What Are the Mental Benefits of a Low Carb Diet?
Ketogenic and low carb diets have not only been shown to result in weight loss, but they can also provide mental health benefits. Read on to learn how our brains may function better on a low-carb high-fat diet.
Did you know that your mental health is largely influenced by the nutrients you obtain from food? While diet is not the only factor that influences mental health, it is certainly one that deserves a lot of attention. A high carb diet can have very different effects on mental function when compared to a diet based around fats. A lot of recent research has shown the benefits of eating a ketogenic or low carb diet for certain mental disorders such as depression, epilepsy, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
Many mental illnesses stem from the same things that cause physical health problems, such as inflammation, oxidative stress and hormonal imbalances. These conditions can be a result of consuming foods that are high in refined carbohydrates, industrial-use oils, artificial preservatives and added hormones. The higher quality your diet is, the better your mental function will be. Feeding your brain the right nutrients has the potential to prevent and even reverse some of the symptoms of mental illnesses.
What Causes Mental Health Disorders?
There are two common causes of mental illness when looked at from a biological standpoint: an imbalance of important brain chemicals, called neurotransmitters, or low brain cell energy production. Both of these causes can be controlled or alleviated with proper dietary nutrition.
One cause of mental health disorders is an imbalance in the types and levels of neurotransmitters in the brain. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that are released by nerve cells in the brain that send signals to other nerves, organs, muscles or tissues to perform some kind of function. Depending on the type of neurotransmitter, these signals can have different effects on the mind and body that range from inhibitory to stimulating responses. The brain requires a balance of different neurotransmitters to function normally, and if these levels get thrown out of balance for long periods of time, mental illness can result.
Depression, anxiety and other mood disorders are said to be caused by an imbalance of neurotransmitters in the brain. There are 4 main neurotransmitters that regulate moods: serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine and GABA; each producing different effects on our moods and behaviour. The food we eat affects the levels of these chemicals because dietary nutrients are needed to manufacture neurotransmitters. Dietary nutrients come from proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals. Proteins are the essential building blocks of neurotransmitters, as well as muscle tissue, organs, blood, enzymes and antibodies. Carbohydrates and fat are primarily used as fuel sources, but they can also have an effect on levels of certain neurotransmitters in the brain.
Low Brain Cell Energy Levels
Another cause of mental disorders is low energy production in brain cells. Without enough energy, brain cells may slow down or cease to function, which can result in a number of mental illnesses such as depression and Alzheimer’s.
There is a common belief that your brain needs glucose (produced when we eat carbohydrates) to function. While this may be true, glucose is not the only fuel source that the brain can use, and your liver can produce all of the glucose it requires on its own without you having to consume any carbs. When you consume fats, the liver produces ketones, and your brain can use these as a primary fuel source instead. Some research has shown that ketones may be a more efficient fuel for the brain than glucose. This is because ketones can increase the number of mitochondria – the part of the cell responsible for converting nutrients into energy – in brain cells and therefore boost the overall amount of energy produced by these cells.
Reducing Your Carb Intake Could Improve Mental Function
High Carb Diets and Mental Function
If you are not in ketosis, then your brain is using glucose as its main fuel source. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, if you have any mental health concerns, you may consider switching to a low carb high fat diet instead.
Two neurotransmitters that are produced when we consume carbohydrates are serotonin and dopamine, both pleasure-causing chemicals. While this may seem like a good thing, any imbalance of neurotransmitters in the brain can have very negative consequences. Having excessive levels of serotonin in the brain can result in anxiety from over-stimulus and depression due to withdrawal. Having too much dopamine has also been known to result in various degrees of psychosis and mania, including binge eating, gambling, bipolar disorders, aggression and schizophrenia.
Low Carb Diets and Mental Function
Being in ketosis – that is, consuming a ketogenic diet that is about 75% healthy fats, 20% high-quality proteins and 5% carbs – can increase the production of the GABA neurotransmitter due to the different nutrients provided by this kind of diet. Having a good balance of GABA in the brain has been shown to increase mental focus and reduce stress, while low levels of GABA have been linked to anxiety, depression, poor memory and insomnia.
Other Mental Benefits of a Low Carb Diet
Reduces Inflammation and Oxidative Stress
The ketogenic diet has also been shown to reduce inflammation caused by oxidative stress in the brain. This is why the keto diet is often recommended to those suffering from brain seizures and epilepsy, because of the anti-inflammatory effects of a diet that is rich in omega-3s and essential vitamins and minerals from high quality fats, proteins and vegetables.
The keto diet is naturally anti-inflammatory because it also requires you to cut out inflammation-producing foods such as refined sugars and carbohydrates. But you still need to be sure that you are consuming antioxidant-rich foods daily. Keto-friendly anti-inflammatory foods include:
- Dark leafy vegetables
- Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower
- Aronia berry – higher in antioxidants compared to cranberries, blueberries and most other fruits, and low carb.
- Fatty fish
- Healthy oils such as olive oil, avocado oil, coconut oil, and flaxseed oil
- Camu camu – a rainforest berry that contains powerful antioxidants and is loaded with Vitamin C which can help fight inflammation.
Can Reverse Hormonal Imbalances and Adrenal Fatigue
Hormonal imbalances or adrenal fatigue can result in a number of physical conditions that may lead to more serious mental disorders. For example, they can show up as symptoms of tiredness, body aches, problems sleeping and digestive issues but can escalate to anxiety or depression.
Hormonal imbalances may be due to certain developmental changes such as puberty and menopause, but our diets also largely effect our hormonal levels. Some of the foods we eat may cause us to be ingesting inappropriate levels of hormones that can throw our hormonal levels out of balance. This is especially true for low quality animal products because hormones can be added, and when consumed, can seriously disrupt our bodies’ hormonal balance. It is important to eat high-quality protein from both animal and plant sources, even if you are on a fat-based diet. Look for non-GMO grass-fed beef, free range chickens, and sustainably caught wild fish. Tempeh, tofu, edamame, hemp seeds, nutritional yeast and nuts and seeds are great low carb plant-based sources of protein as well.
Foods that cause inflammation can also disrupt our hormonal balances. Adrenal fatigue occurs when the adrenal glands in the kidneys can no longer function properly. The adrenal glands are responsible for the production of vital hormones such as our sex hormones and cortisol, the stress hormone. Cortisol, if produced in moderation, can help us perform in certain areas of life. However, adrenal fatigue occurs when the adrenal glands overproduce cortisol, resulting in inflammation and not producing enough of the other important hormones. Stress and inflammation can have a number of damaging effects on the body. If you suspect that you may be exposed to high levels of cortisol, you can modify your diet to reduce these effects.
Some foods recommended to reduce hormonal imbalances and adrenal fatigue include high protein foods, dark green and red vegetables and fruits, and unrefined or gluten-free carbohydrates (consuming gluten can cause inflammation in people with mild to severe gluten intolerances). Again, foods you should avoid are refined white sugar and flour, alcohol, caffeine, artificial sweeteners, and highly processed or fast food.
Let’s Make This Easy
The Low Carb Grocery carries a number of low carb, anti-inflammatory, adrenal fatigue-reducing foods that can help you manage your diet for improved mental health:
- Nick’s Sticks 100% Grass-Fed Beef Jerky Sticks
- GluteNull Keto-Friendly Gluten-Free Cookies
- Good to Go Keto-Friendly Gluten-Free Snack Bars
- Chickapea High Protein Pasta
- Anthony’s Goods Nutritional Yeast – sprinkle on popcorn, pasta and salads for a cheese-like flavour! Vegan, gluten-free and keto-friendly.
- Liviva Edamame Noodle Pasta
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