Any Olivers guy knows that regular exercise can boost your mood, but what about our diet? It turns out, neuroscientists and nutritionists have been exploring the connection between what we eat and our overall mental wellness. And while a ketogenic diet has been proven to help you shed pounds, build lean muscle and manage diabetes, it can also be extremely beneficial for your brain.
On a recent podcast, nutritionist Andrew Huberman sat down with noted psychiatrist Dr. Chris Palmer to talk about the intimate relationship between the fuel we eat and mental health. As Huberman sets it up, “I think most people know what mental illness is… most people have some idea of what nutrition is… fewer people know how closely those things can interact.”
Dr. Palmer, a board-certified psychiatrist and assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, backed this up by explaining the important connection between nutrition, metabolism and mental health. He spoke at length about his pioneering work using the ketogenic diet to successfully treat patients with various mental illnesses, including depression and even schizophrenia.
Without going too deep into the science of it all, the low-carb keto diet provides your brain with energy via ketones, produced by the liver when your carbohydrate intake is very low. The reduction in carbs puts your body into a metabolic state called ketosis. You see, glucose is usually the brain’s main fuel. Our brains, unlike our muscles, can’t use fat as a fuel source. However, when glucose and insulin levels are low, ketones can provide up to 75% of the brain’s energy needs.
“As for the exact level of ketones a person needs,” Dr. Palmer says, “it really depends on the individual and what exactly we’re treating.” What’s more, he says that not everyone even needs to go full keto. “For some patients, simply getting rid of junk food can make a huge difference in a mood disorder for instance.”
No doubt, if you transition your diet to a more keto-style plan of low carbs and higher fat, you’ll start to notice changes—not just in your body, but in how you feel. Ketogenic diets can cause significant reductions in blood sugar and insulin levels. This, along with the increased ketones, has some serious health benefits. For instance, brain function increases and your focus sharpens. Some research has even linked keto diets with relief from migraines.
Celebrity trainer Joey Thurman, author of the book The Minimum Method, is a big believer in the mind-body connection. He says you have to think of your body like a car. It requires proper maintenance to look good and get you where you're going efficiently. “Your brain is the engine that drives everything,” he says. “If your brain isn't taken care of or properly fueled, then every single system will suffer.”
Like he tells his clients, “you need to take in proper nutrients from your food that can help your body and mind operate at full capacity.” This includes a wide array of vitamins, antioxidants—foods that fight the body's natural stress response—and foods that have been shown to directly help the blood brain barrier, the thin lining around your brain. For instance, Omega 3 fatty acids are essential to your brain health, and the body can't produce them on its own. So you have to consume them in your diet. And medium-chain triglycerides (also known as MCTs) are fats that offer sustained, slow burning mental energy and improved short-term memory. You can find them in coconut oil and dairy products—which just happen to be perfect for keto diets.
* FYI: One of the most common misconceptions about the keto diet is that you can eat as much protein as you’d like. But protein can be converted into glucose, and therefore overeating protein can take your body out of ketosis.