How diet could eliminate mental illness

After all the emphasis on sickness, pandemics and deaths in 2020, we could do with some positive health news. And one of the most positive stories at the moment concerns how potentially easy it may be to eliminate mental illness—without drugs, without electroshock, without the entire coterie of hopelessness and addiction created by our current medical model for psychiatric conditions.

And the most extraordinary idea of all is that it doesn’t require pills, supplements or medicine of any kind—just a different sort of diet.

Increasingly, doctors such as Sarah Myhill in the UK and Joseph Mercola in the US have become staunch advocates of the ketogenic diet. A keto diet is a high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet in which the body is in a state of ketosis, burning fat instead of carbs as fuel. 

There are many variations, but essentially the basis of it is that you avoid all sugar, grains and processed foods that include either one; eat good-quality plant or animal protein; consume substantial amounts of stable, saturated ‘good’ fats—olive, hemp and rapeseed oils, animal fats (beef fat, butter, duck fat) and/or coconut oil; and fill your plate with copious amounts of green and rainbow vegetables. You also need to keep starchy vegetables (like potatoes or sweet potatoes) as an occasional treat. 

When you follow such a diet, your body quickly shifts from burning (and storing) sugar to burning fat, which is what our paleolithic ancestors’ bodies ran on. This state is called ketosis, and you can easily discover whether you are following the diet properly by testing your breath with a ketometer. 

Several years ago, Dr Mercola became interested in the ability of fat-burning diets to repair cells and end pain from conditions such as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, arthritis and more. 

He discovered that a ketogenic diet has an extraordinary ability to improve the function of mitrochondria, the tiny power packs of every cell, the main function of which is to
produce energy. 

There are an estimated 10 billion of these midget worker bees distributed across every single cell in the body, and they’re clustered in higher numbers in cells that have greater work to do, like those of the heart, brain and other major organs. Mitochondria are a crucible for producing energy by combining nutrients from fats and sugars with oxygen.

All this energy production requires a host of microscopic chemical reactions, which end up producing an excess of Frankenstein molecules—an unstable combination of excess electrons combined with oxygen, which in turn form free radicals, the source of much of the body’s inflammation.

Here’s where it gets interesting. With a diet high in quality fats, low in carbs with enough quality protein, your blood sugar drops and stabilizes. And with that sort of diet and healthy blood sugar levels, your mitochondria generate ketones as fuel, which produce far fewer free radicals and so less inflammation in your body.

So far so good. Doctors advocating keto diets (and there are more and more of them) have seen profound effects on everything from ulcerative colitis to cancer.
But thus far, very few have talked about any sort of improvement in mental illness. 

Enter Dr Christopher Palmer, a psychiatrist at Harvard who has been experimenting with using nutrition as a means of treating psychiatric conditions (see our Cover story, page 26). 

Intrigued by the fact that a keto diet had been used to prevent seizures from epilepsy, Palmer figured it wasn’t too far-fetched to think a diet that could heal epilepsy might also be able to treat other so-called illnesses of the brain.

What Palmer maintains and his results show is that a keto diet doesn’t just affect the power packs of arms and legs and organs but also those of the brain. He has published case reports of patients of his with long-standing schizophrenia, which was reversed after they started on a keto diet in as little two weeks.

The same has occurred in patients of his suffering from deep depression or anxiety. In one instance, such a patient of Palmer’s abruptly stopped the bucketload of psychiatric medication she’d been taking without success and reported that all her psychiatric symptoms were resolved within a single month after starting the diet.

Even children with ADHD and autism have seen many of their symptoms improve after starting on a keto diet.

Other doctors like Dr Dale Bredesen in the US are finding that a keto diet has powerful effects in reversing Alzheimer’s disease by feeding a ‘starving brain’ whose primary fuel—glucose—is reduced when a person’s insulin sensitivity is impaired, as occurs when he or she is eating a standard diet high in processed foods
and sugar. 

Besides healing insulin sensitivity and feeding the brain more efficient fuel, a keto diet is believed to re-establish communication between
brain cells. 

All of this new evidence suggests that the solution to any health problem could be far less complex than we thought.

The most important New Year’s resolution you can make in 2021 to stay healthy and well may have nothing to do with Covid at all and everything to do with making one simple adjustment: giving up sugar and eating more good fat.  May this signal a happier New Year to all.