The ketogenic diet is now America’s #1 most-searched diet according to Google Trends. Interest in keto is currently 130% higher than vegan and over ten times higher than paleo.
The diet’s ability to promote dramatic weight loss appears to be behind this sudden explosion of interest. Scroll through Instagram or Reddit and you’ll be inundated with “keto transformations” or before-and-after pictures documenting rapid weight loss — 10, 20, 100 pounds or more — often in just months.
And with obesity and chronic illnesses like diabetes on the rise, this is great news. But there’s another side to keto that isn’t getting nearly the attention it deserves:
Keto’s power over the mind.
In this article, we’ll dive into this overlooked part of the diet and explore whether keto could hold the key to our long-term cognitive health and longevity.
A Brief History of Keto
The ketogenic diet is a very low-carb, high-fat and moderate protein diet. A best practice keto diet is built from plant-based fats like coconuts and avocados, green fibrous vegetables like spinach and brussel sprouts and moderate consumption of high-quality fatty meats.
With carbohydrates restricted and protein moderated, your body becomes efficient at burning fat for fuel — both dietary fat and stored fat on your body. This fuel comes from ketones produced in the liver, which replace glucose as your body’s primary fuel source. You can learn more in this beginner’s guide to keto.
The resulting state, called ketosis, is perfectly natural. We owe our survival to it, in fact. Ketosis allowed our ancestors to run off stored body fat during times of food scarcity (fasting is the fastest route to ketosis). We may live in a world of food abundance today, but our ancestors faced a very different reality.
The ketogenic diet was first used in the 1920s by doctors as a natural and effective prescription to treat pediatric epilepsy. The inspiration came from fasting, which showed a remarkable ability to treat epilepsy when even the strongest drugs failed. By creating a diet that mimicked the physiological effects of fasting (i.e. the ketogenic diet), the doctors could deliver sustainable results to patients.
Keto’s modern revival has revealed more therapeutic uses than anyone ever thought possible. You can find cases of obesity, type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s — even cancer — all successfully treated (alongside standard care) by the ketogenic diet.
But of all the diseases above, can you guess which might pose the biggest risk to our longevity?
The answer may surprise you…
Keto and Neurodegenerative Disease
As we race to cure disease and increase human lifespan, we’re faced with an uncomfortable reality: neurodegenerative diseases remain the biggest risk to our goal of living well into our 100s. These debilitating diseases, after all, affect a shocking 50% of people aged 85 or older.
If neurodegenerative diseases are the longevity prize, there’s no better place to start than Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s accounts for 60% to 80% of dementia cases — a condition characterized by memory loss and behavioral changes that can be especially painful for the victim’s loved ones.
No known cure for Alzheimer’s exists today. Doctors’ best advice is to keep the mind active, say by taking up a new hobby or doing a puzzle. But for a deadly disease like Alzheimer’s, it’s hard to believe this is enough.
Fortunately, the scientific community is zeroing in on the underlying cause. Alzheimer’s appears to be largely a problem of brain fuel metabolism, specifically parts of the brain fail to harness energy from glucose. Alzheimer’s is essentially a fuel shortage in the brain.
So the question becomes: If Alzheimer’s is largely a metabolic condition, could it be cured by diet? And if glucose is the culprit, could an alternative fuel source help prevent, treat and potentially even reverse the condition?
A team of scientists set out to answer these questions. Since ketones can provide up to 60% of the brain’s energy, they hypothesized that orally-administered ketones would lower glucose needs and improve cognition. And that’s exactly what they found in their double-blind study.
While research remains limited, a few pioneering physicians are finding life-changing results possible through diet. Most notable is Dale Bredesen, author of The End of Alzheimer’s, who’s successfully treated over 100 Alzheimer’s patients with his approach. At the core of his protocol is a shift from glucose to fat metabolism through fasting and a ketogenic diet.
Keto and Cognition
If a ketogenic diet can provide cognitive benefits to patients with Alzheimer’s and epilepsy, how about healthy people? Can ketosis provide those without disease a cognitive boost in their everyday lives?
The answer is maybe.
Research is limited. But with thousands of anecdotes to draw from, we can hypothesize how the diet could promote the cognition, focus and performance benefits reported by healthy people on the diet. Here are the leading theories:
- Increased mitochondrial function. Mitochondria are your cell’s power plants, responsible for generating energy through ATP. We know ketosis promotes new mitochondria creation in diseased brains and, much like exercise, gives healthy people a mitochondrial boost. It’s possible ketosis does too by similar mechanism.
- Brain fog alleviation. The common “slow brain” condition is caused by elevated ammonia levels and depleted GABA levels. Ketosis addresses both of these problems by removing excess ammonia and increasing GABA signaling. This may be why mental clarity is so often reported by those on a ketogenic diet.
- More efficient fuel source. Glucose is often called the brain’s preferred fuel. But just because it’s used up first, doesn’t mean it’s our best fuel. Gram-for-gram, it’s ketones that generate more energy and burn cleaner with less damage from oxidative stress. With a better energy input (ketones), we should expect a better output (cognition).
This will be an exciting field to watch as research on the ketogenic diet continues to develop.
Keto and Longevity
Improving our cognition and protecting us from neurodegenerative diseases will undoubtedly help us live better. But can the ketogenic diet also help us live longer? In other words, can the diet increase both healthspan and lifespan?
Exciting new research suggests it might.
In the UC Davis study, researchers fed mice either a ketogenic or carbohydrate-based control diet. The results surprised almost everyone involved.
Mice on the ketogenic diet lived longer — their median lifespan was 14% higher than the control — and they lived better. The ketogenic diet slowed cognitive decline and preserved motor function as they aged.
If these results translated to humans, it would equate to an extra 7 to 10 years of life.
So how exactly did the ketogenic diet improve longevity? Scientists still don’t know.
Current theories include improved mitochondrial (energy) efficiency, a more neuroprotective energy pathway, and appetite suppression which could cause the same caloric-restriction effect shown to increase lifespan in dozens of animals and loosely correlated to the longer lifespan demonstrated in most of the world’s famous blue zone populations.
Our strongest clue, though, comes from an ancient signaling pathway called mTOR. Stimulate mTOR and you tell the body to grow, inhibit it and you tell your body to repair. So if you want longevity, you need to inhibit mTOR, and the most efficient way to do this is through moderating protein, restricting carbs and fueling predominately with fat — all key features of the ketogenic diet.
While we’re still understanding the power of keto, and also the risks, mounting evidence is making this diet one of the most exciting health trends in the last 100 years.
It may not be a panacea, but the ketogenic diet appears to help us unlock pathways to regulate our mind and body, slow aging and fight disease.
Does the ketogenic diet then hold the key to reversing chronic diseases and advancing longevity?
It’s too early to tell. But when it comes to diet, it could the best hope we have.
Ben & Brandon
Ben & Brandon are the founders of our promotional partner online food company, Keto Farms. They are revolutionizing the keto movement by using the cleanest, keto-friendly ingredients and a ‘from-the-Earth’ concept which excludes sweeteners, preservatives or additives of any kind. Keto Farms provides more than just keto-approved products — they promote a healthy, sustainable and well-rounded keto lifestyle.