Neuroprotective benefits of ketones
Contrary to what some might believe, the ketogenic diet (KD) is not a fad diet. The ketogenic diet has been around since the 1790s when it was used for weight loss. In the 1920s the KD became a standard medical treatment for seizures. Dr. Wilder at the Mayo Clinic first started using the KD as an alternative to starvation for the production of ketones. It is these ketones that have been found to have anti-seizure and other neuroprotective properties.
Before talking about the neuroprotective properties of ketones, let me take a step back and remind you what ketones are. Ketones are an alternative fuel source for the brain and body. Our bodies need fuel to energize our day-to-day activities. The molecular form of this energy is ATP. ATP is produced in the part of the cell called the mitochondria. ATP can only be made by either the break down of glucose or ketones. The glucose comes from glycogen (stored glucose) or from the carbohydrates (sugars) or the proteins that we eat. Ketones come from the break down of fats. The primary fuel source that most of us use is glucose.
Ketones may be the preferred fuel for the brain.
Thru research by Dr. Cahill, we know that when there is not enough glucose around, i.e., in times of starvation our brains can function by the energy produced by the breakdown of ketones. The use of ketones as an alternative fuel source is an evolutionary development to protect our brains during times of starvation. Research by Dr. Cunanne implies that not only are ketones an alternative fuel for the brain; instead, ketones may be the preferred fuel source for our brains. Thru the use of PET scans, Dr. Cunanne found that when both glucose and ketones are present, ketones are taken up to be used by the brain first before using glucose.
Some benefits of using ketones instead of glucose include:
- Improved energy production
- Ketones produce more ATP compared to glucose
- Ketones have been shown to enhance mitochondria function
- Ketones are also a cleaner source of energy
- Produces less free radicals (waste product)
- Increases antioxidant production (which bind with the free radicals help remove the waste products)
- Ketones decrease Inflammation
- Ketones improve neurotransmitter balance in the brain
- Ketones decrease the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate
- Increases the inhibitory (calming) neurotransmitter GABA
- Ketones do not rely on insulin to get into the cell
The ketogenic diet or ketones themselves have been or are currently being studied in many neurological conditions including:
- Epilepsy/intractable seizures
- Alzheimer’s dementia
- Parkinson’s disease
- Multiple sclerosis
- Traumatic brain injury/concussion
- Migraine headaches
I know that list contains neurological disorders that look entirely different. They have different symptoms and different treatments. So why would something such as the ketogenic diet is helpful for such a wide variety of disorders?
The answer is that these neurological conditions, despite having different causes have some of the same underlying cellular abnormalities. These include:
- Decrease energy metabolism at the cellular level which is either from
- Mitochondria dysfunction
- Inability to utilize glucose
- Increased inflammation
- Increased free radicals (reactive oxygen species)
Do those look familiar? They should. They are some of the ways that ketones are believed to have potentially neuroprotective effects. Now I am not saying that ketones or the ketogenic diet have been proven to prevent, cure or treat any of these diseases. More research is needed, however, the potential of something as simple as changing your diet or supplementing with ketones to improve your brain is exciting!
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