diet most often to lose weight because it takes more calories to convert fat into energy than carbohydrates and helps you feel fuller longer, but it has also been shown to help seizures, diabetes, acne, and even some forms of cancer.
The keto diet isn’t right for everyone and there can be a few downsides.
3 Potential Keto Problems for Mental Health
1. The Keto-Gut Bacteria Dilemma
The traditional keto diet is low in dietary fiber, which can negatively impact gut bacteria. Fiber-rich foods are necessary to feed the good bugs, or friendly bacteria, in our gut. Without enough fiber, their numbers can decrease, allowing the population of bad bugs to proliferate. This can mean trouble because the gut coordinates with the brain in the synthesis of neurotransmitters, which are important for healthy moods. Gut imbalances are associated with increased risk of feeling anxious, stressed, depressed, and tired.
2. For Women Only—Hormonal Hazards
Because most of the research on the keto diet has been done on men (and quite a few lab rats), some of its effects on women remain unclear. In some women, consuming a keto-friendly diet may cause hormonal imbalances, which can interfere with healthy neurotransmitter production and contribute to mood issues, anxiety, and irritability.
3. The Thyroid Effect
Research on the keto diet’s effect on thyroid function is mixed. Some research, such as a 2017 study on children with epilepsy on a keto diet, suggests that following a ketogenic eating plan may cause thyroid dysfunction. Other studies have reported that thyroid levels have changed in people on a keto diet while others found no changes in thyroid function.
This is important because the thyroid is a neurohormone, and if it is either underactive or overactive, it can contribute to symptoms associated with “mental illness.” When the thyroid is underactive (hypothyroidism), it can lead to symptoms of depression, attention problems, memory problems, and psychosis. An overactive thyroid is associated with anxiety, racing thoughts, difficulty concentrating, mania, and more.
Considering that the jury is still out on keto and thyroid function, it is advisable for people with thyroid issues to consult with a healthcare professional before starting a keto plan.
In my book, The End of Mental Illness, I explore the many ways the foods you eat affect your mental well-being. And I make food insanely simple with a handy chart that shows you what to eat and what to skip to reduce your risk factors for psychological and cognitive problems.
The End of Mental Illness is written by psychiatrist, neuroscientist, and brain health expert Dr. Daniel Amen and relies on the latest neuroscience and leading-edge brain imaging to show that mental health is really brain health. The book reveals that “mental illnesses” are really “brain health issues” that steal your mind, and it shows how minimizing your biological, psychological, social, and spiritual risk factors can help alleviate “psychiatric” symptoms. Order your copy here.
If you want to join the tens of thousands of people who have already enhanced their brain health and overcome their symptoms at Amen Clinics, speak to a specialist today at 888-288-9834. If all our specialists are busy helping others, you can also schedule a time to talk.