Depression and Keto: Does a Low-Carb Diet Help or Hurt Your Mood?
By: Alison Moodie
- Researchers have explored using keto as a treatment for depression, and the results are promising.
- Keto can help your mood in various ways by stabilizing energy levels, lowering inflammation, and feeding your brain.
- Sometimes keto can make you feel depressed. Find out why.
- If you’re feeling down while on keto, speak to your doctor, try carb cycling, and take mood-boosting supplements.
You’ve no doubt heard by now about keto’s ability to burn fat, and fast. The high-fat, low-carb diet is having a moment — celebrities like Halle Berry and Megan Fox swear by it as a weight-loss strategy. But less has been said about keto and depression. Does giving up carbs and sugar help or hurt your mood? Read on for a look at what the science says, and the ways to tweak keto if it’s left you feeling down.
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Depression and keto: What the science says
The keto diet has been around a long time — it was first introduced in the 1920s to treat people with epilepsy. Researchers found that higher levels of blood ketones led to fewer epileptic seizures in patients, demonstrating that keto can impact and change the chemistry of the brain.
Since depression and the brain are so closely linked, researchers have explored the possibility of using keto as a treatment for depression. The results are promising.
In one study, rats that were put on a keto diet moved around more compared to a control group (low physical activity is considered a marker of depression). The researchers concluded that rats on the keto diet, like rats treated with antidepressants, were less likely to show what they called “behavioral despair.”
In another study, 8-week-old mice who were exposed to the keto diet in the womb, but who ate a standard diet once born, were less likely to be depressed or anxious, and were more physically active, than mice who were fed a standard diet in utero and postnatally. The brain volume of mice that had been on keto also differed from that of the mice fed a standard diet. The findings suggest that the keto diet can alter the size of the brain, at least before birth.
Other studies also show that keto influences brain structure. In one report, keto increased the thickness of blood vessels in the brain, while another study showed that ketones protects brain cells from injury.
Related: Ketosis and the Ketogenic Diet Explained: A Complete Beginners Guide
How keto can help your mood
Stabilizes energy levels
If you’re used to eating oatmeal for breakfast and a sandwich for lunch, then you’re probably familiar with energy highs and lows. High-carb foods cause rapid spikes in blood sugar, and just as speedy declines. Energy crashes affect your mood, and can make you feel anxious and depressed (it’s called being “hangry” for a reason). When your blood sugar starts to drop, your brain panics, thinking it won’t get more fuel to function. This stress response can trigger depression or anxiety. One study found that diabetic patients with fluctuating blood sugar levels showed higher rates of depression than patients with more stable blood sugar levels.
Ketones provide an immediate source of energy for your brain, since they’re metabolized faster than glucose. Ketones offer a longer-lasting, more stable source of energy — and since your body knows it can also reach into your fat stores for fuel, your brain doesn’t panic, thinking you’re running out of food.
When you switch to keto, you’re turning your back on inflammatory, processed foods like bread, cereal, and pasta that damage the gut (unless you’re following a dirty keto diet, but more on that later). Instead, you’re filling your plate with clean sources of protein, nourishing fats, and fresh vegetables that heal the gut and lower inflammation. In one study, middle-aged people who ate a diet rich in whole foods (defined as fish, vegetables, and fruit) were less likely to be diagnosed with depression than people who ate processed food (sweetened desserts, fried foods, and refined grains).
“The keto diet gets you to eat real food,” says Ellen Vora, MD, a holistic psychiatrist. “It motivates people to get more conscious about how they source, prepare, and eat their food, and it necessitates a transition to a nutrient-dense, real-food diet.”
Eating anti-inflammatory food is going to have a direct effect on your mood. Research shows a link between inflammation and depression:
- Depressed people have higher levels of proinflammatory cytokines — molecules that the body releases in response to inflammation.
- People with cancer or autoimmune diseases show higher rates of depression. While it’s true that being sick can make one feel depressed, scientists say it’s the connection between depression and inflammation that’s the likely culprit.
Keto promotes neurogenesis
The keto diet can increase your rate of neurogenesis (how often you make new brain cells). Why is this important for mood? A low rate of neurogenesis is linked to mood problems, including depression. A higher rate, on the other hand, boosts your emotional resilience. Diet is a key player in determining your rate of neurogenesis. Some foods slow it down, while others speed it up. A high-sugar diet (i.e. the opposite of keto) slows your rate of neurogenesis by spiking the insulin levels in your blood. Too much insulin degrades all your organs, including your brain. In one study, rats who ate a diet high in sugar and oxidized (damaged) fats showed impaired cognitive function after just two months. The area of the brain that was most affected was the hippocampus, where neurogenesis takes place.
