Story at-a-glance –
- A University of California study found that following a ketogenic diet might be the key to reducing damaging brain inflammation, especially after stroke and brain trauma
- A ketogenic diet involves decreasing net carb intake and increasing the amount of healthy fats in your diet
- Beyond lowering brain inflammation, a ketogenic diet is beneficial for diabetes, Alzheimer’s, fibromyalgia and epilepsy, to name several
- As you age, inflammation may be a reminder that eating well, implementing a ketogenic diet and exercising regularly will help alleviate and even prevent pain
By Dr. Mercola
New research points to the effectiveness following a ketogenic diet may have on bridling brain inflammation — the same type of inflammation implicated in epilepsy and other neurological disorders. Ketogenic diets are high in good fats and extremely low in net carbs. The group of scientists, from the University of California in San Francisco (UCSF), found that following a ketogenic regimen may be the molecular key to suppressing damaging brain inflammation, especially after stroke and brain trauma.
Senior study author Dr. Raymond Swanson, a professor of neurology at UCSF and chief of the neurology service at the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center, said suppressing post-injury inflammation in the brain was the impetus for the study, as the condition has been a key issue in the field.
The researchers believe they have uncovered the mechanism for why a ketogenic diet is so effective at reducing brain inflammation — even going so far as to suggest it may one day be possible to gain some of its benefits without changing your diet.
Medical Xpress explained the defining moment of the study, which was published in the journal Nature Communications,1 came when the team “identified a pivotal protein that links the diet to inflammatory genes, which, if blocked, could mirror the anti-inflammatory effects of ketogenic diets.”2
Swanson’s belief is that a ketogenic diet may be difficult for some to follow, especially when someone is very ill, so the fact that it may be possible to achieve some of the effects without it, he stated, was especially exciting. That being said, you can gain the advantages now by changing your diet for the better, which will yield body-wide benefits for your overall health and longevity.
The Advantages of Eating a Low-Net-Carb Ketogenic Diet
The result of sticking to a ketogenic diet by adhering to an eating pattern emphasizing healthy fats along with low net carbs is that it literally changes the way your body uses energy. A ketogenic diet will convert your body from burning carbohydrates for energy to burning fat as your primary source of fuel.
When your body is able to burn fat for fuel, your liver creates ketones that burn more efficiently than carbs, thus creating far less reactive oxygen species and secondary free radicals that can damage your cellular and mitochondrial cell membranes, proteins and DNA.
Animals (rats) used in the study were found to have reduced inflammation when the researchers used a molecule called 2-deoxyglucose, aka 2DG, to block glucose metabolism and induce a ketogenic state, similar to what would occur if you followed a ketogenic diet.
Key Molecule for Glucose Metabolism: 2DG
To produce a ketogenic state by blocking glucose metabolism, scientists used the 2DG molecule. This was done both in the rats and in controlled laboratory cell lines, bringing inflammation down to “almost control levels,” Swanson explained. His reaction:
“I was most surprised by the magnitude of this effect, because I thought ketogenic diets might help just a little bit. But when we got these big effects with 2DG, I thought wow, there’s really something here. The team further found that reduced glucose metabolism lowered a key barometer of energy metabolism — the NADH/NAD+ ratio — which in turn activated a protein called CtBP that acts to suppress activity of inflammatory genes.”3
In what was later called a “clever experiment,” the researchers designed their own peptide molecule to block the CtBP protein’s ability to become inactive, which resulted in it essentially blocking inflammatory gene activity continuously. That’s how it duplicated a state of ketogenic-like effectiveness. Peptides are small proteins that aren’t used like drugs as they’re considered unstable and antibodies can be made against them, plus they’re expensive.
Swanson also explained that other molecules working in a similar manner could also mimic ketogenic advantages without requiring extreme dietary changes.4 Beyond lowering brain inflammation, the study is said to have possible applications for diabetics in regard to its association with excess glucose and eventual atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. This condition is caused by a buildup of artery-blocking plaque, that the described inflammation-fighting effect could benefit or possibly prevent.
It’s likely that much more research will continue to emerge highlighting the profound health benefits of a ketogenic diet; this is only the beginning. And as mentioned, you don’t have to wait for a new drug to come out that mimics the effects of a ketogenic diet (if that is even possible remains to be seen) — you can experience the advantages now simply by changing the way you eat.
Ketogenic Diets May Also Benefit Chronic Pain
It’s noteworthy that the anti-inflammatory effects of a ketogenic diet were confirmed, considering systemic, low-grade inflammation plays a major role in chronic pain. As Pain Science noted, “Chronic low grade inflammation is increasingly seen as a part of other orthopedic conditions such as osteoarthritis — once considered a ‘cold’ wear and tear problem (as opposed to the far more overt and ‘hot’ inflammation of rheumatoid arthritis).”5
Chronic inflammation, which can be the result of poor diet, stress, exposure to environmental toxins and much more, can silently damage your tissues over an extended period of time. This process can go on for years without you noticing, until a disease or chronic pain suddenly sets in. Increasing research suggests, however, that following a ketogenic diet may be beneficial here too.
