Keto Diet May Improve Mental Health Symptoms

Summary: A new pilot study presents a compelling case for the ketogenic diet as a dual-action treatment for individuals with serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, who often suffer metabolic side effects from their medication. The research shows how adopting a ketogenic diet not only mitigates these metabolic issues but also significantly improves psychiatric conditions.

Participants adhering to a high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet experienced weight loss, reversed metabolic syndrome, and saw a 31% improvement in psychiatric assessments. This innovative approach underscores the potential of dietary interventions in enhancing both physical and mental health, offering hope for a more holistic treatment strategy.

Key Facts:

  1. The ketogenic diet led to significant metabolic and psychiatric improvements in patients with serious mental illnesses, challenging the adverse effects of antipsychotic medications.
  2. Participants lost an average of 10% body weight and showed no signs of metabolic syndrome after the four-month trial, alongside a substantial improvement in mental health metrics.
  3. The study, supported by various research funds, paves the way for larger trials, highlighting the diet’s role in providing alternative brain fuel and improving overall brain metabolism.

Source: Stanford

For people living with serious mental illness like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, standard treatment with antipsychotic medications can be a double-edged sword. While these drugs help regulate brain chemistry, they often cause metabolic side effects such as insulin resistance and obesity, which are distressing enough that many patients stop taking the medications.

Now, a pilot study led by Stanford Medicine researchers has found that a ketogenic diet not only restores metabolic health in these patients as they continue their medications, but it further improves their psychiatric conditions.

The results, published March 27 in Psychiatry Research, suggest that a dietary intervention can be a powerful aid in treating mental illness.

This shows a man eating a plate of food.
A few years later, Sethi coined the term metabolic psychiatry, a new field that approaches mental health from an energy conversion perspective. Credit: Neuroscience News

“It’s very promising and very encouraging that you can take back control of your illness in some way, aside from the usual standard of care,” said Shebani Sethi, MD, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and the first author of the new paper.

The senior author of the paper is Laura Saslow, PhD, associate professor of health behavior and biological sciences at the University of Michigan.

Making the connection

Sethi, who is board certified in obesity and psychiatry, remembers when she first noticed the connection. As a medical student working in an obesity clinic, she saw a patient with treatment-resistant schizophrenia whose auditory hallucinations quieted on a ketogenic diet.

That prompted her to dig into the medical literature. There were only a few, decades-old case reports on using the ketogenic diet to treat schizophrenia, but there was a long track record of success in using ketogenic diets to treat epileptic seizures.

“The ketogenic diet has been proven to be effective for treatment-resistant epileptic seizures by reducing the excitability of neurons in the brain,” Sethi said. “We thought it would be worth exploring this treatment in psychiatric conditions.”

A few years later, Sethi coined the term metabolic psychiatry, a new field that approaches mental health from an energy conversion perspective.

Meat and vegetables

In the four-month pilot trial, Sethi’s team followed 21 adult participants who were diagnosed with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, taking antipsychotic medications, and had a metabolic abnormality — such as weight gain, insulin resistance, hypertriglyceridemia, dyslipidemia or impaired glucose tolerance.

The participants were instructed to follow a ketogenic diet, with approximately 10% of the calories from carbohydrates, 30% from protein and 60% from fat. They were not told to count calories.

“The focus of eating is on whole non-processed foods including protein and non-starchy vegetables, and not restricting fats,” said Sethi, who shared keto-friendly meal ideas with the participants. They were also given keto cookbooks and access to a health coach. 

The research team tracked how well the participants followed the diet through weekly measures of blood ketone levels. (Ketones are acids produced when the body breaks down fat — instead of glucose — for energy.)

By the end of the trial, 14 patients had been fully adherent, six were semi-adherent and only one was non-adherent.

Feeling better

The participants underwent a variety of psychiatric and metabolic assessments throughout the trial.

