While the term ‘keto diet’ which is the shortened version of ketogenic diet, didn’t come into play until the 20th century, ketones have been used therapeutically for brain related disorders since Ancient Greece. While the Ancient Greeks used fasting to produce their ketones, the reduction of carbs and starches has also been used since the 1700's in the earliest forms of the keto diet.
Ketones as Superior Brain Fuel
20-July 2020, by Bronwyn MacRitchie
Keto's Theraputic History
Hippocrates certainly didn’t know that the fasting he was prescribing to epileptic patients (and many other sick people) was causing the production of ketones in the liver, but he certainly knew that it produced healing results! He continued prescribing the treatment and his patients continued experiencing the benefits of ketones! In the 1920’s ketone bodies were discovered, and the low carb high fat diet that induced many of the same effects as fasting was named. The ketogenic diet was born and keto meal plans came into existence. Now known by its many names, the keto diet, modified Atkins diet, low carb high fat diet, therapeutic keto diet, clean keto, dirty keto, lazy keto... Keto by its MANY names is certainly here to stay... and with VERY good cause.
Keto Wasn't About Weight Loss
While many of us here in the UAE, Dubai and the world over use the diet for weight loss at first, this was not it’s original objective. It was used to reduce seizures and symptoms in patients with epilepsy, as well as to reduce symptoms in patients with type 2 diabetes.
It is now known exactly why the keto diet has this effect on people with epilepsy, as well as people with traumatic brain injury, many people with dementia, and a full range of other brain disorders and diseases (1,2,3).
Ketones, those fuel molecules identified and named in the 1920s, are made in the liver in response to fasting, the keto diet or vigorous exercise in metabolically healthy people. These ketones can easy cross the blood brain barrier, providing an efficient, and by many tissues, preferred fuel source over glucose (4,5,6).
This can be particularly effective in brains where insulin resistance has already begun to take hold in the tissues, reducing glucose uptake in the brain.
Increased focus and mental clarity are two of the major draw cards of the keto diet and also of exogenous ketones for many people.
Our Brains on Ketones
Increased focus and mental clarity are two of the major draw cards of the keto diet and also of exogenous ketones for many people. Those of us who have experienced deep ketosis will know exactly what it’s like when our brains start running on ketones instead of glucose.
That feeling when the brain fog lifts and we are suddenly firing on all cylinders. Even if we were super sharp before, ketones just take this cognitive clarity to the next level completely!
Ketones as a Nootropic
This is one of the reasons that exogenous ketone salts are increasingly being included in Nootropic stacks the world over.
Nootropics are defined by Mariam Webster as, ‘substances that enhance cognition and memory and facilitate learning.’
In today’s competitive world where having even the slightest cognitive edge over a competitor could mean the difference between success and failure, the popularity of nootropics is rising. Like most phenomena, the rise of the nootropic has two faces. The first, and ugliest is in the form of habit forming pharmaceuticals such as Adderal and Ritalin being misused by students and professionals. Such drugs have had negative and even deadly impacts on many lives the world over.
However, the other side of this very shiny coin includes more natural compounds such as Ashwaghanda and Rhodiola, used for centuries in Ayurvedic medicine, and extremely effective when used correctly.
And, more recently, ketones have entered the stage.
Paths to Enhanced Cognition with Ketones
They have until recently, only been produced endogenously in the liver, and when the first exogenous ketones were produced they were completely unpalatable. The most common description being that they tasted like jet fuel.
However this is no longer the case, and BHB (Beta-hydroxy Buterate) which is the most active ketone body, is now available in a salt form which is included in delicious fruity mixes, and can be included in a Nootropic stack very easily.
The nootropic benefits of these salts will be felt most by people who are already doing some form of keto or carb cycling, and who’s bodies are already adapted to creating their own ketones endogenously, and who receive a tangible cognitive ‘bump’ from their ketone drink.
People who are still in the cycle of eating glucose every few hours may not be clear enough to noticeably feel the impact of the salts.
