Neurological disorders, such as epilepsy, Alzheimer disease, Parkinson disease, sleep disorders, brain cancer, autism, pain, multiple sclerosis, and various types of headaches, are often insufficiently treatable using pharmacological therapies. To make things worse, lots of medication have side effects, which some individuals can hardly bear. Even in cases where medications do manage to reduce disorder’s symptoms. Hence, many patients look for more natural treatments. Soon, we might have good news for these patients. In the future, the ketogenic diet could become the “natural” support for treatment of some of the neurological disorders.
A great example is a drug resistant epilepsy. The diet has been successfully used as epilepsy treatment for decades. Although the mechanisms behind anticonvulsant effects are not yet clear, there have been enough experimental studies carried out to confirm its efficacy.
What about neurological disorders other than epilepsy?
Admittedly, we are still lacking a sufficient amount of clinical data. Still, the literature supporting the broad use of the ketogenic diet and its variants against a variety of neurological conditions has been emerging in the past decades. There might be something about nutrients and/or calorie restriction that has a significant effect on neurons and cellular energy utilization. Lately, researchers in this field have been identifying mechanisms through which the ketogenic diet may provide neuroprotective activity. They speculate that the main factors for this activity are the ketone body production and the reduction in blood glucose levels.
Could the aging of the brain slow down?
One day in the near future, we might be able to answer this question. First of all, it could turn out that the ketogenic diet can slow down some degenerative processes that occur in the aging brain cells. The ketogenic diet is likely to involve some neuroprotective mechanisms, especially in the context of pathological neurodegeneration. For example, studies, conducted on rats, have shown that medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) has a protective effect on some of the age-related intracellular dysfunctions. Could the same apply to humans?
Fats against Alzheimer disease
The ketogenic diet might also play a beneficial role in patients with Alzheimer disease (AD). So far, clinical studies have demonstrated some promising results. Namely, a certain type of AD patients has shown significant improvement in various memory and learning tasks after being on an MCT ketogenic diet for a while. What is more, even diets such as Mediterranean have shown some promise with AD. This suggests there is something about high intake of healthy fats and low intake of carbohydrates that acts neuroprotective.
What about Parkinson disease?
While we have too few clinical studies to imply anything, animal models have demonstrated potential benefits of ketone bodies in Parkinson disease (PD). It is true that some PD patients have shown improvement on the ketogenic diet, but we can not rule out the placebo effect relying on the limited number of small-scale, uncontrolled clinical studies. Thus, it would be great to see some well-designed double-blind and controlled studies, conducted on patients with PD.
Could Stephen Hawking have benefited from the diet when his disease was still latent?
If you are familiar with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), you know that it is a rapidly progressive disease that leaves the affected individual profoundly weak despite retained cognitive functioning. Again, animal models of ALS have shown some improvement after administration of the ketogenic diet. However, the survival time was not extended in these animals. Investigators have been wondering whether the timing of intervention is crucial for a protective effect of the ketogenic diet treatment. In fact, this question is applicable to all of the neurodegenerative diseases.
Theoretically, depriving cancer cells of their usual fuel supply (e.g. glucose) by use of the ketogenic diet could be clinically therapeutic. Studies, conducted on animals with brain tumors, have led to some interesting findings. The animals’ brain tumor growth rates decreased on the ketogenic diet. What is most intriguing, though, is that these effects were supposedly a result of calorie restriction rather than the diet-induced ketosis. Anyhow, there are several human cases with improved brain tumors on the ketogenic and MCT-based diets. Moreover, the diet seems to improve the general quality of life in some patients. Again, all these are case reports. Besides, other than brain tumors, we don’t know much about the ketogenic diet improving other types of tumors.
Psychiatric and developmental disorders
The ketogenic diet may also have mood stabilizing properties. While no known clinical studies have been carried out to this day, in a couple of studies rats with depression seemed to get beneficial effects on the diet, comparable to antidepressants.
Lately, limited clinical research has even raised the intriguing possibility that the ketogenic diet might help ease some of the deviant behaviors seen in children with autism spectrum disorder. This is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects mostly language and social function. Some children seem to show significant behavior improvement on a ketogenic diet variant, consisting of MCT. On the downside, many children with autism don’t tolerate changes in dietary and other routines too well.
Try giving your chronic headache a ketogenic remedy
Let us end this list of possible benefits of the ketogenic diet in neurological disorders with one of the most common headache disorders; migraine. Scientists have come to some good theoretical reasons to consider the ketogenic diet for a chronic migraine. Supposedly, there is an overlap of migraines and epilepsy, although the intrinsic mechanisms, underlying both phenomena, differ in many aspects. If you happen to be one of the chronic migraine sufferers, you might be aware that doctors can prescribe certain antiepileptic drugs for this specific form of headaches. Interestingly, the first report of using the ketogenic diet to treat a migraine came as early as in the 1920’s, soon after the diet’s first use for epilepsy.
To conclude, we need more clinical data to actually conclude anything. Whatsoever, all the preliminary studies show that the metabolic shifts that occur on the ketogenic diet might lead to neuroprotective actions. If you or someone close to you suffer from any neurological disorder, do consult with your doctor before initiating the diet.
Anyhow, if you are a migraine sufferer, and otherwise healthy, I see no reason to not give the ketogenic diet a try. It has certainly helped with my chronic migraines enormously.
Based on review article: Stafstrom, C. E. & Rho, J. M. (2012). The ketogenic diet as a treatment paradigm for diverse neurological disorders. Frontiers in Pharmacology, 3, 1–8. doi: 10.3389/fphar.2012.00059