Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) and Parkinson’s Disease (PD) are neurological disorders which have increased in prevalence and are plaguing millions of Americans with dramatic symptoms that seem to be unrelated. Each of these aliments, however, results from damage to nerve cells and conventional medicine offers little in the way of long term hope for anyone suffering from either AD or PD. Once damaged, brain cells have a difficult time utilizing glucose for energy in the normal manner and damage tends to increase as the condition progresses. In response to this medical crisis, many professionals have begun to advocate a ketogenic diet to reduce symptoms and promote healing of the cellular damage which ultimately underlies the development of the neurological condition at hand (1).
Brain and Nerve Cells Have a Superior Fuel Source
Most people believe that brain cells need glucose to function properly; although mainstream thinking supports this concept, it is scientifically untrue. This is fortunate for AD and PD sufferers with damaged neurons, as glucose cannot be properly utilized within these cells under such circumstances. It is also an inherently “dirty” fuel which produces a significant amount of free radical damage to cells and surrounding tissue.
Brain cells (and other cells throughout the body) have an alternative fuel source that allows them to function far more optimally, even when the energy producing mitochrondria (the power generating components located within the cell membrane) are damaged (2). In the absence of sufficient glucose to power neurons and other cells, the liver begins producing ketones from free fatty acids to meet the body’s energy needs. By definition, the body is in a state of ketosis when ketone bodies are being produced to fuel at least a portion of physical needs. This can happen when a person is fasting or when carbohydrate consumption is severely restricted.
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How Do Ketones Protect Brain Cells?
Once the body has shifted into ketosis, a number of protective effects are exerted on cells within the brain:
- Ketones begin crossing the blood-brain barrier to supply nerve cells with their alternate and superior form of fuel which requires no insulin to pass through the cellular membrane (3).
- Ketones bypass the damaged portion of cellular mitochrondria during their metabolic breakdown. As a result, the energy contained in ketones can be fully utilized by the less than optimally functioning nerve cells seen in AD and PD sufferers (4).
- Mitochrondria are able to partially heal in the absence of glucose, as greater amounts of cellular energy can be directed towards damage repair.
- Inflammation and free radicals decrease due to the fact that ketones offer the body a “cleaner” fuel source than glucose (4).
- Production of glutathione, the master antioxidant, increases during ketosis and can aid in cellular nerve repair. Glutathione is responsible for eliminating free radicals within the body.
A Positive Impact for Alzheimer’s Sufferers
AD is becoming more commonly referred to as type III diabetes since the disorder involves insulin resistance with neurons themselves (5). When glucose is the only available fuel for brain cells (as is the case when any typical diet is consumed), this resistance to insulin eventually prevents sufficient amounts of glucose from passing through the bloodstream into these neurons. Since insulin is needed to “escort” glucose across the cellular membrane but is not accepted by these neurons due to insulin resistance, brain cells begin to die due to prolonged starvation for fuel.
Ketones, however, are able to pass directly from the blood into brain cells without the assistance of insulin. As a result, even patients with severe Alzeimer’s symptoms have shown remarkable improvement after beginning a ketogenic diet (6). In some cases, individuals who have been told they will never again be able to live an unassisted life have been able to return to the lifestyle they enjoyed before memory issues became severe.
Ketosis and its Benefits for PD Sufferers
The tremors, stiffness, slowed motor responses, cognitive issues and additional challenges associated with PD affect one percent of the nation’s elderly population (1). Many live with unnerving emotional concerns surrounding the unpleasant experiences they may have to endure as years pass.
Symptoms of PD are the result of excessive damage to and/or death of dopaminergic neurons responsible for supplying adequate levels of the important neurotransmitter known as dopamine to the brain. Inflammation, cellular stress, an excess of free radicals (known as reactive oxygen species or ROS) and mitochondrial damage all play a part in the death of a progressive number of these dopamine producing neurons (7).
Conventional medicine attempts to use pharmaceutical products to replace the body’s dwindling supply of dopamine, yet results clearly show the effects of these medications to be temporary at best. What hasn’t been accomplished with any form of conventional therapy is the actual healing of cellular damage which ultimately led to the death of dopaminergic neurons in the first place. The ketogenic diet shows promise in its ability to facilitate this type of healing while improving symptoms, as ketones bypass damaged mitrochrondria to provide fuel to brain cells.
The Ketogenic Diet – A Rapidly Growing Trend
A search on Google or YouTube will quickly reveal the growing number of physicians who advocate a low carb, low to moderate protein, and high fat ketogenic diet for patients suffering from neurological conditions of all types. While mainstream thinking still has many individuals believing that fat is “bad”, this faulty hypothesis is being replaced with the understanding that foods rich in natural sources of fat such as avocados, nuts, coconut oil and butter are extremely important for health and that excess carbohydrate consumption is actually the underlying cause of a shocking number of serious health conditions.
The state of nutritional ketosis provides even damaged neurons a readily available fuel source which does not require insulin to enter cells and does not create mitochrondrial damage or significant numbers of free radicals. As a result, damaged brain cells are able to receive the “food” they need to complete their function in the body. In the case of PD patients, dopamine production can naturally increase over time as dopaminergic neurons heal. AD patients will experience an improvement in memory and/or social behaviors.
Although the initial induction period into ketosis can be challenging, the reward of providing your body and brain a fuel source that is superior to glucose cannot be underestimated. Working with a health coach who is highly familiar with these initial challenges can help pave your path for success.