The next exciting player on the exogenous ketone playing field is the ketone ester. This is a liquid exogenous ketone in a far more bioavailable form than the salts. This form is only just becoming palatable, but is at this stage incredibly expensive to make, and therefore incredibly expensive to purchase. It is currently available from two sellers in the US. This player is however more exciting than the salts when it comes to the immediate felt effects in the body (for physical performance) and particularly the brain, specifically in non-fat adapted subjects.
Step by Step to Superior Mental Clarity
So, in the current ketone landscape what’s the best way forward to harness all the cognitive benefits these incredible molecules have to offer? This would be our process:
- Start keto, or extended fasting, and use a blood ketone meter to check your ketone levels. Try manipulate your carb intake or fasting windows and exercise to get up to a blood ketone level of between 3 and 5 and note down how you feel. It’s always best to write these effects down the first time you feel them as if you become accustomed to being in deep ketosis, it’s easy to forget that you ever felt any different!
- While you already have a ketone reading like this, add in a good dose of exogenous ketone salts (we love ANS, as they are cleaner and more impactful than others we have experimented with). And note down the enhanced clarity, energy and focus…
- Open a ‘Ketone Ester Savings Account’ and when you have been very good for a few years treat yourself to a serving of the monoester. I’m kidding of course! The prices are slowly coming down, and as their effectiveness becomes more widely known, perhaps they will be an option in years to come!
Nature in her wisdom gave us this incredible ability to create this nootropic in our bodies in the absence of carbohydrates… We needed this enhanced cognition to survive in times of scarcity. However as food became over abundant rather than scarce, we simply erased this skill with our modern movement towards continuous feeding and carbohydrate consumption.
Our bodies remember though, and tapping into this ability could be exactly the break our brain’s need to keep them sharp, healthy, functioning and well long into our old age (7,8,9).
- Papandreou, D., Pavlou, E., Kalimeri, E., & Mavromichalis, I. (2006). The ketogenic diet in children with epilepsy. British journal of nutrition, 95(1), 5-13.
- Gilbert, D. L., Pyzik, P. L., & Freeman, J. M. (2000). The ketogenic diet: seizure control correlates better with serum β-hydroxybutyrate than with urine ketones. Journal of child neurology, 15(12), 787-790.
- Masino, S. A., & Rho, J. M. (2019). Metabolism and epilepsy: ketogenic diets as a homeostatic link. Brain research, 1703, 26-30.
- Bernini, A., Masoodi, M., Solari, D., Miroz, J. P., Carteron, L., Christinat, N., ... & Foltzer, F. (2020). Modulation of cerebral ketone metabolism following traumatic brain injury in humans. Journal of Cerebral Blood Flow & Metabolism, 40(1), 177-186..
- Cunnane, S. C., Courchesne-Loyer, A., Vandenberghe, C., St-Pierre, V., Fortier, M., Hennebelle, M., ... & Castellano, C. A. (2016). Can ketones help rescue brain fuel supply in later life? Implications for cognitive health during aging and the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. Frontiers in molecular neuroscience, 9, 53.
- STREIJGER, F., PLUNET, W. T., TETZLAFF, W., & MED, D. (2016). Ketogenic Diet and Ketones for the Treatment of Traumatic Brain and Spinal Cord Injury. Ketogenic Diet and Metabolic Therapies: Expanded Roles in Health and Disease, 133.
- Murray, A. J., Knight, N. S., Cole, M. A., Cochlin, L. E., Carter, E., Tchabanenko, K., ... & Deacon, R. M. (2016). Novel ketone diet enhances physical and cognitive performance. The FASEB Journal, 30(12), 4021-4032.
- Evans, M., & Egan, B. (2018). Intermittent running and cognitive performance after ketone ester ingestion. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 50(11), 2330-2338.
- Fortier, M., Castellano, C. A., Croteau, E., Langlois, F., Bocti, C., St-Pierre, V., ... & Whittingstall, K. (2019). A ketogenic drink improves brain energy and some measures of cognition in mild cognitive impairment. Alzheimer's & Dementia, 15(5), 625-634.