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Healing My Brain With a Ketogenic Diet

Art created by a person with dementia from the Creative Connections in Dementia Care program.

If you have been following me for a while, way back when I had my blog, Bipolar Spirit, then you know I have been on dozens of medications to treat my bipolar II disorder, PTSD, panic disorder, binge eating disorder, ADD, and cognitive decline and none of them worked. I have been in different kinds of therapy for over twenty years, and while I slowly got better in some ways, my brain still was just not working correctly. While I intellectually had healed a lot of the trauma and all the therapy helped as it should, my brain just still went to extreme mood swings, compulsions of binge eating and cutting, I had cognitive problems, and I still often had an inability for my brain to see reality. There was no “choice” I could make that would stop my brain from going down these paths. Even though I was doing everything right, my brain was still not working well enough.

I started the Paleo diet many years ago, and that helped, but the healing was not consistent. I found my brain was still far too inflamed to work well, so I tried an Autoimmune Paleo diet, which helped even more, but, again, not enough.

My mother died from Lewy Body dementia about three years ago now. I work with people with dementia, teaching and coaching Montessori based dementia care. I am always researching about brain health, and all the current research is showing how a ketogenic diet can prevent dementia or reverse early-stage dementia (sometimes late-stage as well). I decided to try a ketogenic diet because my brain was getting worse and worse, despite everything I was doing. At 38 years old, and years before, I was showing signs of dementia (which we now know shows up 15-20 years before diagnosis).

A dairy-free ketogenic diet (low carb, high fat, moderate protein diet where your body uses fat, rather than carbs, to fuel itself) helps with many mental illnesses (it has been used for ADD, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia). A ketogenic diet decreases inflammation in the brain and it reverses insulin resistance. Alzheimer’s disease is often called Type 3 diabetes.

I decided to try the ketogenic diet because of the vast amount of research about how beneficial it it for brain health. Much of the research can easily be found in the book The End of Alzheimer’s: The First Program to Prevent and Reverse Cognitive Decline by Dale Bresden. His book has a complete protocol for brain health.

What does the keto diet do for me?

  • No symptoms of bipolar II disorder. It just does not happen anymore, as long as I stay in ketosis.

  • No compulsion to cut. Most people do not understand cutting. Basically, for most of us, it happens because we are in so much pain that our brain thinks the only way to release the pain and literally survive, is by cutting. It’s not a choice. (Trust me, if you have a choice to cut yourself, you wouldn’t do it.) Things that used to trigger cutting still trigger the thought to cut to relieve pain, but not the compulsion and not the loss of choice.

  • No compulsion to binge eat. Treatment for binge eating disorder, for me, went well, but I was always in recovery. I was always having to go through the mental process of evaluating the binge-eat-repeat cycle, manage intuitive eating, and observe and process my emotions, just to survive every day. Even though the cycle got better, that compulsion to binge eat was still there. When it coincided with a PTSD trigger, I just had no options. Again, my brain was not well enough to have a choice. Now, that just does not happen anymore. I don’t have food cravings or addictions anymore. I see food as amazing and beautiful and helpful. I eat when I am hungry and I eat what I love.

  • Decreased cognitive decline. I can follow instructions better, drive better, remember things for work better, remember and say words, follow what I am reading and understand it, remember where I put items in my home, and remember people’s names and faces.

  • Decreased ADD symptoms. I put a lot of tools in place to manage my ADD, mostly tapping into my Montessori principles. While they work, it has always been a struggle. I was having to put more and more supports into my life and then I had so many systems and supports, I was overwhelmed by them. I have been able to decrease some of my supports and the ones I still use work much better.

  • Huge decrease in panic. We went on a flight a few weeks ago. I have never flown alone because my panic disorder does not let me, even on medication. This last time we flew, I had no panic! No medications, and no panic. At all. And, it was not like the “less panic” you feel on medications like Ativan or Klonopin where your brain is trying to panic but can not quite access it. For me, those medications were like being a nightmare where you are trying to wake yourself up and you just can’t. It’s horrifying.

