Ketogenic diets may benefit people with schizophrenia, according to a new study published online in the journal Schizophrenia Research. This specialized ketogenic diet is used by body builders to produce extra muscle without increasing weight. The term “ketogenic” means that it produces ketone bodies, which are byproducts produced during the conversion of fatty acids to energy.
A ketogenic diet is one that consists of foods high in fat (e.g., butter, cheese, salmon, etc.) and low in carbohydrates (e.g., breads, pasta, sugar, etc.). Normally, carbohydrates are used as the primary source of energy in the body, but people on ketogenic diets use the excess ketones that are produced by fats as the primary source of energy (a process called ketosis) rather than glucose produced by carbohydrates.
Benefits of a ketogenic diet
A ketogenic diet leads to metabolic changes, as it provides the body with an alternative energy source through ketone bodies and beta-oxidation of fatty acids by bypassing glycolysis, which can be beneficial for people with mental disorders due to changes in glutamate, glucose metabolism and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) production in the brain. Some studies have found evidence for ketogenic diets in producing changes in complex social behaviors, mitochondrial respiration and changes in gene expression in the brain using animal models.
Because they produce metabolic changes, ketogenic diets have been of interest to researchers for their benefits on weight loss, reducing cardiovascular risk factors and improving metabolic syndromes such as Type 2 diabetes. Doctors continue to use ketogenic diets for controlling seizures in people who do not respond to anti-seizure medications.
The focus on the important role of nutrition, dietary factors and digestive health on mental health has led researchers to conclude that there are potential benefits of using ketogenic diets in treating neurodegenerative (e.g., Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease) and mental health conditions such as bipolar disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), sleep disorders, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and depression.
Ketogenic diets for treating schizophrenia
Associate Professor Zoltan Sarnyai, Ph.D., and his colleagues at the Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine (AITHM) in James Cook University examined the therapeutic benefits of utilizing the ketogenic diet as an effective intervention for schizophrenia. The researchers compared the psychomotor hyperactivity and stereotyped behavior (i.e., positive symptoms), social withdrawal (i.e., negative symptoms) and working memory deficits (i.e., cognitive symptoms) of schizophrenia between mice fed a ketogenic diet and mice fed a standard diet.
An important finding was that the mice fed a ketogenic diet demonstrated lower body weight, elevated beta-hydroxybutyrate (BHB) and decreased glucose levels, suggesting that a ketogenic diet may be advantageous to combat the common side effects (e.g., weight gain, cardiovascular problems, Type 2 diabetes) experienced by patients taking antipsychotic medications.
The mice fed a ketogenic diet also demonstrated fewer behaviors resembling schizophrenia, including hyperactivity, stereotyped behavior including ataxia (i.e., loss of control of body movements) and stereotypy (i.e., repetitive body movements), social withdrawal and memory deficits, compared to mice on the standard diet.
Fewer side effects could improve medication compliance
In summary, this study suggests that ketogenic diets may have potential benefits for treating people diagnosed with schizophrenia. The researchers found that the use of a ketogenic diet produced fewer cognitive symptoms and fewer positive and negative behaviors resembling schizophrenia.
Schizophrenia is a mental illness that is treated with antipsychotic medications, which help to control the delusions (i.e., false beliefs) and hallucinations (i.e., seeing, feeling or hearing sensations that are not really there). One of the major downsides to using antipsychotic medications is that they can produce metabolic changes, such as elevated blood glucose and increased triglycerides, increasing the individual’s risk of developing cardiovascular problems and diabetes.
The ketogenic diet may be beneficial for reducing the metabolic changes to combat negative side effects of antipsychotic medications, which would be a substantial improvement in the lives of patients receiving treatment for schizophrenia, including increased quality of life and fewer health risks associated with taking antipsychotic medications. As treatment adherence is a major issue among patients with schizophrenia, patients may even be more likely to stay on their medications if they experience fewer side effects.
The Sovereign Health Group offers behavioral treatment programs for patients with substance abuse, mental illness and co-occurring disorders. For more information on schizophrenia treatment or the treatment programs offered at Sovereign Health, please contact our 24/7 helpline.
Written by Amanda Habermann, M.S. clinical psychology, Sovereign Health Group writer