Eating a healthy diet has many benefits. Weight management, cardiovascular health, stress reduction and a reduced risk of certain illnesses are all reasons to monitor food intake carefully and pick a way of eating that supports the body. But what about the brain? Are there diets that can protect and improve brain health? Many studies have shown that what you eat can have an effect on neurological conditions, so should the brain be part of whole body fitness when looking at food choices?
A popular diet now is the ketogenic diet or, "Keto" and the focus in this way of eating is to go extremely low on carbohydrates, usually less than 50g per day. One medium potato is about 50 carbs, so the amounts allowed on a keto diet are meager. When carbs are consumed, they convert to glucose, and this is what the body burns for energy. If there is too much glucose in the body, that's all it will burn. Carbs have to be reduced, and in some diets eliminated, to get the body to burn fat, which is necessary for weight loss. With less glucose available the body will break down fat into "ketone bodies" which are then used for energy, with the added benefit of weight loss.
So what does keto have to do with the brain? It was initially a diet prescribed to patients who have epilepsy, going back 100 years. It was found to reduce seizure activity sometimes even better than medication. A 2006 study, published in Behavioral Pharmacology looked at the effect of a ketogenic diet on conditions like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's as well as epilepsy. In that study, which was a meta-analysis of research on the diet and neurological diseases, there was some evidence that the diet reduced seizure activity. The mechanism was not evident in these studies, and they were done using lab mice, but there does seem to be a connection between ketogenic diets and brain health. The authors of some of the studies did point out however that it's difficult to follow ketogenic diets for some and that can result in unintentional calorie restriction, which might also be a factor.
While there is quite a bit of research on epilepsy and ketosis, there hasn't been much on how it impacts patients who have Alzheimer's or Parkinson's. Recent research into the role of glucose and Alzheimer's has led some to call Alzheimer's "Type 3 diabetes" since patients who have higher glucose levels progress faster into cognitive decline than those who limit carbs and sugar. It's believed that neurons become resistant to insulin and thus cannot use glucose for fuel. A 2009 study also showed that patients who had a diagnosis of mild Alzheimer's and who were given an oral ketogenic compound AC-1202 had better cognitive scores at the end of a 90-day study than those who did not take the compound.
While these studies are not recent, they were the beginnings of research into how what we eat impacts, not just general health, but specifically brain health. Take a look at the video below to learn more. Would you give up carbs if it meant reducing the risk of cognitive decline?