If you’re on a waiting list for post traumatic stress disorder treatment, it can feel like an interminably long time. However, there are things you can explore while you’re waiting that may help to improve your symptoms naturally in the meantime and without too much pressure. Recently, we have written at PTSD UK about the benefits of weighted blankets, but have you heard of the ways in which a ketogenic diet can help, too?
What is a ketogenic diet?
In a nutshell, a ketogenic diet is low in carbohydrates, high in fat and contains adequate protein. With this diet, the body is forced to burn the fats instead of the carbohydrates. You may hear it referred to by a variety of names, including low-carb high-fat (LCHF) or a low-carb diet.
So, how does it work? Typically, when you eat something that is high in carbohydrates, your body will produce both glucose and insulin. Because the glucose is being used by your body as a primary source of energy, it doesn’t need any of your fats, and these are then stored.
However, when you lower how many carbohydrates you’re consuming, your body goes into a natural state called ‘ketosis’. This helps us to survive when we have limited food intake. Our body starts to produce something known as ‘ketones’ – these are created by the breakdown of fats in our liver. When our ketone levels are optimal, it can have a number of benefits including weight loss, health gains and improvements in our physical and mental performance.
How does this relate to PTSD?
Our body is a very complex system, but to put it in the simplest of terms, there is a connection between our brain and our gut that means what we eat makes a big difference in how we think and feel. While much research is still ongoing, studies have so far suggested that where there are PTSD-related impairments in physical health, this may be connected to a disrupted gut-brain axis.
These two parts of our body work in a vicious cycle – a stressed brain can lead to our gut becoming dysfunctional, and a dysfunctional gut can lead to problems in the brain. There are various other parts of our body connected to this cycle, including our immune system and circulating inflammation and hormones. This is why poor gut health can leave us feeling run down.
In those with PTSD, typically this can involve and increase gastrointestinal dysfunction, with problems such as irritable bowel syndrome, altered gut microbiota (often triggered by stress), increased systemic inflammation, intestinal permeability (often linked with intestinal inflammation, as large amounts of bacteria will have passed into the gastrointestinal tract through the gut wall), and altered stress hormone levels (for example, the hormone cortisol). There are many studies that show the link between mental health and the gut – and, therefore, diet.
It is believed that post traumatic stress symptoms are often associated with elevated blood glucose levels, as well as an elevation of dyslipidemia (plasma cholesterol and triglycerides – which serve to store fat), and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels, which transport cholesterol from the liver to tissues, alongside decreases in high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, which transport any surplus cholesterol from tissues back to the liver.
This combination can all have an impact on PTSD symptoms, and crucially the body of the sufferer, putting them at a greater risk of developing type-2 diabetes, an elevated blood pressure, and heightened basal heart rates. This can all contribute towards the potential risk of cardiovascular disease. It is, therefore, important to get this under control wherever possible, to improve symptoms and reduce the potential health complications.
This is where the ketogenic diet comes in. Given that it can balance out some of the physical problems that a PTSD sufferer might be experiencing, it can neutralise the negative aspects perfectly. Low in carbohydrates but high in fat, it has been used by nutritionists over many years to treat a diverse range of chronic diseases, including Parkinson’s, epilepsy, neurotrauma, Alzheimer’s, sleep disorders and multiple sclerosis.
The exact science of it is no mean feat to explain, given the complexities of the human brain and body. In fact, even scientists are still trying to pinpoint these mechanisms exactly. However, the evidence is proving overwhelming and studies are starting to suggest it may be due to the way it deals with aberrant energy metabolism, which has been connected with a wide array of disorders from cancer to type 2 diabetes.
It’s important to note, that while choosing your PTSD recovery path you need to address both the symptoms and the underlying condition. NICE guidance from 2005 and 2011 recommends the use of trauma focused psychological treatments for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in adults, specifically the use of Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR) and trauma focused cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
Please remember, these aren’t meant to be medical recommendations, but they’re tactics that have worked for others and might work for you, too. Be sure to work with a professional to find the best methods for you, and when making changes to your lifestyle and diet, it is always best to consult with a trained professional such as a nutritionist, dietician or doctor.
IMAGE: Almond Flour Coconut Oil Keto Brownies by Stephen G Pearson