Nutrition is not only involved in preventing all of the known risk factors for Alzheimer’s and dementia, but it’s also one of the most powerful tools we have to reverse and improve declining brain function. If you feel great but and you want to be proactive about preventing cognitive decline, many types of whole food and anti-inflammatory diets may do the trick. Although, if have started to notice early symptoms of brain dysfunction like memory loss, brain fog, poor word-finding and the like, you might need more.  In fact, you may benefit from a mild ketogenic diet, which has been shown to support enhanced brain function and repair.

What is the Ketogenic Diet?

The ketogenic diet provides a high percentage of calories from fat instead of carbs and protein. In fact, somewhere between 75-90% of calories may come from fat. While the keto diet has gained plenty of attention recently, it has actually been used with great success for almost a century in the treatment of epilepsy without negative side effects. It is likely that you’ve heard about the keto diet for weight-loss, but clinically it is improving conditions such as autism, bipolar disorder, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and more.

An effective ketogenic diet triggers a metabolic process seen in times of starvation called ketosis, even though the body is not starving at all. Most Americans are eating a diet that provides plenty of carbohydrates.  These carbs are broken down into glucose and further substrates, and when metabolized properly, they generate fuel in the mitochondria of cells. However, if we eat very low levels of carbs, on average 50g/day or 200 calories or less, the liver will synthesize ketones from fat.

Ketones can be used as an alternative fuel source for cellular energy. Humans have evolved to switch between glucose and ketones for fuel depending on how much access we have to food.  Today, most people have plenty of access to food and rely heavily on carbs for fuel. While cells are effectively using ketones for fuel the liver works to regulate low blood sugar by generating small amounts of glucose from fat and protein sources, a process called gluconeogenesis.

How Does Keto Improve Cognitive Decline?

It’s true that carbs are king in the typical American diet, but many people don’t realize that a high-carb diet can be dangerous.  A high carb diet, especially if those carbs are processed and refined such as bread, pasta, crackers, chips, corn products, sweetened drinks, desserts, etc. cause  inflammation, gut dysbiosis, damage to the intestinal wall and hyperglycemia. These conditions damage cells throughout the body, including brain cells.

Consider that for carbs to be effective, they have to be able to be used by cells for fuel.  This requires that carbs are broken down, transported and taken up by cells with the help of insulin.  In the brains of people with cognitive decline, both glucose and insulin metabolism appear to be dysfunctional while in healthy brains, neurons can easily use glucose for fuel.

For people experiencing even early signs of cognitive decline, we have to switch the fuel source from glucose to ketones. This idea is supported by studies that show ketones are a better source of energy for brain cells with poor glucose metabolism, such as those seen in Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Ketones offer a better fuel source which can help to prevent brain cell death and improves energy and brain function.

One of the reasons the keto diet can help is because ketones increase production of a critical molecule called NAD+. NAD+ is imperative to the energy production cycle within our cells and is also deficient in those with Alzheimer’s. When done correctly, another boost experienced as a result of the keto diet is increased intake of polyunsaturated fats (PUF).  PUF and ketones regulate neuron excitability, inflammation and free radicals, a trifecta that do wonders to improve motor function.

Dirty Keto and Clean Keto

While many people that have jumped on the “keto bandwagon” for weight-loss are filling up on bacon, eggs and cheese, I call that dirty keto. Those foods may provide ketones, but they are not healthy and can cause secondary issues. Foods like low-carb vegetables, avocado, fatty nuts and seeds, healthy oils, ghee, and small amounts of meat, eggs, and seafood are best for long-term health. Fruit, grains, beans, lentils, and starchy vegetables are excluded.

If you are concerned about cognitive decline, a specially trained functional medicine provider can help you learn about and initiate a ketogenic diet safely. Nutrition is one of the best tools in our toolbox for combating cognitive declines.  Don’t underestimate the power of the right therapeutic diet!