  • Decrease in visceral fat, and thus a decrease in brain inflammation. There is a correlation between having a high visceral fat level (fat around your organs) and brain inflammation. (FYI, you can be “skinny” and have high visceral fat and be “obese” and have low visceral fat.)

  • Sometimes, I feel normal! (Although I know normal is not real, I do believe there is a next to normal.) I don’t know how to describe this, but I have always walked through my life not understanding how other people are not scared, depressed, and anxious all the time. How do people wake up in the morning and want to be alive? How do they go out in public and not have to be two people- one internally struggling and scared and processing everything, the other outwardly covering all signs of ADD, bipolar disorder, trauma, and panic? How do they have conversations and not hear all of the other sounds, see all of the other movements, and get tired and overwhelmed just trying so hard to concentrate on the people they are talking to? How are people not suffering 24/7? Now, some days I actually have a good amount of time where I don’t have all of those things. I am next to normal.

  • Bad mental health episodes are shorter. Over the course of a day or so, I became disoriented, more confused, depressed, anxious, and I was waking up not wanting to be here again. All of those behaviors and symptoms were all so reasonable to me! My brain could not register that this was not the way it should be. I had been doing well for so long, and suddenly my brain was working totally differently. It was very clear to my husband that I had not all of the sudden made some choice to be this way again. So, we checked my macronutrients and we tested to see if I was in ketosis- I was not. I had miscalculated a meal I had eaten a few days in a row, which put me over in carbohydrates. We got me back into ketosis as quickly as possible and he stayed home with me a few days to make sure I was okay. This episode did not last the usual months and months- my brain being irrational and my husband needing to take off work often to take care of me. A few days eating keto and getting back into ketosis, and I was functioning well again. This really showed us how much the ketogenic diet works to treat my mental illnesses.

I know my journey is not over and I will have relapses at times, but the ketogenic diet (plus sleep and exercise routines) have been the best form of treatment I have found in the 39 years I have been living with mental illness. I also know that this is my path only, and what works for me may not work for someone else.

Many of us with complex health concerns have to be our own advocate, do our own research, and find the doctors and medical professionals that can help us. It is a long road, but medicine is changing, becoming more integrated and actually focusing on the whole body. There is hope for all of us.


Rev. Katie

* This blog pro­vides gen­eral infor­ma­tion and dis­cus­sion about med­i­cine, health, wellness, and related topics. The con­tent pro­vided in this blog, and in any linked mate­ri­als, are not intended and should not be con­strued as med­ical advice. The content is for informational purposes only. If you have any medical concerns, you should consult with a licensed physician or other health care worker.

Resources You Might Like:

Dr. Terry Wahls: Beating Progressive MS with Paleo Principles and Functional Medicine

Why Isn’t My Brain Working by Dr. Datis Kharrazain

Keto Clarity by Dr. Eric Westman

The Keto Diet by Leanne Vogel (Dairy Free Keto)

The Healing Kitchen by Alaena Haber MS OTR and‎ Sarah Ballantyne PhD (Not Keto, but AIP Paleo)

Kashiwaya Y, Takeshima T, Mori N, Nakashima K, Clarke K, Veech RL. D-beta-hydroxybutyrate protects neurons in models of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 2000;97(10):5440–5444.

Kashiwaya Y, Bergman C, Lee J, et al. A ketone ester diet exhibits anxiolytic and cognition-sparing properties, and lessens amyloid and tau pathologies in a mouse model of Alzheimer's disease. Neurobiology of Aging. 2013;34(6):1530–1539.

Reger, Mark A., Samuel T. Henderson, Cathy Hale, Brenna Cholerton, Laura D. Baker, G.s. Watson, Karen Hyde, Darla Chapman, and Suzanne Craft. “Effects of β-hydroxybutyrate on Cognition in Memory-impaired Adults.” Neurobiology of Aging 25.3 (2004): 311-14. Web. 15 June 2017.

Metabolism. 2005;2, article 28[PMC free article] [PubMed]

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