Eating low-carbohydrate diets made from the basis of unprocessed raw materials seems to be a powerful tool for protecting and improving physical health. Can the same nutritional strategy be beneficial for the brain as well? New research and clinical experience indicate that the answer is YES.
Many believe that psychiatric health problems such as depression, anxiety and ADHD are caused by chemical imbalances that require medication. But how often do we stop and think about what causes these imbalances? While medications help and are important for some, it is obvious that the most powerful way to change the brain chemistry is through diet – since it is the brain’s chemicals.
This logical thought is the origin of a new and exciting area in nutrition psychiatry that focuses on understanding how our dietary choices affect our mood, thinking and behavior. Research and experience have a hopeful and new message: feeding your brain in a good way provides the potential to prevent and reverse symptoms from psychiatric health conditions, and in some cases reduce and even eliminate the need for medication.
The sharp increase in mental illness all over the world over the last few decades follows largely the same pattern as many other so-called modern diseases that can be linked to the industrialization of our food. Although many official health messages accuse animal protein and fat for causing this situation, meat is no new, foreign substance: it is an ancient raw material with a high nutritional value that we have had access to since ancient times.
We do not know exactly how much meat our ancestors used to eat, but we know that man could not survive without animal food. Plant-based diet lacks certain nutrients that are a prerequisite for human life, especially vitamin B12. And B12 was not available as a supplement until the 1950s
What most distinguishes today’s so-called “western” diet from all previous diet models is not the presence of meat, but the abundance of refined carbohydrates such as sugar and flour and refined seed oils (so-called “vegetable” oils) such as soy and sunflower oil. These two substances, found in almost all processed foods and all ready meals in the market, are the real main ingredient of the modern diet.
Refined carbohydrates and seed oils can be detrimental to both physical and mental health by contributing to inflammation, oxidation, hormonal imbalance and insulin resistance – considered by science to be a source of many physical and mental problems.
For the sake of clarity: these are not the only forces that play in, and poor diet quality is not the only factor that affects the risk of psychiatric diseases. But whatever it is – since there is solid science that connects dietary choices with pathogenic processes – it is definitely wise to raise the quality of our food.
LCHF and mental illness
Including anxiety in general (excessive anxiety), panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and social phobia. Although there are no formal, published studies yet, there are a number of reports and anecdotes in the area about people who achieve marked relief from anxiety on LCHF and ketogenic diets.
According to multiple reported sources, anxiety suppression is one of the most common benefits of LCHF diet, perhaps because it lowers and stabilizes the levels of stress hormones.
A 31-year-old Harvard doctoral student searched for help with her recurrent panic attacks, irritability, constant hunger, “emotional” and sleepiness that occurred two hours after eating. She was very health conscious and wanted to avoid medication. She found out that the symptoms were probably because of her sensitiveness to carbohydrates, and started LCHF. She changed her diet from:
Breakfast: Roasted bread with peanut butter or Nutella, coffee with low fat milk
Lunch: Salad with tuna or cheese and a slice of bread
Dinner: Pasta with cheese
Snack: Banana and yogurt
Breakfast: Two eggs with butter and guacamole
Lunch: Meat and starch-free vegetables
Dinner: Meat and starch-free vegetables
Snack: Nuts and cheese
When asked about how the new diet affected her symptoms, she said, “I don’t understand how I stood out with them because they affected me ALOT, but I would think that 90% of the symptoms are gone.”
Drugs that reduce inflammation and improve insulin sensitivity can effectively treat depression symptoms, suggesting that inflammation and insulin resistance play important roles in the development or degree of depressive states.
In 2017, the world’s first study on dietary treatment in clinical depression pointed out that a diet similar to Mediterranean foods reduced depression symptoms to a modest level compared to a typical modern diet. A second study of a similar diet supplemented with fish oil also showed benefits.
These important studies clearly show that the quality of the diet is of importance for mental health, but they cannot show if Mediterranean diet is the best diet for the brain, only that it is better than the typical modern standard diet. While it is tempting to think that these diets reduced the symptoms of depression because they meant a higher intake of olive oil and nuts, they also contain very little refined carbohydrates and seed oils. More studies are needed to investigate how and why different diets affect depression symptoms.
There is as yet no published research on people on low-carbohydrate diets and depression, but there are several examples in this field of work and many anecdotes from people who can testify to better behavior.
This condition was formerly referred to as “manic depressant” and is available in several different variants, such as bipolar type 1, bipolar type 2 and some common milder forms that do not really fit into any of the categories. All of these diseases are characterized by a labile mood pattern, switching between periods of increased intensity (being “high”) such as mania, irritability or severe anxiety and periods of depression. Interestingly, bipolar diseases and epilepsy have much in common, among other things, they have similar imbalances in the neurotransmitters and electrolyte disorders.
In fact, since the same medications are used to treat both diseases, it is logical to think about whether ketogenic diets, which have been used to treat epilepsy for almost a century, can also help to cope with bipolar disorders.
In a study of 121 people with bipolar mood disorder, it was found that those who were also insulin resistant or had type 2 diabetes faced tougher challenges than those who did not suffer from the same disorders. Although the study showed that the odds well exceed 2.0, it is an observation and cross-sectional study and thus the evidence is very weak. Those with insulin resistance or type 2 diabetes were more likely to develop chronic and rapidly cyclical mood symptoms and were less likely to react to the mood-stabilizing drug lithium.
