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Euphoria on the Ketogenic Diet

It’s no wonder many cults and religions have advocated fasting as a way to somehow bring us closer to the sacred. Many people who decide to undergo a fast or a ketogenic diet - popularized by the doctor Atkin’s version of the diet - have reported feelings of mild euphoria, mind clarity and excessive energy levels.

First, let us remind you quickly the principles behind the ketogenic diet (also referred to as the keto diet). During the diet, glucose consumption is kept to a minimum, forcing our body to produce byproducts known as ketones. Therefore these ketones serve as an energy source replacing glucose in the whole body, and in 70% of the brain. Hence the term “ketosis”, which refers to the state of metabolism favoring high ketone concentration in the blood.

Now, on to the main topic – the euphoria. I used to be an adept of the ketogenic diet, and was one of the few lucky ones able to feel the diet’s dramatic effect on their mood. In the very beginning, after about 4 days of 0g of carbs consumption, the euphoria hit me hard. I felt very sociable, my mood and self-esteem had skyrocketed, and I felt like the funniest and wittiest guy in the room wherever I went. I just couldn’t stop smiling! My concentration ability was outstanding as well.  After a couple days, unfortunately, the effects subsided. If I stayed on the diet for a long stretch, the euphoria would show up randomly again from time to time. I’m just one of the many who had this experience and talk about it in online communities. If you’re like me and want to understand what’s going on, or if you just feel some interest in regards to the topic, read on!

What is the mechanism of action behind these atypical occurrences? Can it be explained by scientists?

The science behind the keto diet euphoria is very thin, to say the least – if not inexistent. It is not a phenomenon which has been extensively studied. However, a quick search over the internet and a medical studies database are enough to grant us a few clues. Here are a couple theories, some factual, others a bit wacky:

  • Ketogenic diets are neuroprotective. To put it simply, when our brains are flooded with ketones instead of glucose, they are less excited, and far less waste is left behind during the creation of new mental energy. Some physicians go as far as claiming that ketogenic diets might help in the curing of mental diseases such as autism, bipolar disorder, unipolar depression, or schizophrenia – thanks to its brain healing properties.

Ketones are arguably the most efficient fuel for both the brain and the heart, and their use as an energy substitute would result in optimal mental functioning, explaining the clear state of mind.

  • Another hypothesis, perhaps the most down-to-earth and reliable according to me, is that one of the ketones produced during ketosis (called BHB or beta-hydroxybutyrate) is an isomer of GHB, a drug known for its pro-social and euphoric properties, not unlike MDMA or ecstasy. It used to be available as a supplement sold in health stores, but was labeled illegal when the club scene discovered its effect in high doses and abused the substance. BHB possesses a structure very similar to GHB’s, and could have the same mechanism of action in the brain. It might activate certain GHB receptors, as well as bind to GABA-B receptors. The study can be found here: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17011713. Over time, as the brain desensitizes itself, the euphoric effects gradually subside. That might be the reason why the euphoria is mainly reported in the initial phase of the diet.
  • Some individuals on online forums claim the mild euphoria or mind clarity are due to the detoxification process the body goes through when fasting. As toxins leave the body, you’d arguably feel waves of calm and joy. Sounds cheesy to me, nothing but a “bro-theory” as they call it, and there is no consistent proof whatsoever.
  • Finally, some say the euphoria is a natural mechanism which would have granted our ancestors the motivation required for going out hunting/gathering in periods of famine. Pure speculation, but why not?

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