A Diet for Brain and Mental Health

While we are not fans of fad diets, especially for the sole purpose of temporary weight loss, there are specific approaches to nutrition that may benefit those who struggle specifically with brain and mental health disorders. There has been extensive research on the role of the ketogenic diet, or a low-carb diet in healing neurological and brain disorders. Although many people are familiar with the ketogenic diet strictly for weight loss, its original intent was actually to reduce symptoms of epileptic seizures.



A major reason why a low-carb diet may improve mental health symptoms is that insulin signaling is significantly impaired in those dealing with depression, anxiety, Alzheimer's, and even bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Insulin signaling works differently in the brain than in the blood. Studies have shown that a poor diet contributes to insulin resistance in the brain before insulin signaling in the blood is impaired. This means that our brains are impacted by our diet more quickly and significantly than is presented in the blood initially.



Therefore, it is no surprise that people often notice mood changes, improved focus, less brain fog, and increased energy fairly quickly when cutting back on sugar and starches, especially processed starches, in their diet. This is because of the improved insulin signaling and reduced inflammation in the brain. As insulin sensitivity improves, immune dysfunction tends to improve, with decreased oxidative stress, and improved mitochondrial function (more on this in a bit!).


While a ketogenic diet has been traditionally used for epilepsy, by Dr. Russel Wilder at the Mayo Clinic, there have been findings that suggest it is beneficial for other neurological disorders as well. Studies have even shown that when people with symptoms of schizophrenia switch to a low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet they tend to experience less severe symptoms and improved overall quality of life. Patients struggling with Alzheimer's and cognitive decline have also experienced improved symptoms following a ketogenic diet.



When reviewing the benefits of a ketogenic diet on brain and neurological health, we actually approach diet as a means of supporting our mitochondrial function and integrity. Mitochondria were initially known as the powerhouse of the cell, as they promote energy production. The mitochondrion is an organelle that exists within the human cell, , which functions to produce energy for the production of neurotransmitters, improve brain function, and release hormones and neurotransmitters independent of other metabolic processes. It was not until fairly recently that it was discovered that the mitochondria not only produces energy in the form of ATP, but directly controls hormone and neurotransmitter responses. Intriguing mechanisms allow them to move along neuron synapses to release batches of neurotransmitters. When they become dysfunctional, they are unable to function as needed. This halts neurotransmitters that control mood, our sleep cycle, and our neurological function from being released efficiently.


Mitochondria are also responsible for the expression of over 60% of genes, so they are a key player in epigenetics. Epigenetics is the study of mechanisms that control gene silencing and activation - the genes that contribute to longevity and disease. This is important to know in order to understand how we can target disease prevention and stress response. Hormone release is also dependent on mitochondrial function, which means our hormones may become dysregulated with poor mitochondrial function. Mitochondria also play a vital role in immune function and control, as they send signals that induce various healing processes and activation of specific immune cells.


If we have poor mitochondrial function, we can guarantee excess chronic stress in the body, poor hormone production, decreased immune function and halted neurotransmitter release. All of such processes are connected to longevity, thus mitochondrial function plays a major role in life span and epigenetic changes that promote and prevent disease. In almost all brain and mental health diseases, ROS (reactive oxygen species) overwhelm the antioxidant responses, causing mitochondrial disease and poor brain function/neurotransmitter balance. Oxidative stress damages mitochondria and is directly linked to Parkinson's Disease, Alzheimer's, ALS, and even diabetes and heart disease. This is where lifestyle changes come into the picture. Enhancing a process called mitophagy (selective, self-removal of dysfunctional mitochondria) can be used as quality control promoting longevity and healthy neurological function.


So how does diet relate to mitochondrial and brain function? When we reduce sugars and starches in the diet, especially processed carbs and sugary foods, we reduce inflammation and ROS (reactive oxygen species). This is why safely fasting can drastically boost cellular and mitochondrial cleanup through autophagy (self cell-destruction of dysfunctional cells), and mitophagy, as previously mentioned. Robbing cells of excess glucose and carbohydrates by following a ketogenic or low-carb diet allows this process to occur efficiently and reverses insulin resistance.


A ketogenic diet consists of a diet rich in healthy fats, such as avocados, nuts and seeds, coconut oil, and grass-fed meat, and low in starchy carbohydrates. High-quality protein is included, as well as a lot of colorful, nonstarchy vegetables including dark leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, and low glycemic index fruits such as berries. Dark purple, blue, and black colored fruits and vegetables may be very healing for the brain, as they contain a phytonutrient, anthocyanin, known to support the blood-brain barrier. The carbohydrates to limit include processed foods and simple carbohydrates (bread, pasta, baked goods), white rice, high glycemic index fruits (mango, banana, grapes, dried fruits, etc.), sugary and sweetened beverages (especially soda and diet drinks), added sugars, artificial sweeteners, and excess starches from potatoes, sweet potatoes, and whole grains. How often people choose to limit the healthy complex carbohydrates (such as high glycemic fruits, starchy vegetables including potatoes, and gluten-free whole grains such as quinoa, oats, and brown rice), depends on the portion sizes they eat, how their body responds to them, and their specific goals/needs. For deeper information on a diet that promotes mitochondrial and brain health, see the Mito Food Plan link below by IFM (Institute for Functional Medicine).


Often people wonder if they need to remain in ketosis and for how long in order to improve symptoms. Ketosis is a metabolic state the body enters into when carbs are reduced to a certain degree, by which fats are used for energy rather than glucose. Studies have shown that remaining in ketosis may manage symptoms related to depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, memory issues, and more. Whether or not a person desires to remain in a state of ketosis for a certain period at a time, depends on the person's goals and symptoms they wish to treat, as well as any other health implications. Therefore, it is recommended to meet with a medical provider and health specialists to establish nutrition goals and monitor progress and symptoms. This is highly encouraged before making any drastic changes to your nutrition and supplement regimen, to ensure it is safe and recommended for you.



Overall, if you are suffering from a brain or mental health disorder and are looking for a natural way to manage your symptoms, considering switching to a low-carbohydrate diet, and a specially a diet free of sugar, may be beneficial. This type of diet focuses on consuming whole, unprocessed, healing foods, which can lead to improved insulin signaling in the brain and body. The body is brilliantly complex, and capable of healing, especially if we give it the tools it needs to do so!



If you would like to learn more about improving your brain and mental health through diet and lifestyle changes, contact TCLM to set up an appointment with a provider and Registered Dietician, Ruben Lespron! We will help you create a plan based on your unique needs.


Contact: (713)-690-1991



Kim, Jae-Moon. “Ketogenic Diet: Old Treatment, New Beginning.” Clinical Neurophysiology Practice, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 24 July 2017, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6123870/.


Valentina L. Brashers, Neal S. Rote. Pathophysiology The Biological Basis for Disease in Adults and Children. 3251 Riverport Lane St. Louis, Missouri 63043, Elsevier Mosby, 2014.


“Dr. Chris Palmer: Diet & Nutrition for Mental Health | Huberman Lab Podcast #99.” YouTube, YouTube, 21 Nov. 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xjEFo3a1AnI&t=5142s.


IFM Mito Food Plan, Comprehensive Guide: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B44U1H74sUL8d3hLT0lrbzFwcHc/view?usp=sharing&resourcekey=0-EATmU_UIBg8OnTosf6SG3A


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