And new research has demonstrated the potential of the keto diet to boost brain health.
In this article, you’ll discover how a keto diet supports brain health, compelling studies on keto and brain health, and four practical tips that allow you to harness the keto diet for a healthier brain.
But first, what does it mean to have a healthy brain? And what does the latest science say about the importance of brain health?
Why a Healthy Brain is Essential
Here’s what the latest research shows about the importance of brain health:
There’s no denying that a healthy brain is essential for living a long and enjoyable life.
The problem is that so many facets of modern life exert negative effects on your brain health.
In the next section, we’ll explore how the ketogenic diet can support brain health by evening the playing field and preventing or reversing cumulative damage to brain cells.
Does A Keto Diet Support Brain Health?
Yes, the ketogenic diet supports a healthy brain and optimal cognitive function.
But even if you don’t have any serious conditions, going keto can reduce risk factors associated with brain health issues.
There are also many emerging areas where cutting-edge science is just beginning to grasp the ways keto can boost brain health.
Here are the most exciting recent findings:
It’s challenging to catalog all the different ways keto works to enhance brain health, especially since more mechanisms are discovered all the time.
But in a nutshell, the primary reasons keto works so well is because it reduces inflammation and insulin resistance, while ketones also act as antioxidants and exert other beneficial effects in your brain.
Does Your Brain Need Carbs to Function?
If you’ve ever had a chat with a low-carb diet skeptic, you may have heard the argument that your brain needs glucose (a simple sugar) to function and, for that matter, to keep you alive.
Although the claim that your brain requires glucose is true, a low-carb (or even zero-carb!) diet doesn’t cause any harm despite the lack of sugar or carbs[*].
After all, if it did, people who follow the keto diet would be dropping like flies from low blood sugar.
While it’s a relatively small organ, your brain can consume up to 20% of your daily energy intake.
Fortunately, it evolved to work even during times of scarcity and starvation, and although it normally requires about 120 grams of glucose per day, you don’t actually have to eat carbs to meet your brain’s minimal glucose needs[*].
A physiological function called gluconeogenesis (literally "the creation of new glucose") enables your liver and kidneys to create glucose from other sources. The most common one is lactate, but alanine, glutamine, and glycerol also act as sources for this process[*].
Your body can meet the remainder of your brain’s energy needs using ketones, natural molecules your liver makes when you eat a low-carb, high-fat diet (or fast or exercise for extended periods)[*].
Ketones like beta-hydroxybutyrate, acetate, and acetoacetate are natural byproducts of using fat for fuel, and they’re also high-energy, clean-burning brain fuels[*].
The only cause for concern is if you already deal with hypoglycemia (low blood glucose), in which case you should speak to a dietitian or doctor before trying the keto diet. However, we’ve still got some helpful tips that are safe for people with hypoglycemia in the next section.
4 Keto Tips to Boost Your Brain Health
1. Eat Clean Keto With Plenty of Whole Foods
At its core, the ketogenic diet is extremely simple: eat 30-50 grams of carbs per day or less. Test your ketone levels to ensure you’re in ketosis and adjust if needed.
The standard keto diet macros are as follows:
- 20-30% of calories from protein
- 65-80% of calories from fats
- <5% of calories from carbs
As you can see, the keto calculator recommendations relate to macronutrients (especially carbs) and maintaining a state of ketosis.
However, to get the most mileage out of keto for brain health, you must also consider food quality.
If you’re going keto for optimal brain health, base your intake around whole foods as much as possible (and some sensible supplements--like whey protein powder when you work out, for example).
Along with some low-carb plant foods, be sure to also include lots of whole food protein sources (such as pastured meat and eggs) and healthy fats, especially omega-3 fatty acids, which are proven to reduce inflammation and support brain health[*].
Unfortunately, the popularity of keto for weight loss has spawned a spin-off called dirty keto. Exactly as it sounds, dirty keto is all about restricting carbs and following keto macros with an "anything goes" attitude towards food quality.
Avoid dirty keto if you want to stay healthy and boost brain health.
