There was a film in the early 90s titled Lorenzo’s Oil, where the story of Michaela and Augusto Odone defied medical diagnosis when seeking out medical treatment for their son Lorenzo, who had adrenoleukodystrophy, a rare neurological disorder. Back then, using a special diet to control neurological disorders was complex and often berated; but years of medical research are starting to release that maybe Lorenzo’s Oil, a special mix of 4:1 oleic acid and euric acid from olive and rapeseed oils, could actually help.
Now, what does a mixture of oils have to do with the ketogenic diet and neurological disorders? That mixture is made up of fatty acids—the same fatty acids that are emphasized in the ketogenic diet.
Although research is ongoing, the ketogenic diet has recently returned back to the light for treatment of neurological disorders. Here is everything you need to know about the diet and how it could treat, and in some cases, cure, neurological disorders.
Common & Rare Neurological Disorders
There are over 600 neurological disorders and conditions known to humankind, and there may be more we haven’t witnessed yet. For many of these disorders, treatment is limited. A neurological disorder is a disease or condition that affects the body through the brain, nerves, and spine.
Here are a few of the most common & rare neurological disorders:
- Multiple Sclerosis (MS)
- Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)
- Parkinson’s disease
- Brain Neurodegenerative disease
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Bloch-Sulzberger syndrome
- Carpal Tunnel
- Lyme disease
- Lou Gehrig’s disease
- Acquired Brain Injury (ABI)
- Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)
- Functional and Dissociative Neurological Symptoms
- Motor Neuron Disease
- Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME)
- Progressive Supranuclear Palsy (PSP)
- Huntington’s disease
- Spinal Bifida and Hydrocephalus
The Theory of How Keto Diets Benefit Those With Neurological Disorders
The ketogenic diet sometimes referred to as keto or KD, is a restrictive diet that has many forms. The most common off-shot would be the Atkins Diet, a low-carb and low-glycemic-index diet. The ketogenic diet champions high-fat, low-carbohydrate food choices that put the body into ketosis. Fats are metabolized and turned into ketones, and these are utilized by the brain instead of glucose—which comes from carbohydrates.
Ketones are superior energy, mainly because these molecules generate fewer reactive oxygen species (ROS) and cause less free radical damage to the brain. There is also the ketone known as beta-hydroxybutyrate, which has an important epigenetic role by affecting DNA expression, increasing detoxification pathways in the brain, and stimulating g-protein receptors on cells.
This shift away from glucose and to fat as the main source of energy is the cornerstone of most theories about how the ketogenic diet benefits those with neurological disorders. Researchers believe that the diet works by altering neurotransmitters, synaptic transmissions, mitochondrial dysfunction, and the regulation of reactive oxygens—all of which are mechanisms that cause or worsen a number of neurological disorders. How this works, though, is still not clear.
Research & Results For Adopting The Keto Diet
Yet, the “how” is becoming a bit more comprehensible. Hundreds of published studies are pointing to how foundational nutrition is when preventing and treating neurological diseases.
There has been numerous studies, as well as results, for adopting a ketogenic diet. The diet is now one of the supplementary treatments of epilepsy in children, particularly when the form of epilepsy is pharmacoresistant (does not respond to prescription medications). Research revealed that seizures improve in about 50% of epilepsy patients who use the classic ketogenic diet, known as the 4:1 ketogenic diet, which provides four times as much fat as protein and carbohydrates combined. Furthermore, when scientists studied brain activity in children with epilepsy, improvements were found in the brain patterns of 65% of the patients who followed a ketogenic diet.
Another neurodegenerative disease where diet plays a sufficient role is Alzheimer’s. There is a link between high-sugar diets triggering insulin resistance and that contributing to the onset of dementia. In research for the prevention and care of Alzheimer’s disease, results from a double-blind study found that Alzheimer’s patients on the ketogenic diet had significant cognitive improvement when compared to those not using the diet. One of the reasons might be that, in cell cultures, ketones are effective against the toxic effects of beta-amyloid, one of the pathological features of Alzheimer’s. Supplementing with ketone esters also appears to reduce the presence of amyloid plaque in the brain.
A controlled study looked at 152 patients with Alzheimer’s who used an MCT oil supplement (ketone esters). After a period of 45-90 days, the group given the MCT compound had improved cognitive functioning, while the placebo group’s functions continued to decline.
As mentioned earlier, the ketogenic diet is also suspected to aid in repairing the mitochondria. In Parkinson’s disease, mitochondrial dysfunction is thought to play our role in the development of the condition. A small trial of five patients suffering from Parkinson’s showed that each person was able to reduce their scores on the Unified Parkinson’s Disease Rating Scale by 43.4% when switching to the ketogenic diet. Additionally, mice and rats with PD on a ketogenic diet had more energy, improved motor functioning, and increased protection against nerve damage.
Similar to Parkinson’s disease, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), which affects the motor neurons, also see mitochondrial dysfunction at work. While human studies haven’t been performed, mice with ALS were put on a ketogenic diet, and their motor condition improved significantly when compared to mice on a regular diet.
Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is a condition that damages nerves, leading to a loss of communication, numbness, balance problems, and motor, vision, and memory impairment. MS also leads to reduced ability to use sugar as a fuel source. A review from 2015 discussed that, because ketogenic diets lead the body away from using sugar, the keto diet might help repair cells in MS patients. Moreover, a recent but small controlled study of 48 MS patients reported that groups on the ketogenic diet had significant increases in quality of life and improved cholesterol and triglycerides than those who didn’t follow the diet.
There are also numerous personal accounts online and documentaries, much like Lorenzo’s Oil that discuss the effectiveness of a ketogenic diet. That said, if you or someone you know wants to try the ketogenic diet, it’s important to weigh the pros and cons of taking up an extremely restrictive diet.
Remember that the ketogenic diet is not a cure—only a supplementary aid that can ease the severity and should only be undertaken after discussing options with a doctor. Nevertheless, the research and results are promising!
The ketogenic diet has been around for centuries to aid in the treatment of a broad range of disorders and conditions that otherwise have no treatment. Although there are several theories about why it works, what matters most is that keto can provide relief to those with common and rare neurological disorders.
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