Before the trial, 29% of the participants met the criteria for metabolic syndrome, defined as having at least three of five conditions: abdominal obesity, elevated triglycerides, low HDL cholesterol, elevated blood pressure and elevated fasting glucose levels. After four months on a ketogenic diet, none of the participants had metabolic syndrome.

On average, the participants lost 10% of their body weight; reduced their waist circumference by 11% percent; and had lower blood pressure, body mass index, triglycerides, blood sugar levels and insulin resistance.

“We’re seeing huge changes,” Sethi said. “Even if you’re on antipsychotic drugs, we can still reverse the obesity, the metabolic syndrome, the insulin resistance. I think that’s very encouraging for patients.”

The psychiatric benefits were also striking. On average, the participants improved 31% on a psychiatrist rating of mental illness known as the clinical global impressions scale, with three-quarters of the group showing clinically meaningful improvement. Overall, the participants also reported better sleep and greater life satisfaction.

“The participants reported improvements in their energy, sleep, mood and quality of life,” Sethi said. “They feel healthier and more hopeful.”

The researchers were impressed that most of the participants stuck with the diet. “We saw more benefit with the adherent group compared with the semi-adherent group, indicating a potential dose-response relationship,” Sethi said.

Alternative fuel for the brain

There is increasing evidence that psychiatric diseases such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder stem from metabolic deficits in the brain, which affect the excitability of neurons, Sethi said.

The researchers hypothesize that just as a ketogenic diet improves the rest of the body’s metabolism, it also improves the brain’s metabolism.

“Anything that improves metabolic health in general is probably going to improve brain health anyway,” Sethi said. “But the ketogenic diet can provide ketones as an alternative fuel to glucose for a brain with energy dysfunction.”

Likely there are multiple mechanisms at work, she added, and the main purpose of the small pilot trial is to help researchers detect signals that will guide the design of larger, more robust studies.  

As a physician, Sethi cares for many patients with both serious mental illness and obesity or metabolic syndrome, but few studies have focused on this undertreated population.

She is founder and director of the metabolic psychiatry clinic at Stanford Medicine

“Many of my patients suffer from both illnesses, so my desire was to see if metabolic interventions could help them,” she said. “They are seeking more help. They are looking to just feel better.”

Researchers from the University of Michigan; the University of California, San Francisco; and Duke University contributed to the study.

Funding: The study was supported by Baszucki Group Research Fund, Keun Lau Fund and the Obesity Treatment Foundation.

About this diet and mental health research news

Author: Nina Bai
Source: Stanford
Contact: Nina Bai – Stanford
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
Ketogenic Diet Intervention on Metabolic and Psychiatric Health in Bipolar and Schizophrenia: A Pilot Trial” by Shebani Sethi et al. Psychiatric Research


Ketogenic Diet Intervention on Metabolic and Psychiatric Health in Bipolar and Schizophrenia: A Pilot Trial

The ketogenic diet (KD, also known as metabolic therapy) has been successful in the treatment of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and epilepsy. More recently, this treatment has shown promise in the treatment of psychiatric illness.

We conducted a 4–month pilot study to investigate the effects of a KD on individuals with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder with existing metabolic abnormalities. Twenty–three participants were enrolled in a single–arm trial.

Results showcased improvements in metabolic health, with no participants meeting metabolic syndrome criteria by study conclusion. Adherent individuals experienced significant reduction in weight (12 %), BMI (12 %), waist circumference (13 %), and visceral adipose tissue (36 %).

Observed biomarker enhancements in this population include a 27 % decrease in HOMA–IR, and a 25 % drop in triglyceride levels. In psychiatric measurements, participants with schizophrenia showed a 32 % reduction in Brief Psychiatric Rating Scale scores.

Overall Clinical Global Impression (CGI) severity improved by an average of 31 %, and the proportion of participants that started with elevated symptomatology improved at least 1–point on CGI (79 %). Psychiatric outcomes across the cohort encompassed increased life satisfaction (17 %) and enhanced sleep quality (19 %).

This pilot trial underscores the potential advantages of adjunctive ketogenic dietary treatment in individuals grappling with serious mental illness.

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