There has been a lot of talk about the ketogenic diet lately and I have been very intrigued by what I’ve learned. Every year there is a new “miracle” diet promising a better body, perfect health and glowing skin. From Paleo to raw vegan, we have heard it all. However the current hoopla around the ketogenic diet suggests that it is more than a diet that will increase your wellness and decrease your waistline. Unlike all the other diets, the ketogenic diet has been proven to have real therapeutic effects and has become an area of research in regards to everything from epilepsy, Alzheimer’s and ALS to type 2 diabetes. There is a lot of evidence that suggests that not only does it do wonders for your physique, but it could possibly have very real neuro-protective effects. What’s interesting is that the diet flies in the face of our conventional ideas of a healthy diet. Less grains and more butter and cream? Say what? So let’s take a look at what this diet is, and all of the potential benefits we may be able to reap from it.
What is the Ketogenic diet?
The ketogenic diet is a diet that is high in fat (particularly saturated fat), moderate in protein, and very low in carbohydrates. It is designed to put the body into a state of ketosis, which is essentially what happens when the body is fasting and starving. Doesn’t sound like it would be good for you does it? However, it has some incredible therapeutic effects. Normally we eat carbohydrates which become glucose that our bodies can use for fuel. When we deny our bodies glucose from carbohydrates it is forced to turn to the liver and use its glycogen stores. When those are gone the body has to find another source of energy to feed our organs, particularly our brain which uses a good percentage of that energy. Since the brain cannot directly use fat for energy, that fat needs to be converted into a usable source. That is where ketones come in. The liver derives these ketone bodies from the fatty acids in our diet and our body fat. The ketones are released into the bloodstream where the brain and other organs take them up to use for fuel. That is how a ketogenic diet works in a nutshell. So what are the benefits of this process?
Benefits of a Ketogenic diet
1. Epilepsy treatment
I put this one first because it is the reason that ketogenic diets have become an area of intense study. A ketogenic diet has been used since the 1920’s to treat children with epilepsy that wouldn’t respond to other treatments. It has been an incredibly effective treatment that is still used today. Exactly why a ketogenic diet has such an effect on an epileptic brain is still unknown but researchers have proposed that the diet may work by altering neurotransmitter function, synaptic transmission, regulation of reactive oxygen species, and mitochondrial dysfunction. For these reasons it has become an area of research for other neurological conditions such as….
2. Alzheimers, ALS, Multiple Sclerosis and Parkinsons
The research here is still fairly limited as clinical trails are currently underway, but there are some preliminary studies in animal models that are very promising. In addition HERE is a study using the ketogenic diet in Alzheimer’s patients. In THIS STUDY of 23 patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s, those placed on a ketogenic diet had a marked increase in verbal memory performance after six weeks. Another double blind placebo-controlled study of 152 patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease, involved giving subjects either a ketogenic agent or a placebo, while maintaining a normal diet. After ninety days, the subjects receiving the drug showed marked cognitive improvement compared to placebo, which was correlated with the level of ketones in the blood. In one small clinical trial of five patients with Parkinson’s disease, patients on the diet reduced their scores on the Unified Parkinson’s Disease Rating Scale by 43.4%. Similar studies are being done with ALS and the results are very promising. The most well known anecdotal evidence of the diets effect on MS comes from Dr. Terry Whals and her miraculous recovery from severe multiple sclerosis. If you haven’t read her book The Wahls Protocol: A Radical New Way to Treat All Chronic Autoimmune Conditions Using Paleo Principles , I highly recommend it. The diet is also being studied in autism, migraines, sleep disorders, bipolar disorder, and brain tumors. It’s a really remarkable and interesting area of research that may prove to be an incredible help in treating some of these devastating conditions.
3. Type II Diabetes and Insulin resistance
A ketogenic diet has been shown to lower insulin levels as the body is now using ketones instead of glucose for fuel. One study had obese diabetics follow a ketogenic diet for one year. The researchers found lower fasting glucose levels, improved cholesterol markers and improved HA1c readings. This blood sugar lowering effect also leads to…
4. Weight loss
Weight loss is a natural and common effect of a ketogenic diet. In fact when it was first being prescribed for seizures in the twenties, one of the first observations in children was their inability to gain weight. This was one of the unwanted side effects in that particular case. But today many body builders and athletes use a ketogenic diet to lower fat, increase muscle mass, and also to increase performance.
Ketones have been show to up regulate our bodies natural antioxidants such as Glutathione, while simultaneously down regulating the body’s production of free radicals. It reduces oxidative stress on the body and therefore has very real anti-aging benefits.
6. Decreased pain and inflammation
Ketogenic diets have also been shown to reduce inflammation throughout the body and has been helpful for people suffering from degenerative or autoimmune arthritis. Why this happens is not completely understood but may have to do with reduced glucose metabolism.
7. Mood stablization
A ketogenic diet has been shown to have a profound effect on moods. HERE is a study that showed a ketogenic diet to be more effective than medication for mood stabilization in patients with type II Bipolar disease. Ketones have also been shown to increase GABA in the brain, a neurotransmitter known to have a calming effect on anxiety.
There are many other anecdotal benefits that really make this diet worth looking into. If you are interested in learning more about the effects of a low carbohydrate or ketogenic diet, a great place to start would be to read GRAIN BRAIN: The Surprising Truth about Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar–Your Brain’s Silent Killers by Dr. David Perlmutter. He is a neurologist that has done some incredible research and now recommends a very low carbohydrate diet to any of his patents grappling with a neurological disorder.
I will also say that the diet CAN have some side effects such as constipation, micronutrient deficiencies and electrolyte imbalances. If it is something that you are interested in, please consult with your doctor before making any changes to your diet. There are some people for whom this diet will not be appropriate. The diet can also have an effect on your thyroid and also hormones and fertility so if those are areas of concern for you be sure to talk to your doctor and do more research.
I for one am intrigued by the research coming out on this diet. My grandmother died of Alzheimer’s, and if her diet could have slowed that process down she might still be around. I am hopeful that as we learn more we may be able to turn to something as simple as food to heal these devastating conditions. I have always been a believer that food is our best medicine, and it looks like that is proving to be truer by the day.
DISCLAIMER: I AM NOT A MEDICAL DOCTOR. I AM IN NO WAY GIVING MEDICAL OR DIETARY ADVICE. THE OPINIONS EXPRESSED HERE ARE MY OWN AND ONLY MEANT TO SPARK YOUR INTEREST SO THAT YOU MAY DO YOUR OWN RESEARCH IN REGARDS TO YOUR OWN HEALTH. PLEASE SPEAK TO YOU DOCTOR BEFORE MAKING ANY CHANGES TO YOUR DIET.