Mental health

Nutrition and Mental Health

black line

Key points

  • A growing number of studies indicate that psychiatric disorders are metabolic disorders of the brain related to the poor mitochondrial function of certain brain cells.
  • Mitochondria dysfunction impairs glucose uptake depriving cells of the energy they need to function correctly.
  • Ketones have shown promise as an alternative fuel that can be absorbed even by metabolically compromised cells and thus restore energy supply and enable their reparation.

The previous article on metabolism and mental health explored the deep connection binding cellular function with psychiatric dysfunctions. According to the decades-old theory correlating metabolism and mental health disorders, abnormalities in cellular metabolism, specifically mitochondria function, result in abnormal behavior in several physiological mechanisms that control our mood, including neurotransmitter release, hormone release, hormonal resistance, and premature brain cell death. The proposed mechanism linking mental health to mitochondrial health holds great promise not only because it ecumenically explains the complexity of psychiatric disorders but also because it opens up the exciting potential for diet and exercise, the two most potent and accessible drugs known to humanity, as a cure. In this second article of the three-article series, we discuss the influential role that diet and nutrition can play in slowing down and even reversing psychiatric conditions.  

The ketogenic diet is a powerful tool against mental disease

The various factors leading to mitochondrial damage and metabolic dysregulation in the brain ultimately deprive brain cells of their ability to absorb nutrients and convert them into energy. Low energy levels cause premature brain cell death, neurodegeneration, incorrect neurotransmitter signaling, etc. Glucose is the brain’s primary fuel source, which is obtained from the breakdown of carbohydrates in the diet. The brain requires a constant supply of glucose to function correctly, and it cannot store glucose, so it relies on the bloodstream to deliver a steady supply. Ketones can replace glucose as a fuel source for the brain because they can cross the blood-brain barrier and be taken up by brain cells for energy. Ketones are produced in the liver when the body is in a state of ketosis, which occurs when carbohydrate intake is limited, and the body starts to break down fat for energy. While the brain can use ketones as an alternative fuel source when glucose is unavailable, it’s important to note that not all brain cells can use ketones exclusively. Some brain areas or cells require glucose and cannot use ketones, especially when unavailable. That being said, ketones can help provide alternative fuel for metabolically compromised brain cells, such as those affected by neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. Ketones can also help improve brain metabolism, alertness, and brain function, making them a promising area of research for various neurological disorders and conditions.


The mechanisms connecting ketones to mental health

 By providing an alternative energy source for metabolically compromised cells, ketones trigger a series of positive effects that directly impact our emotions, mood, and psychological state. These include improved neurotransmitter levels, insulin resistance, and reduced brain inflammation. 

Neurotransmitter levels

The ketogenic diet has been shown to influence neurotransmitter levels, including glutamate, GABA, and adenosine. Glutamate is the brain’s primary excitatory neurotransmitter, which promotes brain activity. The ketogenic diet has been found to reduce glutamate levels, which can help regulate excessive brain activity and prevent excitotoxicity, a process linked to neurodegenerative disorders. On the other hand, GABA is the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain, responsible for calming and reducing brain activity. The ketogenic diet has been shown to increase GABA levels, leading to a more balanced and calm state of mind. This increase in GABA can positively affect anxiety, stress, and overall mental well-being. Adenosine is another neurotransmitter that plays a role in regulating sleep, energy levels, and mood. The ketogenic diet has been found to increase adenosine levels, which can contribute to improved sleep quality and stability. Adequate sleep is crucial for mental health, and increasing adenosine may help promote better sleep patterns. By influencing these neurotransmitters, the ketogenic diet can help regulate brain activity, promote a balanced state of mind, reduce anxiety, and improve sleep quality. 

Insulin resistance

As discussed above, psychiatric disorders can be considered as the inability of brain cells to secure the required energy from carbohydrates. This phenomenon is not caused by a lack of carbohydrates in blood circulating levels but by brain cells’ inability to absorb circulating glucose molecules. This, in turn, is caused due to brain cells’ failure to respond effectively to circulating insulin, the hormone responsible for transporting glucose from the bloodstream into cells. This condition is also known as insulin resistance. When brain cells become insulin resistant, glucose remains in the bloodstream, leading to high blood sugar levels and insufficient energy supply to cells. The ketogenic diet is a high-fat, moderate-protein, and low-carbohydrate diet that forces the body to use fat instead of carbohydrates as its primary fuel source. By significantly reducing carbohydrate intake, the body enters a metabolic state called ketosis, producing ketones from fat breakdown for energy. In ketosis, glucose levels in the bloodstream are lowered, reducing insulin demand. This glucose and insulin levels decrease can improve insulin sensitivity and reduce insulin resistance. Additionally, the ketogenic diet promotes weight loss, which is beneficial for managing insulin resistance as excess body fat can contribute to insulin resistance.

Brain inflammation & brain cell mitophagy.

Another critical aspect of the ketogenic diet is its impact on mitochondria, which are the energy-producing organelles in our cells. The ketogenic diet stimulates a process called mitophagy, which involves getting rid of old and defective mitochondria and replacing them with new ones. It also stimulates mitochondrial biogenesis, which means that cells in the body and brain will have more and healthier mitochondria. This is crucial because dysfunctional mitochondria have been associated with inflammation in the brain. By promoting the health and function of mitochondria, the ketogenic diet can help reduce brain inflammation.

Overall, the ketogenic diet offers multiple mechanisms through which it can reduce brain inflammation, including changes in the gut microbiome, modulation of neurotransmitter levels, improvement of insulin resistance, and enhancement of mitochondrial health.


Mental health is intrinsically correlated with metabolic health. Mitochondria dysfunction, the birthplace of metabolic disease, can become a significant contributor to the development of psychiatric disorders, which can, in turn, lead to a multitude of chronic physiological conditions. The expected result of such metabolic dysfunction is brain cells’ inability to metabolize glucose. This state exposes them to a low energy state which becomes a cornerstone to mental disorders. Ketones can play a remedial role in replenishing some of this energy deficit, thus providing a viable treatment for several conditions. However, it’s important to note that altering your diet while on psychiatric medication or when suffering from any psychiatric or physiological disorder can be dangerous, and such dietary changes should only be undertaken in collaboration with your doctor. Moreover, even if you decide to follow a ketogenic diet, you should always be aware of its potential side effects, which include possible muscle mass loss and restriction of your gut-microbiota diversity. Despite these side effects, ketogenic diets have shown great promise in overcoming psychiatric diseases and achieving better health.  

This article has been inspired by the work of Chris Palmer, MD. For further information about metabolism and mental health, readers can refer to his book, Brain Energy.  


Mental Health