Can the keto diet help treat depression? Here’s what the science says so far

A growing body of research shows promising signs that the keto diet might be able to improve mental health.

eggs and bacon keto diet foods
Photo: Public Domain
  • The keto diet is known to be an effective tool for weight loss, however its effects on mental health remain largely unclear.
  • Recent studies suggests that the keto diet might be an effective tool for treating depression, and clearing up so-called "brain fog," though scientists caution more research is necessary before it can be recommended as a treatment.
  • Any experiments with the keto diet are best done in conjunction with a doctor, considering some people face problems when transitioning to the low-carb diet.

It's hard to ignore the keto diet. You see it in the news when celebrities are promoting it, decrying it or otherwise duking it out over the science. You might hear about it from friends who've lost weight by adopting the diet and are now full-fledged keto converts. Or you maybe know somebody with epilepsy who's used the diet to reduce seizures, as epilepsy patients have since the 1920s.

What's clear about the keto diet is that it's an effective tool for weight loss: When you drastically reduce the amount of carbohydrates you eat, your body eventually enters a state of ketosis and starts burning fat instead of carbs for fuel, resulting in weight loss. But what's less clear is how the keto diet affects mental health, particularly depression.

There's a wealth of anecdotal evidence suggesting the keto diet has helped people overcome depression. As Redditor willilikeit wrote:

"Six months on keto. Have lost 40 pounds. But the best result is how I feel. I've gone from waking up with dread and fighting suicidal thoughts off and on most days, to feeling energetic, positive, and only a rare, passing, suicidal thought. It is night and day! Omg. Thank you for all of your posts and support!"

Of course, improvements like these might also stem from the simple fact that any diet that helps people lose weight, gain energy or otherwise gain a sense of control over one's life might also lead to improvements in mood and self-esteem. Still, recent research suggests that the keto diet might in fact be a useful tool in combating depression, and possibly other psychiatric conditions including schizophrenia and ADHD.

The keto diet in the psychiatric literature

In 2017, a group of psychiatrists published a paper called "The Current Status of the Ketogenic Diet in Psychiatry" that examined research conducted on the keto diet and psychiatric conditions over the past couple of decades. On depression, the overview noted two studies:

  • A 2004 study, which tested the hypothesis that the "ketogenic diet may act as a mood stabilizer," showed that rats placed on the keto diet showed fewer signs of depression, or showed less "behavioral despair."
  • A 2014 study on rats showed an even more surprising finding. The researchers put one group of mice on the keto diet, and one on a normal diet. The offspring of the keto group were more active and showed more development in several key areas of the brain, including the hippocampus, cerebellum and neocortex. These effects persisted even though the offspring weren't put on the keto diet themselves.

Interestingly, the overview also found that the keto diet seems potentially effective at alleviating at least parts of nearly every other psychiatric condition mentioned in the overview, including schizophrenia, autism and anxiety. Still, it's too early to know for sure whether the keto diet is a safe and effective treatment for any of these conditions, as the researchers concluded:

"While these animal studies are placing research into KD on a firm footing and identifying some promising leads, on balance the evidence in humans is insufficient to form an opinion as to the efficacy or lack thereof of this intervention in the mental disorders reported."

​Why would the keto diet help depression?

Keto diet vegetables, avocados, eggs

The keto diet emphasizes foods that are low in carbs and high in fat.

Pixabay

There are a couple theories as to why the keto diet might help combat depression.

One centers on the diet's anti-inflammatory properties. A sugar-heavy diet (e.g. one high in carbs) is known to increase inflammation in the body. Meanwhile, inflammation is linked to (at least some forms of) depression, with studies showing that:

So, the idea is that, because ketosis requires a drastic reduction in the amount of sugar you consume, the keto diet might help the body reduce inflammation, which in turn alleviates depression. Here's how Georgia Ede, a Harvard University-trained psychiatrist who studies the relationship between mental health and nutrition, summed it up to Susie Neilson at The Cut:

"...when refined carbs and sugar serve as the brain's primary food source, the neural pathways are overwhelmed with free radicals and glucose, depleting our natural internal antioxidants and leading to excess oxidation and inflammation in the brain. When the brain draws its energy from ketones, fewer free radicals are produced, allowing our natural antioxidants to easily neutralize them without becoming depleted. Mitochondria, the "engines" of cells, may function more effectively, and neurotransmitters' journeys across synapses may be eased."

Another main reason the keto diet might alleviate depression is that it seems to help the body produce optimal amounts of GABA, the brain's main inhibitory neurotransmitter. GABA is made from glutamate, which is the brain's major excitatory neurotransmitter. In order for your brain to function properly, it needs a balanced amount of both glutamate and GABA.

However, in high-carb diets the brain often can't convert enough glutamate into GABA because it's using glutamate as an energy source. Having too much glutamate and not enough GABA leads to neurotoxicity, and this impaired functioning seems to cause what people commonly call "brain fog."

What's interesting is that, for reasons that aren't fully understood, ketosis seems to encourage the increased production of GABA, reducing neurotoxicity, clearing up that brain fog and (at least potentially) alleviating conditions like anxiety and depression.

Potential problems with the keto diet

If you're thinking about experimenting with the keto diet, make sure to consult your doctor before making the switch: It's well documented that your diet can greatly affect your mood, so it's best to know what you're getting into before making a major change.

It's also worth noting that some people seem to encounter problems when switching to the keto diet. Sometimes these problems are caused by the inevitable period of low energy and weakness that one undergoes as the body adjusts to the dietary change, a period commonly called the "low-carb flu." Others might face complications caused by mineral deficiencies that stem from improperly implementing the diet. And still others might experience problems during the transition stemming from the symptoms of the very conditions they're trying to manage with the diet.

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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