September 23, 2016 Brain Health, Nutrition, Podcast 3 Comments

Episode 147

There was a time not so long ago when nutrition was simple:  carbs good, fats bad.  But since this neat summary was from the same people who told us to eat more margarine and fewer eggs, well, let’s just say that advice wasn’t the most accurate.

Welcome to the ketogenic diet.  A high fat, low carb diet based on how our ancestors probably ate, it can control epilepsy, help you get a leaner body, and make your thinking clearer and sharper.

Dr. Dominic D’Agostino, Associate Professor of Molecular Pharmacology and Physiology at the University of South Florida and Senior Research Scholar at the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC), is here to talk to us about what exactly is going on in your body on a ketogenic diet.

The Evolution of Human Diets

When you think about how our caveman ancestors lived, they didn’t have access to a glut of high glycemic load foods like ripe fruit or honey, and they definitely weren’t snacking on white bread.

They were eating a diet high in fiber and fat, and low in carbs.  They were also probably in ketosis for most of the year.

Cognitive Benefits of a Ketogenic Diet

When your body is in ketosis, your brain just works better:  you’ll feel more lucid and sharp.

Like so much about the brain, we don’t know exactly why this is.  But from an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense.  If you haven’t been successful in getting food, it’s time to make a new plan, and you more likely come up with a successful one if your thinking is clear and sharp.

Getting into Ketosis

Ketosis is a metabolic state in which your brain and body’s energy comes from ketone bodies, instead of from glucose.

There are a few ways of pushing your body into ketosis, including sustained periods of fasting and following a ketogenic diet (as the name so obviously suggests).  Dr. D’Agostino also suggests spending some time in the sun and heat.  Getting out in the sun lowers glucose and raises ketones, and can push you into ketosis, especially if you’ve been fasting.

How will you know if your body has gone into ketosis?  You’ll want to check your level of ketones daily, at about 3 or 4 pm.

You can buy blood tests to accurately measure your ketones level.  But if you want to save money, just grab some cheap ketone pee sticks at any pharmacy for about $0.25 per strip.  They’re less accurate, but will still confirm whether or not you’re in ketosis.

If your results from the urine strips are at least 15-40mg / dL, you’re almost definitely in ketosis.

Another way to check if you’re in ketosis is to ask someone to smell your breath.  Acetone (that stuff in nail polish remover) is a ketone body, and some people in ketosis find that their breath starts to smell like acetone.

Psst…  If this happens to you and it’s affecting your dating life, try drinking lots of water, coffee, and green tea, and chewing sugar-free gum.

Going Keto:  What to Expect

First, a quick explanation of what a ketogenic diet is.  The classic ketogenic diet is comprised of 85-90% fat, much of it dairy fat.  Realistically, this is really hard to sustain.  So, Dr. D’Agostino tends to follow a “modified” ketogenic diet of 65-70% fat with much of the dairy replaced with fats from things like coconut cream and avocado.

So when we refer to a “ketogenic diet,” we’ll be talking about a modified ketogenic diet.

If you’d like to try a ketogenic diet, the best way is to ease into it.  If you’ve been eating a high-carb diet, your brain is probably hooked on glucose, and if you cut out glucose too suddenly, you could have some fairly unpleasant withdrawals, with flu-like symptoms.

Dr. D’Agostino’s recommendations:

  • Eat 100 grams of carbs per day, split up into portions of 25 grams.  This is low carb enough to start to get the metabolic benefits of a low carb or ketogenic diet.
  • Make sure that, along with those carbs, you’re getting 150-200 grams of fiber, so the carbs won’t cause blood sugar level spikes.
  • Every two or three days, eat a ketogenic diet and add MCT oil.

Ketosis and Intermittent Fasting

Ketogenic diets and intermittent fasting aren’t the same thing.  A ketogenic diet governs what you eat, and intermittent fasting rules when you eat it.

That said, the two are complementary.  Intermittent fasting is easier to maintain when your brain and body are keto-adapted.  Depending on the length of your fasting period, practicing intermittent fasting can also nudge your body towards ketosis.

Supplementing For Ketosis

Taking the right supplements can help you get into ketosis and make sure your body is functioning at full capacity in that state.  Here’s what Dr. D’Agostino recommends:

Episode Highlights

0:36Ketosis and the brain
2:17This Week in Neuroscience: Smarter Brains are Blood-Thirsty Brains
7:30The audience interaction section
8:47Next #AxonChat - Wednesday, September 28 at 8pm Eastern Time with Dominic D’Agostino
9:36Quick background on ketosis (check out Episode 56: Ketosis vs Cancer? for more of a primer)
14:12Dr. Dominic D’Agostino’s entry point to researching ketosis
18:59What can ketosis do for cognition?
19:55Ketone bodies in different ratios
24:09Is living in ketosis ‘normal’?
28:47Optimising metabolism and preserving mitochondrial function through ketogenic dieting
32:33Ketones versus glucose for your brain
38:39“Keto flu”, heightened focus, and other physiological and cognitive responses to ketosis and fasting
41:58The difference between male and female responses to ketosis
44:29How should you aim to be in a proper state of ketosis?
46:29Factors other than food that affect ketone levels
47:55The effect of ice water baths and direct sunlight on glucose levels
50:57States of mind during a fast versus a ketogenic diet
55:54Intermittent fasting versus longer periods of fasting
57:40The importance of sodium and magnesium during ketosis
1:01:20“Ketone breath”
1:02:38What is the best time to check blood ketones?
1:05:25Ruthless Listener-Retention Gimmick: Well-timed exercise might improve learning


PS: Got more questions about ketosis, ketogenic diets, or fasting?  We’re doing a Twitter chat with Dr. D’Agostino on Wednesday, September 28 at 8pm ET where you can ask all your burning questions.  More on our #AxonChat Twitter chat here.

Written by Hannah Sabih
Hannah believes there's nothing 8 hours of sleep and some kale can't cure (yes, she's from California). She's an avid runner, reader, and traveler, who brings you the latest and greatest in neuroscience via our social media channels.
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