Can the Ketogenic Diet Help with Anxiety?

keto on anxiety

Most people familiar with the concept of the ketogenic diet know it as a way to achieve sustainable weight loss. However, what's often either overlooked or forgotten is that this type of low-carb, high-fat diet was initially designed to help adolescents beset by epileptic seizures.

That by itself should be ample evidence that what you eat can have a profound effect on the workings of your brain. [1]

The keto and brain connection has not been lost on everyone, however, because some people suffering from anxiety like myself have turned to it, not necessarily out of desperation, but more as a way to perhaps provide a non-medication based solution to our particular health issue.

A Bit of a Background Story

The ketogenic diet as I mentioned was developed to help those afflicted with adolescent epilepsy get their condition under control.

It was actually fairly effective and only fell out of favor when science came up with medications that could do the job even better.

For years the diet languished on the shelf of forgotten medical treatments until someone decided to investigate its weight loss capabilities.

depression and anxiety

Today it’s widely used to achieve sustainable weight loss and has even spurred copycat diets like Atkins and Paleo.

With this particular low-carb diet, you essentially fool your body into thinking it's starving. As a result, it looks to burn fats for energy rather than carbs, which is the body's default fuel source.

Because you're burning fat, you lose weight more efficiently and keep it off more effectively as long as you adhere to the diet.

Ketosis will also have the benefit of balancing hormone levels. This is especially true with the cortisol cycle which is linked to stress and anxiety.

The underlying reason for this is that blood sugar levels go down and stabilize without the constant rollercoaster spikes.

What most people don’t know though is that severe cortisol fluctuations don’t just induce stress, but can lead to inflammation too. In most cases, this predominantly affects the digestive system, but if the cortisol cycle is disrupted for long enough, it can also affect the brain.

From my personal experience, I can say that reliance on medication decreased a lot once I started keto.

It’s not a silver bullet, but the more natural ways you can find, the better.

Using the Ketogenic Diet to Relieve Anxiety?

ketogenic as anxiety antidote

If you’ve suffered from anxiety for most of your adult life the way I have, you eventually work your way through all the potential remedies, from meditation to a good glass of wine (or two).

But while obtaining short-term relief is not so difficult (whether by way of breathing exercises or the aforementioned glasses of wine), finding ways to leave the anxiety behind over the course of a full day or even several consecutive days has always seemed like a kind of fetishistic goal that’s always just a bit out of reach. [2]

And so it was that I came to the ketogenic diet (read more) as a kind of last house on the block.

My feeling was that I had tried everything else with, at best, mixed results. I had nothing to lose by trying one more approach, even if there was little reason to think it would work.

As I said, I came to the keto diet for anxiety because I was merely running out of options rather than because I was convinced it might help.

But I was in for a pretty big surprise.

After several weeks of adhering fairly rigorously to the low-carb, high-fat prescription (with a couple of pasta slips, oops) I had to admit I was feeling better than I had since my grade school days.

The constant sense of impending doom was almost (though not entirely) absent most of the time, and I was aware of harboring a sense of optimism about the future in general and my future prospects in particular — a sense that had been almost completely subsumed by my constant feelings of dread.

But how did this happen? And is it sustainable?

It Actually Helped With My Anxiety?

To find an answer to those questions, I rang up a nutritionist friend of mine that I hadn’t spoken to in some time.

I explained what I was doing and why, and then I told her about how the diet seemed to have succeeded in lifting the pall of anxiety from over my head when everything else had failed.

How can this be? I asked her.

"Well, if I had to guess," she said, "I'd start by suggesting it has something to do with blood sugar levels."

girl offering nutritious fruits

She explained how the keto diet eliminates a lot of the foods that cause spikes in blood sugar, and how being freed of the roller coaster of these blood sugar spikes probably helped stabilize my mood and thereby eliminated a lot of the anxiety that was generated by them.

I hadn’t ever considered that as a potential source of my anxiety but it made a lot of sense.

By adopting the famous diet, I had transitioned from fueling my brain with glucose derived from carbs to ketones derived from high-fat foods.