As explained by one study, there is reason to believe a ketogenic diet could be beneficial for a number of types of pain, including neuropathic pain, inflammatory pain and even thermal pain. Researchers explained:
“Compared to glucose metabolism, ketone metabolism produces fewer reactive oxygen species — which are known to contribute to inflammation … evidence indicates that ketogenic diets can reduce inflammation, and thus may be helpful for inflammation-associated pain.”6
They also pointed out that a ketogenic diet may relieve pain via several mechanisms, similar to the ways it’s known to help epilepsy. “Like seizures, chronic pain is thought to involve increased excitability of neurons; for pain, this can involve peripheral and/or central neurons. Thus, there is some similarity of the underlying biology,” they noted.
It was also suggested that a ketogenic diet may boost signaling of the neuromodulator adenosine, which has pain-relieving effects.7 The researchers added that chronic pain is a major public health problem, encompassing about one-fifth of the total health care expenditure in one country, while accounting for three times the cost of all types of cancer combined in another.8 They concluded:
“A major research focus should be on how metabolic interventions such as a ketogenic diet can ameliorate common, comorbid, and difficult-to-treat conditions such as pain and inflammation.”9
‘Inflammaging:’ Could a Ketogenic Diet Slow Down Aging?
Canadian author Paul Ingraham makes an interesting observation that “To be old is to be inflamed.” He cites the term “inflammaging” to describe, as one study put it, human aging characterized by chronic, low-grade inflammation.10 He continues:
“Aging itself seems to be inflammatory, no matter how fit, skinny, and calm you are … To be inflamed excessively may be synonymous with premature aging … which is probably affected by both your genes and lifestyle. Things that are unhealthy (smoking, inactivity, stress, sleep deprivation) don’t so much make you feel old as literally age you.”11
If aging itself, along with age-associated diseases, are linked to chronic inflammation, and ketogenic diet is anti-inflammatory, it stands to reason that it could also help prevent premature aging and even slow down the aging process. Indeed, a fairly consistent effect seen in people on a ketogenic diet is that blood levels of leucine and other important structural proteins go up, allowing these proteins to perform a number of important signaling functions.
Ketones also mimic the lifespan-extending properties of calorie restriction (fasting), which includes improved glucose metabolism; reduced inflammation; clearing out malfunctioning immune cells; reduced IGF-1, one of the factors that regulate growth pathways and growth genes and is a major player in accelerated aging; cellular/intracellular regeneration and rejuvenation (autophagy and mitophagy).12
Benefits of Implementing a Ketogenic Diet
As for the multitude of health benefits from following a ketogenic diet, one of the most important is the effects it has on the suppression of inflammation, shown in numerous studies. It’s also been found to benefit nonalcoholic liver disease13 and epilepsy, possibly resulting from “a decrease in circulating levels of arachidonic acid and long-chain n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs),”14 as examples.15
Beyond this, maintaining nutritional ketosis may have health benefits in diseases such as obesity, diabetes, cancer, epilepsy, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, ALS, multiple sclerosis, autism, migraines, traumatic brain injuries, polycystic ovary syndrome and much more. The featured study should help to advance understanding of the importance of a ketogenic diet by uncovering one of the mechanisms behind this type of dietary approach.
A 2015 study16 also outlined the anti-inflammatory effects of ketosis, and there are also classic examples to be observed worldwide. One group with a background of a basic ketogenic diet under their belts is the Innuit people in portions of Alaska, Canada and Greenland, known for their low disease rate, and Vilhjalmur Stefansson, an anthropologist whose diet consisted of nothing but meat (including fish) for an entire year, with zero carbs or vegetables, and only beneficial effects.17
Reported benefits from implementing a ketogenic diet, aside from the anti-inflammatory benefits, plus the fact that it’s known as an anticonvulsant,18 include:
- Less hunger while dieting
- Improved cognitive function in people who are cognitively impaired
- Reduced cancer risk
- Improved weight loss
- Increased longevity and mental clarity
Eating a Ketogenic Diet for Health
Eating a ketogenic diet doesn’t have to be complicated or painful. My book “Fat for Fuel” presents a complete Mitochondrial Metabolic Therapy (MMT) program, complemented by an online course created in collaboration with nutritionist Miriam Kalamian, who specializes in nutritional ketosis.
The course, which consists of seven comprehensive lessons, teaches you the keys to fighting chronic disease and optimizing your health and longevity. If you or someone you love has cancer, it will also augment any oncological treatment you might be undergoing.
The MMT diet is a cyclical or targeted ketogenic diet, high in healthy fats and fiber, low in net carbs with a moderate amount of protein. This targeted component is important, as long-term continuous ketosis has drawbacks that may actually undermine your health and longevity. One of the primary reasons to cycle in and out of ketosis is because the “metabolic magic” in the mitochondria actually occurs during the refeeding phase, not during the starvation phase.
Ideally, once you have established ketosis you cycle healthy carbs back in to about 100 to 150 grams on the few days a week you do strength training. MMT has a number of really important health benefits, and may just be the U-turn you’ve been searching for if you’re struggling with excess weight or just about any chronic health condition. MMT has a number of really important health benefits, and may just be the answer you’ve been searching for if you’re struggling with excess weight or just about any chronic health condition.
Further, rather than being a prerequisite and foregone conclusion associated with aging, inflammation may be a reminder that, as you age, looking seriously at a ketogenic diet, exercising regularly, as well as getting plenty of daily non-exercise movement, and taking care of yourself is wise, as together they’ve been shown to alleviate pain and related inflammation.
The alternative is to allow the factors that help cause pain and inflammation to cause inactivity and increased dependence on medications, all shown to make everything worse!