The ketogenic diet has become very popular in recent years, especially amongst bodybuilders who find it cuts the fat from their body whilst maintaining muscle mass.
I have no interest in bodybuilding whatsoever and I doubt the average man on the street does; however, ketogenic diets have benefits that stretch far beyond the realms of the athlete.
For those of you who don’t know what a ketogenic diet is, I’ll briefly explain:
In most modern diets carbohydrates are used as the main fuel source, however, when the body is starved of carbohydrates, it stimulates new pathways to provide cells with energy.
One of these pathways is ketosis, where the body uses ketones — which are produced via breakdown of fats in the liver when food intake is low — instead of sugar and glucose to fuel itself.
Basically you starve your body of carbs and replace them with fats.
There are many studies which highlight the physical benefits of replacing sugar with ketones especially in those who suffer with diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, heart disease and even cancer.
But I’m not going to focus on them here as I’m much more interested in the diet’s effect on the brain and how it can help reduce anxiety and depression.
I decided to go on the elimination diet three weeks ago, which is essentially a more restrictive adaptation of the ketogenic diet, as a show of camaraderie with my girlfriend who has terrible food intolerances such as gluten and dairy.
Before I explain exactly what this diet has done for my brain function I’ll preamble with some background on my usual mental stability.
When I was in high school I used to isolate myself a lot from other kids, and because I didn’t socialise enough I now suffer from social anxiety.
This anxiety usually manifests itself as a fear that I’m constantly doing something outside of social norms when I’m out in public and that a regular person, someone who has these social rules engrained in them, will call me out on it and shame me in front of everyone for being weird.
I have also been known to experience periodic depressive episodes which manifest as an overwhelming and unshakeable feeling of worthlessness. These either occur when waking up the mornings or as a result of some minor fault in my life.
My girlfriend also suffered from these episodes and every morning either one of us, or both of us, would be lethargic and unwilling to get on with our day.
Keto and Anxiety
Since being on the diet my social anxiety seems to be waning. At first, I thought this might be a placebo effect because I’d heard that ketogenic diets can have a positive effect on anxiety and depression.
Having said that, I started to notice these changes in the first week of the diet and they have persisted in the two weeks that followed. It would have to be one hell of a placebo for it to last this long.
The most recent changes in my anxiety include:
· Having full-on conversations with cashiers that exceed beyond “hi”, “thanks”, and “bye” when I’m shopping
· Being out in public for more than a few hours without caring who is walking past me or looking at me
· Slouching less as I walk through the streets and actually looking people in the eye as I talk to them
· Not lowering my voice to a faint murmur when there are people nearby, making it easier for me to speak to people over the phone on public transport
These were all things I struggled with before and although I still have problems I need to work on, it’s interesting to think that many of the issues I related to my childhood isolation could actually be linked to — or at least exacerbated by — my diet.
I decided to look into the ketogenic diet more to find out exactly what the science was behind me regaining some of my mental stability.
A 2008 study in the journal Epilepsia showed that a ketogenic diet can reduce inflammation in the brain due to both carb restriction and an increase in ketones.
Glutamate, a neurotransmitter that stimulates the brain, and GABA, one that reduces brain stimulation, must be balanced in order for the brain to function properly.
When you have too much glutamate in your brain and not enough GABA it can injure susceptible neurons and cause brain fog.
In a high carb diet astrocytes cannot convert glutamate into GABA because the body uses glutamate as an energy source along with other types of glucose.
However, in a low carb keto diet astrocyte metabolism is more active resulting in enhanced conversion of glutamate to GABA.
This slight change in brain chemistry helps focus the brain by reducing the excess firing of neurons and, not only does it reduce epileptic seizures, it reduces stress and anxiety.
In fact the scientists who wrote the paper explicitly stated: “some evidence suggests that even modest caloric restriction or a low-carbohydrate regimen could improve seizure control.”
Keto and Depression
I mentioned earlier that as well as having social anxiety, both my girlfriend and I suffer from frequent bouts of depression.