By eliminating the glucose, I was also inadvertently helping to stabilize my blood sugar levels. Something I hadn’t even considered when I started this process.

What I Learned From the Whole Experience

Anxiety Keto Diet

But is that it? Was my anxiety entirely or even almost entirely a function of skewed blood sugar levels?

Probably not.

The fact is, anxiety has a host of potential causes, and while diet is certainly one of them — as I can appreciate now more than ever — it's not the only one. 

Other causes of anxiety may include financial stress, pressure to perform on the job, family responsibilities, societal issues, and loneliness.

At some point, I suppose I’ve felt negatively affected by all of these potential stressors and they’ve all likely played a part in my sense of anxiety over the years. 

Nonetheless, anxiety is less an issue now than at any previous time during my adult life. I find myself obsessing less about what could go wrong and concentrating more on what I have to do to ensure things turn out okay.

And I have to mention that indecision, which used to plague me, has also been greatly reduced since I started on the keto diet.

So where do I go from here?

I’m not entirely sure only because I’m not used to feeling the way I do now.

But I do know this: for me, the ketogenic diet is here to stay for as long as it continues working to reduce my anxiety levels.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is Keto Good For Anxiety?
Yes, keto can positively affect anxiety levels.

With balanced blood sugars comes a normalized hormone level which has been proven to impact anxiety levels and stress.

However, it’s important to note that other factors in your life may be contributing as well. The keto diet is not a silver bullet, but it's nonetheless an excellent natural way to help make improvements to your mental health.

Do You Need To Be In Ketosis To Experience The Benefits For Anxiety?
Yes, you will need to be in ketosis to experience the benefits for anxiety.

It is quite possible that you will notice improvements during the induction phase as your blood sugars start to balance more. But it isn’t until you reach ketosis that you will reach the stabilized conditions needed for you to experience its benefits.

Does Keto Diet Affect Mood?
Yes, the keto diet can affect your mood in two different ways.

During the initial phase and induction, you will feel tired and fatigued. You will also crave carbs. This can have a negative effect on your mood, just like how you would with the flu.

However, once ketosis kicks in, you will notice increased energy levels both physically and mentally. As the brain fog lifts, you will also experience the benefits of hormonal rebalancing which has a positive impact on mood disorders like anxiety.

Does Keto Diet Make You Cranky?
Yes, the keto diet can make you feel cranky and irritable during the first few days and weeks.

During this initial induction phase, before you hit ketosis, your body will interpret what’s happening as a sign of starvation. And let’s be honest, who doesn’t get a bit cranky when they feel hungry.

The good news is that it only lasts a few days, and once you hit ketosis, you will actually notice an improvement in your mood and energy levels.

Can Keto Protect Future Children From Mental Issues?
Yes, there is a possible link between keto and protecting future children from mental issues like depression and anxiety.

While detailed human studies have not been conducted, some lab testing on mice indicates that offspring of mice who were given a keto diet showed fewer signs of anxiety and depression after birth.

Does Stress Affect Ketosis?
Yes, high levels of stress can have a negative effect on ketosis.

The reason this happens is that increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol trigger insulin production. This leads to an increase in blood glucose and a decrease in ketone levels. In severe cases, stress can even kick you out of ketosis.

As high levels of physical and mental stress also have serious impacts on your overall health, it’s always best to deal with stress and never ignore it.

Is Keto Good For Depression?
Yes, keto is good for depression and for dealing with many other mood disorders including anxiety.

Between balanced blood sugar levels and shedding a lot of fat, your overall hormone levels will stabilize as well. The result is a calming effect and lower levels of stress that will all have a positive impact on your mood.

It might not cure your depression, but by eliminating any causes in a natural way, you will hopefully go on to decrease your reliance on medication eventually.

About the Author

Ryan is a personal trainer, athlete, health enthusiast, and entrepreneur. He is researching and expanding his knowledge about the ketogenic diet. He spends most of his time writing content about his new learnings of the ketogenic diet and shares it on Ketogenic Supplement Reviews. You can find me on: Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.