What to Know About Keto and Depression

Medically Reviewed by Christine Mikstas, RD, LD on April 21, 2023
4 min read

The keto diet is a high-fat, low-carbohydrate, and adequate-protein diet. Eating this way triggers a metabolic process called ketosis. Simply put, it causes the body to burn fat instead of carbohydrates for energy. Despite currently being used as a mainstream weight loss method, it was initially developed to manage seizures in people with epilepsy.

It is important to note that what you eat also affects your mental health. An inadequate diet may have adverse effects on your body. It can lead to things like poor decision-making ability, fatigue and a slow brain response.

The keto diet is proven to be beneficial in treating migraines, epilepsy, and Alzheimer's disease. Some of the ways the diet relieves depression include:

  • Increasing substances that play critical roles in managing stress, anxiety, and mood. Low levels of these substances have links to clinical depression. Following a ketogenic diet may increase circulation of the substances which transmit neurons, potentially improving depressive symptoms. However, more research is needed as this study has only been conducted on animals.
  • Improving mitochondrial function. The mitochondria is the part of our cells that generates energy needed for the cell to function. Mitochondrial dysfunction, which has been linked to depression, is less likely to occur in people using the ketogenic diet. 
  • Decreasing oxidative stress. The unstable compounds that you are exposed to daily are called free radicals, and they may damage your cells. This is referred to as oxidative stress, and it may cause several diseases. People with depression have high levels of oxidative stress. Ketogenic diets can improve your body's antioxidant activity, helping to reverse some of the damage caused by the free radicals in your cells.
  • Regulating insulin function. The hormone that helps manage your blood sugar levels is called insulin. High sugar diets may cause your body to be sugar resistant, causing an increase in weight, heart disease, and depression. Following a ketogenic diet stabilizes your blood sugar levels hence increasing the sensitivity of your body to insulin.
  • Decreasing inflammation. This dysfunctional immune response can make you susceptible to many other problems, including insulin resistance, oxidative stress, and mitochondrial dysfunction. However, a ketogenic diet may inhibit inflammation or improve chronic inflammation.

In addition to preventing depression, a keto diet has been found to help with sleep and slowing down the growth of cancer cells. Individuals on a keto diet in one study found it easier to fall asleep faster than those not on the diet. The rate of cancer cell growth is reduced since cancer cells rely on sugars to thrive.

Not everybody adjusts well into ketosis. Sometimes, your body may experience symptoms that are difficult to manage, including headaches, sleep disturbances, cramping, and fatigue. Although this may resolve by increasing your fluid intake, dealing with such symptoms can lead to depression.

‌Other issues caused by a keto diet. Although the keto diet has many potential benefits, it may cause problems like nutrient deficiencies, kidney problems, liver issues, constipation, and mood swings. Try to eat many different varieties of fruits and vegetables to avoid some of the issues that come with being on a keto diet.

Tips to Consider 

Since other weight loss methods exist, you should discontinue keto if you notice new feelings of depression. However, if you're using the diet to manage your blood sugar or epilepsy, then consult your doctor for further guidance. Some of the strategies that you can consider if you want to continue with the diet include:                            

  • Focus on high-quality protein and vegetables. If you're not getting enough mood-supporting nutrients, try including more high-quality whole foods in your diet. Foods rich in magnesium like avocado, almonds, and low sugar dark chocolate may help with depressive symptoms.
  • Take your time and hydrate well. Waiting out the first few days and making sure to drink plenty of water will make the transition easier. Electrolytes may also help you.
  • Try cyclical keto dieting (carb cycling). This technique allows you to take one high-carbohydrate day a week. It makes it easier to stick to the diet over the long term without sacrificing your favorite foods or eliminating carbs.

If you're unsure if your depression was caused or worsened by the keto diet, consider getting help from a qualified mental health professional. Currently, there is insufficient evidence for the use of the diet in mental disorders, and it is not a recommended treatment option. 

This diet may not be for everyone, especially those with preexisting health conditions. Please speak with your doctor before starting any new diet plan.