Brain Boosting Effects of Ketones

The brain is the most powerful (and mysterious) organ in humans. A sub-niche in the world of dietary supplements dubbed “nootropics” has recently gained a large following at the prospect unlocking your cognitive potential.

Naturally, exogenous ketones are a top contender in the nootropic realm, since the ketogenic diet appears to strongly improve brain function and slow the aging process. Not sure what exogenous ketones are?

Don’t worry, we will cover that briefly in this article, and then talk about the brain-boosting effects of using ketone supplements.

Here is a breakdown of exactly what we’ll cover in this article:

What Are Exogenous Ketones?

At their most basic, exogenous ketones are ketone bodies that come from outside the body (generally in a dietary supplement).

The term ‘exogenous’ is typically used in medicine and sciences to denote a substance that originates from outside the body. For example, exogenous insulin is what type-1 diabetics use.

Contrarily, ‘endogenous’ ketones are ketones that originate from inside the body (i.e. they are produced metabolically).

As you may have inferred, ketones are something your body produces as part of its natural metabolic pathways (especially when fatty acids are the primary source of energy).

If you are still somewhat new to the world of ketosis and ketones, you might not be familiar with what exactly ketones are.

Biochemically speaking, ketones are simple, organic (i.e. carbon-based) molecules that contain a central carbon atom bonded to an oxygen atom and two carbon-containing chemical groups (see the skeleton structures below).

Types of Ketones

Ketones are ‘simple’ molecules because they don’t contain any chemical groups that readily react.

The human body naturally produces three different ketone bodies in the mitochondria of the liver, including acetone, acetoacetic acid (AcAc), and beta-hydroxybutyric acid (BHB).

Be careful to note that BHB is technically not a ketone since it contains a reactive hydroxyl (OH) group where an oxygen atom would usually be.

Even so, BHB functions as a ketone in humans (we will discuss this more later).

Ketones serve as an alternative energy source and signaling molecule in the human body, specifically our mitochondria – the ‘powerhouse’ of cells.

Some dietitians and nutritional scientist argue that glucose (sugar) is the main source of energy for humans, but sugar is not an essential macronutrient.

In other words, humans can theoretically (and practically) subsist without consuming carbohydrates, which is the premise of the ketogenic diet.

Ketones, on the contrary, are byproducts of fatty acid metabolism in humans when carbohydrate intake is minimal; thus, dietary fats (and ketones) are essential nutrients for our existence and the brain.

Understanding The Brain

Like pretty much any other organ in your body, the brain needs energy to function – especially fatty acids. Your brain is never truly “resting” in terms of metabolism; even while you sleep, your brain is consuming energy.

The simple decisions you make in the morning and the career-altering choices you make at work are both under the control of the same thing – your brain.

When your brain isn’t properly cared for, everything suffers: attitudes start to deteriorate, performance dwindles, and fatigue sets in.

So how do we keep our brains happy? We keep them fed.

From everyday decisions like what you want to eat for dinner to life-altering choices like what you want to study in college, your brain needs to be taken care of for optimal function.

Without the right nutrients to support cognitive function, your brain will start to suffer and other pieces of your well-being will likely follow. The brain is ultimately the center of health and longevity.

Despite the average brain only comprising roughly 2% of a human’s body mass, research shows that the brain accounts for nearly one fourth of the body’s daily energy demands.[1] Furthermore, the brain is a dense region of fat, thanks in large part to the astronomical amount of neurons (nerve cells) it contains.

As such, the brain will not maintain optimal performance if you don’t consume essential fatty acids (EFAs). EFAs, like omega-3 fatty acids, are generally found in foods like fish and nuts/seeds.

Moreover, eating fatty acids (and restricting carbohydrates) will also influence ketone production, which also benefits your brain. Read on to learn more about the impact of ketones on your cognitive function.

How Ketones Impact The Brain

  • Cognitive/Nootropic Benefits: For centuries, it was thought that the brain needed glucose to operate optimally. Data now shows that increases in blood ketone concentrations actually encourages the brain to utilize ketones to synthesize phospholipids, which supports neuronal hypertrophy and myelination (myelination is the process of coating the axon of each neuron in the brain with a fat called myelin, which protects the neuron and helps it conduct signals more efficiently).[2] Usually, glucose is the brain’s preferred substrate, despite being inefficient. As such, using exogenous ketones can enhance cognitive function and speed up mental processing.