2. Use Ketogenic Supplements
Ketogenic supplements, in this case, mean supplements that support or even imitate a state of ketosis.
Specifically, we’re talking about medium-chain triglyceride oil (MCT oil) or powder, and beta-hydroxybutyrate (BHB).
MCT oil absorbs differently from other fats, and as a result, it rapidly elevates your blood ketone levels[*].
You can use a half tablespoon to a tablespoon (about 15 grams) of MCT one or more times each day when you want a quick brain energy boost. Start slow and work your way up with MCTs --too much too soon can cause digestive distress.
Medium chain triglyceride supplements can also reduce the keto flu, a set of symptoms some people experience when beginning the keto diet that can include irritability and cravings[*].
Beta-hydroxybutyrate, also called BHB ketones or BHB salts for short, works differently from MCT oil. Whereas MCTs raise your natural ketone production, BHB is itself a ketone.
People take BHB for a mental boost, to decrease cravings while following a weight loss diet, or before physical activity. For best results, take 17 grams of BHB once or twice per day, every day--but you can also take extra before a cognitively demanding task.
So for example, if you’ve been advised not to eat a low-carb, high-fat diet for whatever reason, you can likely still use MCT oil and beta-hydroxybutyrate safely, although you should also ask your doctor just to be on the safe side.
And if you’re on the fence for other reasons, ketogenic supplements can also allow you a glimpse of the benefits of keto without changing your lifestyle just yet.
Lastly, ketogenic supplements are also a convenient option for family members who are unable or unwilling to go keto--such as aging parents or young children.
3. Exercise While in Ketosis
Active individuals, especially those following structured exercise programs, have better cognition, less brain atrophy, and a lower risk of dementia[*].
And exercising while following the keto diet is synergistic for your health, meaning that exercise makes keto more effective and vice versa[*].
Essentially, if you want to reap the full benefits of the keto diet, you need to exercise.
And if you already exercise, going keto may help you achieve more brain health benefits from your routine.
For best results, mix and match the various forms of exercise.
You can also periodize your training program, which means prioritizing different fitness goals in phases as opposed to all at once.
But ultimately, any form of physical activity is far better than a sedentary lifestyle for your brain health[*].
4. Try Ketogenic Intermittent Fasting
Did you know some of the proven benefits of intermittent fasting (IF) are due to ketone production?
When you fast for extended periods, your body naturally enters a state of ketosis[*].
That’s one of the reasons why longer fasts appear to be the most effective for longevity and overall health[*].
And like keto, fasting is also excellent for your brain health[*].
Additionally, keto and IF are synergistic, very similar to how keto and exercise work together to enhance your health.
One of the most important processes that occurs during fasting is called autophagy (literally “self-eating”)[*].
Autophagy is a way your body can clear out dead or damaged cells, including brain cells, and continue performing at peak levels[*].
Compared to people who eat lots of carbs, people who eat a low-carb, high-fat diet have less glycogen (stored sugar in their muscles and liver)[*]. As a result, autophagy may occur sooner during fast periods for people who are on the keto diet[*].
To summarize, keto and IF work similarly and probably work better together. And on the keto diet, the brain benefits of fasting are more profound, even with shorter fasts.
However, there’s a caveat. If you’re inexperienced with keto and haven’t fasted before, don’t jump into both at once.
Instead, wait until you have a few months of experience on the keto diet before you incorporate intermittent fasting. That way, your body has time to fat-adapt before you attempt prolonged fast periods.
Conclusion: Go Keto to Maintain a Healthy Brain
The ketogenic diet is more than a weight loss trend.
Best of all, cutting carbs and entering a state of ketosis likely makes other brain-boosting activities, like exercise and intermittent fasting, work even better.
People who are hesitant or unable to switch to a keto diet can also use keto supplements like MCT oil and BHB to achieve many of the same benefits.
About the author
Corey Nelson is a writer, quantum health and wellness coach, and certified personal trainer. In his writing and health coaching career Corey initially focused on pharmacology, endocrinology, biochemistry, and genetics, but now focuses primarily on mitochondrial health, quantum biology, and the relationship between human environments, health, and disease.