Mental health is the major disease of our time.
Approximately 1 in 5 in the US and Canada will experience a mental health illness in any given year , and almost 7% of the population will have experienced a major depressive episode in the past year.
1 in 5.
When we look at gender differences, females outnumber men by almost 2x when it comes to depression.
When I run nutrition protocols with patients, I often advise them to follow a ketogenic diet. There are many benefits of the ketogenic diet, but there was one I wanted to dive a little deeper on. I have noticed a pattern consistently emerge from the protocol. Other than weight loss, almost everyone reports an improvement in mood. We see improvement on DASS scoring, an overall happiness, energy, and zest for life return to the person.
So I was curious.
Does a ketogenic diet help with depression?
After diving into the research, here’s what I found
Depression And Keto
“If you don’t think your anxiety, depression, sadness and stress impact your physical health, think again. All of these emotions trigger chemical reactions in your body, which can lead to inflammation and a weakened immune system. Learn how to cope, sweet friend. There will always be dark days.”
— Kris Carr
Broadly speaking, females are more susceptible to disease of white matter such as depression, anxiety, and autoimmune disorders.
Moving from the brain down, in a rostral to caudal fashion, a depressed person is at risk for any and all of the following real time effects on our body:
- Decreased executive function in our frontal lobe (meaning we make worse decisions)
- It makes us more migraine prone
- We will be moodier due to decreased inhibition of the limbic system
- It affects our pupils (reduces their ability to constrict)
- It puts us in flexion (think: fetal position, or how you look at your desk)
- Our flexor muscles, like powerful ones like the Sternocleidomastoid, will bring our head forward as they are unchallenged by our extensor muscles
- We will experience reduced the ability of our rib cage to expand in the coronal plane (your breathing will become shallow and depressed),
- It slows, or “depresses” digestion and makes us more susceptible to gut permeability
- We will tend to have lowered, or depressed stomach acid, decreased gut motility
- It increases inflammatory cytokines
- Movement is harder to initiate
So what does this mean?
Simply, everything hurts. Too much light, movement, eating. It all hurts.
So, do depressed people have more digestive issues?
Of course they do.
Neurologically we can predict this.
The problem here is so often is we can get caught treating “a leaky gut”, and not the root cause.
Not looking at the cause as to WHY the gut permeability is happening, from a neurological perspective, you can never truly fix a leaky gut if you don’t address the faulty autonomics first.
This study looked at the ketogenic diet, depression, activity levels, and behaviour of rats.
Rats on a ketogenic diet displayed less behavioural despair — meaning they exhibited less hopelessness, and they were more active than the control group not eating keto.
In other words, the ketogenic group was less helpless and less hopeless.
They got up, moved around, and were active participants in their lives.
Think about a time when you have been extremely sad or even depressed about something.
There is often a quality of helplessness, or pervasiveness that no matter what you do, nothing will change the situation. You are lethargic, sleepy, and don’t want to do anything.
In the rats fed a ketogenic diet, they were less likely to be sedentary, and more likely to be move around.
There is an important knock on effect here.
There is such an abundance of information on the positive knock on effects of movement on health and specifically, depression.
Movement is one of the most under-utilized antidepressants out there.
Less Depression In Children
“Depression isn’t about, ‘Woe is me, my life is this, that and the other’, it’s like having the worst flu all day that you just can’t kick.” — Robbie Williams
A SUPER interesting study was done on the effect of the ketogenic diet on pregnant mice and the differences in behaviours and physiology of their babies.
Specifically, they found that the children of a mother who had a ketogenic diet while pregnant were more active, and had important difference in brain anatomy.
These results persisted even when the offspring did not follow a ketogenic diet.
Side note: A surprising, unpredicted finding here was that the daughters of moms on a ketogenic diet were the MOST active, even more so than then the sons of mothers on a ketogenic diet.
While scientists are not exactly sure why that is — both the males and females who were exposed to a ketogenic in utero were far more active, and had better energy production, and reduced oxidative stress than the control group.
Offspring exposed to a ketogenic diet had a bigger areas of the brain — namely the hippocampus, the cerebellum and the neocortex.
In other words, this finding suggests that there maybe a protective against anxiety and depression in the brain of in children exposed to a ketogenic diet in utero.
Bigger cortex? Yes please.
Better memory and learning? Sure, why not
Better balance, proprioception, and movement integration? Okie dokie.
Now, most people are introduced and attracted to the ketogenic diet because of its rapid and powerful effects on weight loss.
It is often referred to as a fasting mimicking diet, because it has the same benefits as fasting in terms of weight loss, insulin sensitivity, neurotrophic and neurogenic effects on the brain, improved cholesterol markers.
It is a sustainable way to eat a lot of plant based foods, healthy nourishing, brain healthy fats, and it has been shown to have several anti-aging components to it.
Of course a ketogenic diet is not the only tool that is available for depression.
Mental health professionals, coaching, counselling services are always strongly recommended.
These studies are exciting because we are now starting to see an accumulation of science backing the ketogenic diet. In this case, for its antidepressant properties.
The ketogenic diet is showing to be a useful tool in brain healing, having an anti-inflammatory effect in the brain, and potentially having long term effects in brain anatomy and function.
This is GREAT news for anyone suffering with depression.
Using the ketogenic diet, we can improve brain function (and therefore better moods and behaviours) by using the benefits of a ketogenic diet to alter the downstream neurochemical effects of depression.
These studies are demonstrating that there is another important tool — the ketogenic diet — to help improve the symptoms of depression.