Do you suffer from chronic fatigue and a lack of focus? Do you find you get tired easily after lunch? Tough time sleeping and wake up tired and wired? Are your moods fluctuating? Could a ketogenic diet (keto) solve your extreme fatigue issues giving you more energy and better focus? Or could going keto back fire and make you worse? Find out if doing keto is right for you.
What is the ketogenic diet?
Ketogenic diets, keto for short, are a very popular diet right now. Books, TV segments, newspaper and magazine articles all have something to say about keto. I have even noticed my patients are talking about ketogenic diets as of late.
The ketogenic diet is a very low carbohydrate diet that leads to the liver making ketone bodies. Most of the cells in your body prefer to use sugar in the blood as a main source of energy. The sugar comes from eating simple sugars and starchy carbohydrates. However, when you don’t eat sugar or starchy carbohydrates for a lengthy time, your body will start breaking down stored fat into ketone bodies. This process is called ketosis. These ketone bodies are then used by your brain and body as an alternative source of energy.
Being in ketosis is a natural human state and used by the body as a way to survive during periods of food shortage. You can get into ketosis when you fast, restrict starchy carbohydrate intake, and to a lesser extent when protein is restricted. For most people it takes two to four days of eating less than 20 to 50 grams of carbohydrates a day to get into ketosis.
Foods that are keto friendly
- cheese (if you can tolerate it)
- insoluble or fibrous vegetables (eg. cucumber, lettuce, celery, carrots, peppers, kale, swiss chard, broccoli, brussel sprouts, etc.)
- resistant starch like unmodified potato starch, green bananas and plantains
- nuts and seeds (watch you don’t over eat)
- fats (coconut oil, pork lard, olive oil, avocado oil, ghee, butter if tolerated)
- fruit (berries, if kept under 20 to 50 grams per day)
Example of foods that are keto unfriendly
- refined flours (eg. breads, pastas, pastries, pizza)
- fruit (if over 20 to 50 grams per day)
- starchy tubers (potatoes, squash, taro root, cassava root)
- potato chips
Ketogenic diet and blood sugar problems
The ketogenic diet can be used to solve chronic fatigue and problems with mental focus caused by blood sugar problems (low or high).
There is a lot of direct evidence that ketogenic diets improve blood sugars in type 2 diabetes (high blood sugar). (1, 2, 3) However, in my research, I found no direct evidence that ketogenic diets improve blood sugars in hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). This is likely because hypoglycemia without diabetes is considered to be rare and the criteria for diagnosing it is flawed. So it’s just not studied much compared to diabetes.
However, it is my opinion, based on personal and clinical experience, that a ketogenic diet helps the body bring blood sugar levels back into “balance” whether you have diabetes or hypoglycemia.
I struggled with low blood sugar problems for forty years. I was a sugar, cereal, and bread addict. All these foods cause rapid blood sugar spikes and rapid falls. My moods and energy levels would follow these rises and falls. When blood sugars were low I would feel irritable, have extreme fatigue, and lack focus. It was like I was Dr. Jeklyll and Mr. Hyde.
When I switched to a ketogenic diet my blood sugar levels became stable. When I combined the keto diet with intermittent fasting my body was learning how to burn my stored fat. Within a week my moods became stable and improved, my energy levels increased, and my focus became laser-like. It was a miracle for me.
Ketogenic diet and the brain
Can ketogenic diets help you overcome mental fatigue and give you clear focus? Yes…possibly. It can do this in two ways.
As we have learned, the ketogenic diet, can help balance out your blood sugar levels. This is important to sustain clear mental focus.
As well, there is some evidence the brain prefers ketone bodies versus sugar (glucose) as a fuel. This is the case in people with cognitive impairment, brain degeneration, and brain injuries (4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11):
- Traumatic brain injuries
So does this mean that ketosis would help people with healthy brains as well?
Maybe. Certainly there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that being in ketosis helps with mental clarity, focus, and performance. There isn’t any hard evidence yet. There is, however, evidence that ketogenic diets help improve memory in people with mild to moderate cognitive impairment rather than say full-blown Alzheimer’s. (12, 13, 14, 15)
When you should rethink keto
While being in ketosis is a natural human state in cycles, most people will not want to be stuck in this state long-term. This is a topic for another article. Here is a short list of circumstances and conditions where you may want to up your carbohydrate intake and avoid ketosis:
- Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis dysregulation (HPA-D aka “adrenal fatigue”) . This means high stress hormone (cortisol) levels.
- Poor exercise recovery if you’re doing a lot of high intensity exercise like Cross fit
- Sleep problems or insomnia
- Weight loss resistance when doing a ketogenic diet
While using a ketogenic diet may help you solve chronic fatigue you will have to experiment with it. It may be a huge game changer for you. On the other hand, keto isn’t for everybody and can actually cause more harm than good. Consult a nutritionist, dietician, or another health practitioner that has experience in this field to coach you through this process.