The ketogenic diet has a ridiculously broad spectrum of benefits. Weight loss, cardiovascular health, better immune function, obliteration of belly fat, even decreased risk of cancer—all documented effects of the ketogenic diet. It really is an abundance of riches. If you’re considering switching to keto odds are one of these things sounds particularly relevant to you, but the reality is that you can potentially experience all of them as a ketogenic eater. You can eat keto to lose a few pounds and shed some unhealthy belly fat and end up turning your immune system into an impenetrable fortress. Go figure.
But with all that being said, where it really gets interesting with keto is the brain. There’s no part of the human system that benefits so dramatically from ketogenic eating. Your brain loves ketones and this is plainly evident when we look at the effect they have on cognitive function and capacity of your brain cells, which we will in just a sec. It’s pretty mind-blowing what they do for your grey matter (pun not exactly intended).
Take a simple example of keto’s brain-boosting power: MCT’s. Short for medium-chain triglycerides, this quintessential keto fuel shows quickly and clearly what fat can do for cognitive function. Due to its structure this type of triglyceride skips through digestive steps and gets converted directly into ketones which your brain then happily devours for fuel. This gives you a quick but also sustained boost to cognitive activity in a way that carbs simply can’t do. Glucose flames out a lot more quickly and leaves you with the all-too-familiar brain fog. This is why MCT oil is the main ingredient in almost every “bulletproof” coffee recipe and why it’s a keto staple. And the great news is you can get it straight from a natural source—coconut oil contains 54% MCT’s. As a “food first” guy this is my recommendation.
The keto connection to brain health is actually very old news. The ketogenic diet was first implemented by the Mayo Clinic as a treatment for epilepsy in the 1920’s, to a great degree of success. There’s even evidence that dietary remedies for seizures (fasting particularly) go all the way back to 500 B.C. While epilepsy is thankfully a rare affliction it’s clear that special things happen when glucose is removed from the equation and ketones become the brain’s primary source of fuel. For both the diseased and the normally functioning brain ketogenic eating patterns can work wonders, and in ways that you might not expect. Some real cerebral magic happens when ketones are added into the mix. Let’s take a look at how.
Inflammation can be a tricky thing. Like so many things in the human body it’s neither entirely good or bad; leave it to nature to make things so complicated. When it’s being used properly it serves an incredibly vital function. Inflammation is how your immune system heals your body when it sustains injury and protects your cells from foreign invaders that want do serious damage. Without the inflammation response your body would break down in a hurry. Here’s where the “but” comes in though—this mechanism isn’t supposed to be active all the time. High levels of chronic inflammation are very bad for the body. When this happens your immune system goes into overdrive and starts attacking your own tissue, eventually destroying your body from the inside out. This is the basis for autoimmune disorders… obviously something you want to avoid.
In the brain chronic inflammation can have some particularly nasty effects: cognitive impairment, neurodegeneration, anxiety, depression, chronic headaches, fatigue, memory loss. Most major disorders of the brain are linked to inflammation in some way if they are not caused by it outright. So if you want your brain to be healthy it would be wise to keep inflammation levels in check.
Inflammation of course has multiple triggers, but like everything in the human body the food we eat has a ton of control over it. And in this case there’s one specific food group that we need to keep our eyes on: polyunsaturated fats. These fats are the key to it all—they essentially act as a volume knob for inflammation, turning it up or down depending on which type of these fats you consume. The Omega fats specifically, which unless you’ve been living under a nutritional rock you’ve likely heard of. Here’s a quick synopsis:
On one end of the polyunsaturated spectrum we have Omega-3’s which inhibit inflammation. On the other end we have Omega-6’s which trigger inflammation. These two fats duke it out in a physiological battle for the same enzyme; the victor lays claim to this enzyme and gets activated and the loser does not. So when you consume more Omega-3’s that means more Omega-6’s get blocked from triggering inflammation. Omega-3 fats then go to work regulating the genes that control your immune system's response (and anything that gets to the genetic level is bound to have some powerful effects!). Omega-3's don’t turn inflammation off completely--they aren't supposed to--but instead they keep it at healthy, functional levels and allow your immune system to function like it's meant to.
