Tim Ferriss has the ability to move markets. With hundreds of millions of podcast downloads and millions of book sales, it’s no wonder a small percentage become devotees in the cult of Ferriss. Even more impressive is the fervor to which they push an idea into the mainstream.
When Ferriss interviewed researcher Dom D’Agostino about ketosis and exogenous ketones, it seemed like everyone was going from low-carb to no-carb. Today there are many products selling ketone salts to improve brain health and mental performance.
Many of these products are well-intentioned, but the true effects of a ketogenic diet or ketones is still in the air. We’ll first provide a basic understanding of ketosis and exogenous ketones, then help you understand the benefits, and finally give a few words of wisdom before parting ways.
A State of Ketosis
In simplified terms, ketosis is a state in which the body’s energy comes from ketone bodies in contrast to blood glucose as is the norm. Usually, there are two types of ketogenic states to take advantage of:
The state of starvation sounds more harsh than it is. In reality, fasting (abstaining from eating for long periods) is a form of starvation and it only takes 24 – 72 hours for your body to start producing ketones for your brain to use.
In a fasted state, the production of the ketone bodies will help your brain and body survive until food is consumed. This type
of ketosis may cause the loss of muscle mass and comes with other benefits and side effects because no calories are being consumed.
The sate of nutritional ketosis is different than starvation mode. Instead of eating no food, this consists of eating very certain foods. In a ketogenic diet, one consumes copious amounts of fatty acids and moderate protein with few or absolutely no carbohydrates.
It’s counter-intuitive to some, but the diet is primarily high-calorie fat rather than anything else. A state of nutritional ketosis can be maintained for much longer than the fasted state, however.
Benefits of Ketosis
The proponents of ketosis and a ketogenic diet are vocal about the brain boosting effects, but research is somewhat scarce on the topic.
Memory & Learning – One of the most interesting benefits of ketosis for nootropic enthusiasts is added brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in the hippocampus. This part of the brain is largely responsible for memory formation and the cause of increased BDNF is the main ketone body called beta hydroxybutyrate.
Unfortunately, this is the only experiment of performance enhancement with ketogenic diets or beta hydroxybutyrate. Like most drugs and methodologies, the research focuses primarily on sickness rather than optimal health.
Neurodegenerative Protection – Far more well-researched are the effects of a ketogenic diet on neurodegenerative problems and those who have suffered brain trauma. Because ketosis can aid in mitochondrial health (more info below), it acts as a neuroprotective from problems like memory problems, senile dementia, and others.
Brain injuries, of which any sports enthusiast or athlete has experienced, exacerbate certain harmful chemicals in the body called reactive oxygen species. Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is one extreme example of this, but ketosis can negate some of the degenerative implications of such an event.
Cancer Prevention – Cancer cells, as with many other cells, survive primarily through consumption of glucose. In a ketogenic state with little to no glucose, cancer cells often begin dying off and kill the tumor. Although cancer patients near their later stages of life may find the prospect of a ketogenic diet difficult, it can even improve late-stage cancer quality of life in some patients (though definitely not all).
An Evolutionary View
A common refrain among keto-lovers is how focused and well-concentrated they are while undergoing a ketogenic state (or simply taking exogenous ketones like beta hydroxybutyrate). Unfortunately, there is no scientific literature that backs up the claim.
However, there is a theoretical evolutionary explanation for the phenomenon. Our ancestors evolved for millions of years in a hunter-gatherer setting. As survival machines, the brain probably developed a mechanism to increase hypervigilance in a state of starvation (whether via fasting or no carbs).
The increased focus and concentration some people feel may be the brain sending you a reminder to get out into the wilderness and hunt because what you are doing isn’t helping! It is speculation at best, but one founded in evolutionary theory.
Where is the Ketogenic Hype?
As with any fad diet (and the products that accompany them), there is plenty of hype and even some sobering evidence against a ketogenic diet.
Brain Fog – When Tim Ferriss shared his experiences with the ketogenic diet, it was within the context of fighting brain fog he had because of lyme issues. While this may work for him (and even most people afflicted with lyme issues), that doesn’t mean a ketogenic diet will help all brain fog.
There are a host of causes for brain fog and only some are related to mechanisms that can be influenced with a ketogenic diet. To listen to Ferriss’ experience, skip to minute 34:00 as he talks about lyme issuesand a ketogenic diet.
Mitochondrial Health – While many studies and conventional wisdom suggests a ketogenic diet may aid in the health of mitochondria, this may not always be the case. The most recent 2016 study in Neurobiology of Aging suggests that animal models using a ketogenic diet had neurological damage worsened. If there is a grain of truth in this study, it has serious implications for people who do long-term ketogenic dieting.
Even still, for many people, the feeling of a ketogenic diet is better than what they’re used to. Given that each individual knows his or her own body, this section shouldn’t be a deterrent, but only words of wisdom.
Whether you’re planning to jump into starvation mode for a while or simply cut out the carbs, there are ways that you can kickstart ketosis. The most important ketone for your brain is called beta hydroxybutyrate (mentioned above), which can come in supplemental form.
Usually the BHB (as it is referred) is not easy to find, but it must be chelated with some other element (usually potassium or sodium). Consuming BHB by itself is tantamount to self-torture. Dr. Peter Attia described it as “jet fuel” and mentioned in numerous places how terrible it tasted. Here is what he said:
“The ketone esters are, hands-down, the worst tasting compounds I have ever put in my body. The world’s worst scotch tastes like spring water compared to these things…It tasted as I imagine jet fuel would taste. I thought I was going to go blind. I didn’t stop gagging for 10 minutes…”
So what’s a eager-keto to do? Luckily, there are alternative products like KetoOS or KetoCaNa, which both have flavorings that make it go down far easier.
Before deciding on a ketone product, keep in mind that you’ll see the best results when combining the beta hydroxybutyrate with some type of fat (usually MCT oil). The MCT oil helps the BHB cross the blood brain barrier according to Dom D’Agostino’s research.
However you choose to start a ketogenic diet to optimize your brain, be sure to check-in with yourself, truly feel the effects, and see whether it is something you want to continue in the long-term. If you have the means to do blood work and check blood ketones, it can go a long way in increasing the safety and viability of the ketogenic diet.