We both had our own reasons for getting in these states but the reasons never justified the reactions. We would dwell on our issues and despite eventually fighting through them and getting on with our day, we would find ourselves in the same position the next morning, or a few mornings after.
I’m pleased to report that since we started the diet the ceaseless dwelling has all but gone away.
We still react badly to terrible situations but in the same way a person without depression might. We now acknowledge that the situation is terrible but within the hour we’re back on schedule and completing all the tasks we would usually put off.
Some recent examples of this would be:
· Not getting a job I had been very close to getting (apparently it ended up being a decision between me and one other candidate) overcoming that and applying for new jobs within the day.
· Getting out of bed in the morning after reading just a few BBC news stories instead of dwelling and lying in bed for as long as possible.
· Writing this very article without telling myself I’m too shit to be a writer every five minutes and delaying my progress.
In a 2004 study on rats it was discovered that ketogenic diets had a similar effect to antidepressant drugs.
The study, aptly named ‘The Antidepressant Properties of the Ketogenic Diet’, used an established test to determine depression in animals called the Porsolt test.
This involved putting rats into a container of water, from which they had no escape, until the rats gave up and became immobile AKA establishing “emotional despair”.
When the rats were given antidepressants they spent significantly less time in this immobile state and therefore spent less time in despair.
In the 2004 study they conducted this exact experiment except they put one set of rats on a keto diet, one on a high carb diet, and the final set was used as a control.
The rats on the keto diet spent less time immobilised than the control group which suggests the diet had a similar effect to antidepressants.
They also suggested that the short period of immobilisation was not due to an increase in energy from the diet because previous research has shown that rats on ketogenic diets are less active in the preliminary stages of the diet than those who are not.
Before I went on this diet, every meal would include some form of high-carb food i.e. toast for breakfast, a wrap, sandwich or pasta for lunch, and battered fish or meat for tea (dinner) with a large serving of potatoes and some form of veg.
In between these meals I would snack on crisps (potato chips), which were my number one vice, chocolate biscuits (cookies), crackers and cheese, sour sweets and bananas and apples on occasion.
It was basically as carby a diet as you could imagine. Keto diets work primarily on fat and because I’m on the elimination diet, which focuses on using fat as a main fuel source whilst also cutting out other potentially inflammatory foods, there isn’t much I’m allowed to eat.
I now eat some form of meat, such as chicken, beef, lamb or venison with kale, broccoli, spring greens and spinach for breakfast, cook up some chicken wings or a slab of meat for lunch to tide me over until tea time where I’ve had everything from keto shepherd’s pie to homemade lamb mint burgers.
It was really hard for me to adjust to the diet at first, but after the first week the snack cravings started to go away and when they do arise I just cook some chicken wings, kale crisps or slip a few anchovies into my mouth.
Also, my girlfriend has been away a few times recently and when she’s not here I make the same amount of food I would for two of us and store half of it in a Tupperware container for lunch. This is something I would recommend doing if you work during the day as you can take your lunch with you.
Not only does this keep me from eating all the random ingredients they pump into snack food, I actually enjoy cooking all my own food — it’s something I didn’t do a lot of before, and now I’m a better cook than I’ve ever been.
I am only three weeks into this diet and it is very unlikely that I have become fully keto adapted, however, after only a week I saw signs of improvement in my mental health just from cleansing my body of carbs and sugar.
The few times I’ve seen people eating something I used to love or passed the crisp or chocolate aisle at the supermarket, the one thing that stops me from going back is my newfound mental clarity.
I wouldn’t give up this new freedom for anything and I hope more people consider changing their diet, not to lose weight or because they want to perform better athletically, but for arguably the most important organ in our bodies, the brain.
I want to thank Mikhaila Peterson whose blog I used to go on the elimination diet. If you fancy starting the diet yourself check out her blog at http://mikhailapeterson.com/. It has a list of everything you’re allowed to eat and even includes food she’s tried to reintroduce into the diet.