In this published case study, two women with bipolar type 2 disease report that a ketogenic diet was superior to the antispasmodic / mood-stabilizing Lamotrigine (anti-epileptics) in managing mood symptoms and allowed them to stop taking drugs.
A 26-year-old woman with bipolar disorder, type 2, who also struggled with bulimia and regular migraine for many years, began eating LCHF and her over-eating behavior, migraine and PMS problems disappeared altogether. the mood during the “high” periods from angry to happy and the “low” periods became less intense. She was able to handle the remaining symptoms of depression with the help of a low dose of mood-stabilizing Lamotrigine and psychotherapy.
Psychotic symptoms occur not only in people with schizophrenia: they may also occur in many other psychiatric conditions such as depression, bipolar disorder, substance use disorders and dementia.
Signs of psychosis include paranoia, sound hallucinations (hear voices), visual hallucinations (see things that do not exist), intrusive thoughts / images and / or disorganized thinking. It is very interesting that people diagnosed with schizophrenia are more likely to have glucose control problems and insulin resistance, although they have never taken any antipsychotic drugs known to increase the risk of these conditions.
We do not yet have enough information to know if insulin resistance has causal link with schizophrenia, only that the two conditions often go hand in hand.
Several published reports have documented that low-carb diets can dramatically improve psychotic symptoms. The most remarkable and well-documented is the story of a 70-year-old woman who has suffered from both hearing and vision hallucinations since seven years age. After just eight days of LCHF, her symptoms improved significantly. After one year of diet, she was free of symptoms. You can read more about some of these cases in this article: “Ketogenic diets for psychiatric disorders: a new 2017 review.”
Autism Spectrum Conditions
Two small six-month studies and one case report have shown that a ketogenic diet can be helpful for children with autism spectrum conditions. In one of these studies, 60% of the 23 children who continued with the diet experienced some benefits, two of which improved their permission so to the extent that they no longer needed special education.
Although there are studies suggesting that a diet with low allergen content, consisting primarily of unprocessed foods, can be of great help to children with ADHD, there are still no studies investigating the correlation between refined carbohydrates and ADHD or who tested low-carbohydrate diets on children or adults with ADHD. Despite this, increased mental acuity is one of the most commonly reported benefits of LCHF, and there are cases where people with severe ADHD responded to a dietary change. Here is one of them:
Several years ago, a 40-year-old woman who, throughout her life, procrastinated, was always late, lacked motivation, was unassuming, easily distracted and disorganized – something that was extremely disruptive to her both at work and at home. She was diagnosed with ADHD, the variant of lack of attention, and she started taking Attentin (dexamphetamine). Attentin helped her a lot, though in an uneven way over the day and it also had some annoying side effects. Over the next few years, she gradually improved the quality of the diet by excluding cereals, legumes, dairy products and almost all processed foods, which was very helpful for her mood and greatly improved her mental health – but without doing anything about ADHD symptoms. When she decided to switch to a ketogenic diet a few months ago, it only took a few days before her symptoms were alleviated. She has since stopped taking Attentin altogether and reports that she works better when she is in ketosis than when she takes Attentin, in addition she’s free from the side effects.
Research that examines the link between metabolism and most psychiatric diseases is still in its infancy, but in the case of Alzheimer’s disease, theres clear and high-quality evidence that insulin resistance in the brain does not only play a role in the onset of the disease. It is also likely that it is a driving force for the development of this terrible disease. The relationship with insulin resistance is so strong that many researchers now call Alzheimer’s for type 3 diabetes.
One of the ways in which insulin resistance contributes to impaired brain function in Alzheimer’s is by preventing insulin from entering the brain. Since insulin is required for brain cells to be able to convert glucose into energy, low levels of insulin in the brain can slow down glucose conversion and thereby slow down brain cell activity. This reduction in brain power can start decades before you notice any cognitive symptoms and has been found in women as young as 24 years of age. So it is never too early to start prevention
It’s almost never too late either. A small but growing number of studies show that moderate ketogenic diet and / or ketone supplements provide a moderate improvement in thought ability and memory in people with “light cognitive disorder” (pre-Alzheimer’s). Also for those who are in an early age and the milder stage of Alzheimer’s, LCHF plus MCT oil (which raises blood ketone levels) has improved the results of cognitive tests on people with mild Alzheimer’s slightly better than any existing drug for Alzheimer’s.
So far, there have been no studies on low-carbohydrate diets and eating disorders published. Through reported sources, people with binge-eating problems and bulimia, who test low-carbohydrate diets, often experience a relief when it comes to binge-eating, the craving for food often decreases significantly, if you are prepared to change your diet. Dairy products and / or nuts can also trigger the operation of bingeing for some people, sometimes you also need to remove that type of food for best results.
However, if you have eaten too little food or have anorexia, thought patterns linked to anorexia or are uncomfortable with eating fat, then low-carbohydrate diets may not be right for you. When drastically reducing carbohydrates, that energy must be replaced by energy from fat. If you cannot properly increase your intake of fat, low-carb diets can be fatal, especially if you are already underweight or have nutritional deficiencies. If you are considering reducing carbohydrates, seek medical and psychiatric consultation to discuss risks and benefits for you with your personal history and goals.
Although the link between food and mental health is an area under development in terms of scientific research, there is great potential for many people to find a key to better mental health by departing from processed food and adapting their diet.