Fat feeds your brain
All that healthy fat that you eat on keto feeds your brain, keeping your moods stable. Your brain is made up of nearly 60 percent fat, and it needs plenty of good fats to keep it running. Numerous studies show that omega-3 fatty acids, found in wild fish, grass-fed beef, and fish oils, can potentially reduce depression. In one study, two types of omega-3 fatty acids called EPA and DHA aided the secretion of serotonin, the neurotransmitter (a chemical messenger) that helps regulate your mood. Low serotonin levels are linked to depression.
Why keto can make you feel depressed
You’re not eating enough nutrient-dense foods
It’s possible to follow keto and still be living off junk food. It’s known as “dirty keto.” You follow the same breakdown of fats, proteins, and carbs as regular keto, but with one difference: it doesn’t matter where those macronutrients come from. So lunch could be a bunless bacon cheeseburger and diet soda. You can learn more about dirty keto here.
Eating foods low in vitamins, minerals, and enzymes won’t do your mood any favors. Your body relies on nutrient-dense foods, particularly high-quality protein and healthy fats, to make neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, which help stabilize mood. If you don’t eat enough of these foods, your brain cells can’t communicate with each other as effectively, and may send the wrong signals. The result? Your performance suffers and you may feel anxious and depressed. Inflammatory foods can also upset the balance of good and bad bacteria in your gut. Your gut and brain are constantly communicating with one another (it’s known as the gut-brain axis), and studies show that a gut imbalance can lead to depression, and a host of other diseases and conditions.
You have low levels of electrolytes
When you first start keto, your kidneys start to excrete more water as your body switches from burning glucose to ketones for energy. This flush of water accounts for the dramatic weight loss people often experience when they first go on the diet. But there’s a downside — in the process, your body loses valuable electrolytes like magnesium, potassium, and salt. Low levels of electrolytes have been linked to depression. It’s relatively easy to hack your electrolyte levels. Make sure you’re getting 2 to 2 ½ teaspoons of salt a day (Himalayan pink salt is best), and consider supplementing with potassium (200-800 g a day) and magnesium. Learn more here about how to spot a magnesium deficiency and the best sources of magnesium.
Depression and keto: A sense of isolation
Any diet that restricts certain food groups can potentially leave you feeling socially isolated, which can lead to depression. When you meet your friends at an Italian restaurant and they’re all ordering pizza, you may feel left out. This sense of isolation can affect your mood, says Vora.
“[Keto] can impact your ability to eat out with friends, and this can be a significant drawback, as community and a sense of ease in life is just as important to your mental health as a state of ketosis,” says Vora.
What to do if you’re feeling down on keto
Here’s the number one thing to remember about mental health — it’s not an area that you want to navigate alone. If you’ve started feeling depressed while following a low-carb diet, it’s important to reach out for support. That can be in the form of a trusted family member or close friend, or a therapist. There’s a lot that can trigger depression, and talking to someone can help you sift through possible causes and draw up a game plan.
Eat a variety of low-toxin, anti-inflammatory foods
You want to focus on high-quality proteins, healthy fats, and plenty of vegetables to boost your mood. Check out the Bulletproof Diet Roadmap to discover the best foods to heal your gut and feed your brain.
Do cyclical ketosis
Cyclical ketosis (aka carb cycling) involves carbo-loading one day of the week. The other 6 days you stick with the standard low-carb keto diet plan. Adding healthy carbs like sweet potatoes and white rice once a week carries lots of benefits, including improved mood. It’s easier to follow keto when you can periodically satisfy your carb cravings and enjoy the occasional meal out. Certain carbs, especially resistant starch, feed your good bacteria, and a balanced gut equals a balanced mood. Discover everything you need to know about carb cycling here and how to do it.
Take mood-boosting supplements
Consider taking mood-boosting supplements like zinc, glutathione, and l-tyrosine. A particularly potent supplement called 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan) increases the production of serotonin in the brain, which can help balance your mood and improve sleep. Learn more here about the best supplements to lift your mood (including dosage recommendations). Remember, never stop taking prescription medication without first speaking to your doctor.
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