So how do you get these coveted fats? There’s the supplement route of course, but food should always be your priority. And if you’re eating a healthy ketogenic diet (key word: healthy) made up of whole natural foods you should automatically be getting a good amount of Omega-3’s. Healthy sources include: salmon, herring, and trout, seeds like pumpkin, sunflower, and flax, and walnuts. On the other end we have decidedly unhealthy sources of polyunsaturated fats: canola oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, and corn oil. These standard commercial offerings are high in Omega-6 fats, of poor nutritional quality, and very often rancid because they oxidize so easily on the shelf. To compound the problem these oils are also found in almost every processed snack on the planet. You’d be hard pressed to find many packaged foods that don’t list one of these oils in their ingredients. Combined with all the sugar and refined carbs in these snacks—which are also pro-inflammatory—and you literally have a recipe for inflammation. The moral of this story: eat less processed foods and more walnuts and salmon.
Forget dark chocolate and acai berries… ketones are the ultimate antioxidant. That’s because just like with inflammation these magical little compounds go to work at the enzymatic level to curb the effects of oxidation. When compared to carbohydrates—especially those notorious refined carbs—ketones are an incredibly clean fuel source that keep your system clear of excessive oxidation. More on why in just a bit.
Let’s back up for a second. What is oxidation and why is it bad? Isn’t oxygen generally a good thing that we die without? But that's not what we’re talking about here. Oxidation occurs because of compounds called reactive oxygen species, also known as “free radicals”. They’re super unstable, generally destructive, and they don’t react well at all with other molecules. They damage your proteins and your genetic material, taking shots at your RNA and DNA as they roam around in your cells. Free radicals are not very friendly.
So when you hear the word oxidation that's what it means--reactive oxygen species running amok causing oxidative damage, which has the very undesirable effect of aging your body and your cells. It’s no wonder anti-oxidants have become such a touted thing recently. And because your brain consumes so much oxygen it is particularly susceptible to oxidative stress.
Free radicals are produced anytime your cells absorb and process energy, so when you eat food they come along with it. There’s no way to get around them. So what you need is a way to limit them lest your cells wind up suffering wholesale destruction. Enter the ketone—your fail safe against free radicals. Ketones launch a two-pronged attack against ROS’s. They cut them off at the source, limiting their production from the get-go so there’s less of them roaming around in your cells to begin with. Then they go to work on cleanup patrol by boosting the enzyme that breaks down and clears out free radicals. Ketones cover you from both ends. So when your body becomes a fat-burning machine on the ketogenic diet it will be keeping oxidation in check in the process. That sounds like a big win-win.
On the other hand, when carbs get metabolized by your body it’s a very different scenario. These free radicals are produced, well, freely. That’s because glucose doesn’t have any ROS-killing powers so it doesn’t do anything to keep them in check like ketones do. Free radical production is a normal part of digestion so they’re obviously meant to be present to some extent—just like inflammation—but problems arise when they start to pile up in your body. Reactive oxygen species are, well, highly reactive so your cells can only tolerate a certain amount of them before they start causing irreversible damage to your proteins and genetic material. If you eat carbs and burn glucose too often ultimately they will win the battle and kill off your cells completely.
Free radicals are another clear example that humans aren't built to burn glucose all the time. Some of the time definitely, possibly even most of the time (this gets down to individual genetics), but definitely not all the time. Whether it’s because you’re going keto or fasting, ketones need to be your primary for a good portion of your existence—your cells need a break from free radicals occasionally and ketone metabolism is the only way this happens. A hundred thousand years of evolution has set the stage for this. You primitive ancestors had intermittent fasting unwillingly built into their eating patterns so they regularly had to switch off glucose metabolism in favor of ketones. All of the oxidation was then naturally cleared out of their system giving them an unintentional cellular reboot. Good thing for them that they had not discovered modern agricultural practices yet… it did their primitive bodies a huge favor.
In the modern world the situation is obviously very different. We have an abundance of food options around us at all times and we can and do eat carbs as often as we want. There isn’t any natural break built into our diet like the humans that came before us. This all gets compounded because most of the carbohydrates we eat in the U.S. are refined—refined carbs make up a whopping 42% of the American diet. Free radicals go into overdrive in the presence of sugar, and that’s essentially what a refined carb is: thinly veiled sugar that is devoid of any nutritional value.
Of all the brain-boosting effects of the ketogenic diet this one might be literally the most powerful. That’s because we’re talking about mitochondria—the power plants of your cells. These little organelles turn the food energy you consume into the cellular energy that drives all your biochemical reactions… and they get a big boost from ketones. Mitochondrial production is dramatically increased by ketones. This happens throughout the whole body but it’s particularly prevalent in the brain. So the more fat you burn and the more ketones you create the more mitochondria you grow in your brain. It’s pretty remarkable I think. You are actually increasing the power of your brain by creating or consuming ketones. On top of clearing out oxidation and inflammation this is a big reason why mental clarity is such a common upside of the ketogenic diet.