 

  • Anticancer Benefits: Recent research suggests that a ketogenic diet is a prudent means of blunting malignant tumor growth in the brain.[3] This is because cancer cells aren’t able to use ketones for growth and replication. Astonishingly, one study found that, exogenous ketones increased cancerous mice survival rates upwards of 70% in comparison to cancerous mice who didn’t receive exogenous ketones.[4]

 

  • Neuroprotection: A natural part of the aging process is neurodegeneration, making the brain more prone to maladies such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. Recent research suggests that exogenous ketone supplementation can drastically slow neurodegeneration and the resulting decrease in cognitive function.[5]

Anti-inflammatory Benefits of Ketones

While the mechanism behind this finding remains to be elucidated, researchers suggest exogenous ketones act to reduce inflammation in the brain. Glucose, on the contrary, may actually accelerate inflammatory response in the brain

In fact, an oncologist named Dr. Mary Newport faced life-changing circumstances when her husband – Steve – was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. After the diagnosis, Dr. Newport started to place an emphasis on Steve’s nutrition as a means of remedying his symptoms.

Lo and behold, once she shifted her husband’s diet towards more fatty acids (especially from coconut and nuts) and away from sugar, he started to exhibit cognitive improvements. She postulated that these anecdote findings were the result of a ketogenic diet and its intrinsic brain-boosting benefits.

Thanks in part to her findings, research is now growing on the impact of ketones as a measure for preventing conditions like dementia, epilepsy, and Alzheimer’s disease.

The Future of Ketones As a Brain-Boosting Supplement

Despite research still being rather hard to track down on the nootropic mechanisms arising from exogenous ketone use, it appears that neuronal mitochondria are the key organelle involved.

When mitochondria are abundant and operating optimally, your neurons transmit signals more efficiently. In simple terms, your brain can communicate better with your body; your thoughts are clearer when fats and ketones are the primary fuel sources.

To get the most out of your nootropic regimen, try implementing exogenous ketones in tandem with a ketogenic diet.

Even if you’re not following a ketogenic diet, exogenous ketones can still be a great brain-boosting supplement. We recommend using at least 12 grams of BHB salts daily.

Remember, your brain is the most complex and powerful organ you have; don’t overlook the importance of nourishing it with the right nutrients so you can seize each and every day.

Food, especially dietary fat, is fuel for your brain. Sugar, on the other hand, is more like a toxin for the brain, so make food choices wisely if you want to have the brain power of Stephen Hawking.

References

  1. Ho, K. C., Roessmann, U., Straumfjord, J. V., & Monroe, G. (1980). Analysis of brain weight. I. Adult brain weight in relation to sex, race, and age. Archives of pathology & laboratory medicine, 104(12), 635-639.
  2. Yeh, Y. Y., & Sheehan, P. M. (1985, April). Preferential utilization of ketone bodies in the brain and lung of newborn rats. In Federation proceedings (Vol. 44, No. 7, pp. 2352-2358).
  3. Zhou, W., Mukherjee, P., Kiebish, M. A., Markis, W. T., Mantis, J. G., & Seyfried, T. N. (2007). The calorically restricted ketogenic diet, an effective alternative therapy for malignant brain cancer. Nutrition & metabolism, 4(1), 5.
  4. Poff, A. M., Ari, C., Arnold, P., Seyfried, T. N., & D’Agostino, D. P. (2014). Ketone supplementation decreases tumor cell viability and prolongs survival of mice with metastatic cancer. International journal of cancer, 135(7), 1711-1720.
  5. Hertz, L., Chen, Y., & Waagepetersen, H. S. (2015). Effects of ketone bodies in Alzheimer’s disease in relation to neural hypometabolism, β‐amyloid toxicity, and astrocyte function. Journal of neurochemistry, 134(1), 7-20.
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Elliot received his BS in Biochemistry from the University of Minnesota and has been a freelance writer specializing in nutritional and health sciences for the past 5 years. He is thoroughly passionate about exercise, nutrition, and dietary supplementation, especially how they play a role in human health, longevity, and performance. In his free time you can most likely find him lifting weights at the gym or out hiking through the mountains of Colorado. He is also the co-founder of Anxietyhack.com and host of the upcoming BioKeto podcast. You can connect with him on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/elliot.reimers) and Instagram (@eazy_ell)

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