A keto diet probably can’t cause depression. However, there is a chance a low-carb diet can have an impact on your overall mental health.
“Going keto” seems to get trendier each year, but the low carb, high fat life isn’t without its controversies. For instance, some say ketosis can trigger depression. Others claim the ketogenic diet boosts mental health.
So, is keto depression a thing? How does swapping carbs for fat actually affect mental health?
Let’s dig into the research on keto and depression. 🤓
Short answer? If anything, keto might help alleviate rather than cause depression.
A few things to know:
- The ketogenic diet was designed to help folks with epilepsy dial down the likelihood of seizures.
- Keto affects the brain enough that researchers have explored it as a potential treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, migraine, and, yes, depression.
- Preclinical studies and case reports have suggested that eating keto can have an antidepressant effect.
More research is needed to fully understand the link between keto and depression.
It seems like keto diets might help manage depression symptoms. But there are also anecdotal reports of keto depression — basically, feeling low while on the ketogenic diet.
It’s no secret that what you eat can influence everything from hormones to mood. Research indicates that eating keto can relieve epilepsy symptoms, but studies on other benefits for the brain are ongoing.
Here’s what we know so far about how keto affects mental health.
Increases GABA production
Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a neurotransmitter (a brain-messaging chemical) that affects how your brain experiences stress and anxiety.
A 2011 research review suggests that low GABA levels can cause or worsen depression. More recently, a small 2020 study indicated that stimulating GABA production might relieve depression symptoms.
So, what stimulates GABA production? Yoga, apparently. But also ketosis.
Scientists are actively investigating whether a ketogenic diet could help the 30 percent of folks with major depressive disorder whose condition is resistant to drug-based therapies. Kinda cool, right?
Might improve mitochondrial functions
“Mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell.” — every high school biology teacher ever
As you can imagine, your cells’ power source is kinda important. Mitochondrial dysfunction has been linked to many health probs, including depression.
But a keto diet seems to have a positive impact on folks with mitochondrial diseases. And if the keto diet turns out to be effective against mitochondrial dysfunction, the diet might also improve depression caused by the dysfunction.
More research is needed, but it’s a start!
Might decrease oxidative stress
Oxidative stress has been linked to a heap of problems, including depression. (Eat more antioxidants, kids!)
There’s some evidence that a keto diet can reverse damage from oxidative stress. In theory, this might also relieve some symptoms of depression. But a lot more research is needed to learn more about this.
Might regulate insulin
You probably know insulin as the blood sugar patrol, but it can mess with your mood too. And keto might help keep your levels in the safe zone.
Insulin resistance plays a role in the development of major depression, especially in folks living with type 2 diabetes.
There’s growing evidence that keto’s restriction of sugar and starch could help address insulin resistance. Of course, we need more research to say that keto’s effect on insulin can improve depressive symptoms — but there’s a promising link.
Might reduce inflammation
Chronic inflammation is associated with several health probs, including depression.
Inflammation might also increase your risk of insulin resistance, oxidative stress, and mitochondrial dysfunction. It even has a negative effect on the production of mood regulators like our good friend GABA.
As the keen-eyed may have noticed, these are all depression-related issues that keto might help with.
Even better: The way you burn energy on the keto diet might be inherently anti-inflammatory.
More research is needed, but eating keto might help prevent depression-generating complications of inflammation or even prevent the inflammation itself.
Probably not. But that doesn’t mean your feelings of sadness or irritability aren’t real.
Not everyone feels good while on keto. Ever heard of keto headaches? Keto breath? And then there’s so-called keto depression.
Let’s look at some potential explanations.
It could be keto flu
What’s a surefire way to feel bummed out? Keto flu.
The ketogenic diet aims to put your body into ketosis, which happens when you switch over from burning carbs for energy to burning fat.
Ketosis isn’t easy for all bodies. Sometimes the transition can cause headaches, cramps, fatigue, and sleep disruptions.
Then there’s the fact that ketogenic diets are often doctor-prescribed — meaning the people following the diet may not always be so excited about it. Unhappiness about your food choices + flu-like symptoms = a bad mood.
It could be a nutritional deficiency
Drastically changing your diet can cause a sudden drop in nutrients like zinc, magnesium, and selenium. Low levels of these micronutrients have been linked to — you guessed it — depression.
Bottom line: Keto depression is not a recognized medical condition. We don’t yet know whether it’s a biological response to ketosis or a reaction to a restrictive, disruptive lifestyle change. If it is biological, it might be due to micronutrient deficiencies.
Keto doesn’t cause depression, but it can affect your energy levels and mood. If you’ve got a case of the keto blues, you’ve got options.
- Stop the diet. If eating keto makes you feel super sad, lethargic, or irritated, stop eating keto. If your doctor prescribed the diet, talk with them about alternatives. If you started it voluntarily, you can stop. Ketosis isn’t the only path to weight loss.
- Try cyclic keto dieting (carb cycling). Don’t want the keto blues to stop you? Try a gentler diet, like eating keto most of the week but easing up for a day or two to fuel up with carbs.
- Ride out the keto flu. Keto flu isn’t permanent. Your body will adjust, and the symptoms will decrease. You can help shorten the duration by drinking plenty of electrolyte-packed fluids.
- Make it fun. Any restrictive diet can make you feel low. And cutting out whole food groups (buh-bye, carbs) can lead to nutrient deficiencies. So go all-in on your favorite veggies, meats, and healthy fats. Research suggests that learning to cook can help lift a low mood too.
- Pick a different plan. Consider other, less restrictive diets, such as the Mediterranean diet. It’s also good for your gut and brain.
Keto doesn’t cause depression, but it can still mess with your mood.
The keto diet can make you feel physically crappy, especially if you don’t get enough nutrients. It’s also pretty restrictive. These factors might lead to the “keto depression” that some folks report experiencing.
A growing body of research suggests that ketogenic diets may help manage some depressive disorders. But more studies are needed to understand whether eating keto would benefit folks with situational sadness, irritability, or mood dysregulation.
If you’re dealing with chronic sadness, irritability, or other signs of depression, it’s important to ask for help. A healthcare professional can discuss potential treatments, including dietary changes that might help you feel better.