Keto’s brain-healing powers don’t end with epilepsy. The ketogenic diet has also been shown to do remarkable things for minimizing symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. And this all comes back to your mitochondria, specifically the mitochondria in your brain’s memory center. The nerve cells in your hippocampus—the brain region that controls learning and memory—get an especially big mitochondrial boost from ketones. It then seems pretty logical that a disease defined by memory loss can be mitigated by the ketogenic diet. This memory-enhancing effect applies to the normally functioning brain too. If you ever want to ace a test or or memorize a big speech ketones can be your best friend. So ditch the granola bars, crackers, or fruit when you’re studying or working on that presentation. Grab some cheese and bacon instead.
WHY THE BRAIN EVOLVED TO LOVE KETONES
So why exactly is our brain set up to work this way? Intuitively I don't think it makes a ton of sense that cognitive function is better in conditions of deprivation. So what's going here? Like all human traits it's rooted in evolution and survival. In times of scarcity the primitive human's brain needed a way to stay sharp or the human walking around with that brain would've died. Ketones were there to facilitate this--they were the backup fuel source the body relied upon in the absence of glucose. But they don't just replace glucose, they do special things to the brain... so there has to be a bit more going on here.
When food was abundant and there was a steady and reliable supply of glucose available the margins for mental error were a lot bigger. If the primitive human set a rabbit trap wrong or missed a chance to take down a bison because they got distracted (by a could in the sky perhaps) them it wasn’t the end of the world. But things looked very different if this human hadn’t eaten in a week. When food was scarce or nonexistent every move mattered so the mind couldn't afford to be working at 60% capacity. Their next meal was their lifeline. Failure to secure it literally could’ve been the end of the world for the poor hunter-gatherer, so the human brain needed to be on top of its game when starvation was imminent. Ketones kept the mind sharp.
As to how these genes got passed down to you, that’s just Darwinian principles at work. If Hunter Z was not blessed with a keto-adapted system his brain would’ve been a mess of free radicals and inflammation most of the time. When food was scarce his body wouldn’t have the glucose needed to power his mental functions, causing him to miss out on his next potential kill or fail to find edible plant life. His genetic line would’ve then ended abruptly.
Hunter X, on the other hand, was a keto-burning machine. In times of scarcity his body easily switched from glucose to fat metabolism and started cranking out ketones for energy, honing his mental faculties and sharpening his senses, helping him to maker smarter decisions and giving him a better chance to take down his next quarry. He would’ve lived to hunt another day and thus pass his keto genes down to his caveman offspring. As a modern human this is what you’ve inherited. And I’d say this worked out quite well for you—you really don’t want Hunter Z’s genetic material with all its fat-burning inefficiencies.
WHAT WE'RE DOING WRONG
If there’s a potential problem with all of this, it’s that we aren’t living like cavemen. Not even close actually. The habits that typify modern humans—chronic stress, poor sleep patterns, shallow breathing, lack of routine physical activity, overexposure to devices, and of course eating the wrong way—are very different from primitive patterns. They're commonplace now but the paleo human never experienced these things so they don’t mesh well with your genetic blueprint. In order to maximize your biology and really tap into your fat-burning hardware you have to go beyond food. These four non-diet factors have the biggest impact.
When stress levels are elevated it revs up your nervous system and your hormones, specifically cortisol. Cortisol blocks function of your thyroid so when you’re stressed you literally cannot burn fat—physiologically it has been shut down to deal with the stressor.
The takeaway: get into zen mode more
2. DAILY ACTIVITY
Daily activity boosts production of the hormone adiponectin--the “fat-burning hormone”. One of its main jobs is to tell your body to break down its stored fat—so the more you move throughout the day, the more fat you burn, the more ketones you create and the better your brain functions. And isolated bouts of exercise don’t cut it for this hormone. It needs consistent movement.
The takeaway: every step matters so keep yourself moving
Poor sleep lets toxins build up in your brain which is why you can feel scrambled after even one rough night. In regards to fat and ketones sleep quality is key. We release growth hormone at night, a super important process that among other things has a huge effect on how much fat we burn.
The takeaway here: put your devices down early and get better sleep
Shallow breathing is synonymous with stress—it activates the sympathetic nervous system (our “fight or flight” response) and keeps up from burning fat effectively. Deep breathing exercises, particularly belly breathing, balance the nervous system and put us into parasympathetic mode more often (“rest and digest”).
The takeaway: take a deep breath and relax… like right now!