Three mental health benefits that come from eating a low-carb diet

This article is based on private research and should not be considered medical advice. Speak to your GP before making any drastic dietary changes.

A low-carb diet
A low-carb diet allows you to eat plenty of meat and non-starchy vegetables. Image: RitaE, Pixabay.

These days, the low-carb diet is all the rage for people who want to lose weight. But, did you know that eating fewer carbohydrates could actually improve your mental health, too?

Read on to learn more about the mental and emotional benefits that stem from consuming a low-carb diet.

How low are we talking?

There’s a lot of variety when it comes to deciding how low you’re going to go when you’re consuming a low-carb diet. Active people, for example, will need more carbs than someone who is sedentary for most of the day.

It takes some experimentation to figure out the right number of carbs to eat to help you feel your best. A good place to start for most people, though, is to drop your carbs somewhere between 50 and 100 grams per day.

This is significantly lower than the number of carbs people who eat the recommended dietary intake consume on a daily basis. But, it’s not so low that you’ll feel overly restricted or deprived.

What about the low-carb flu?

When they first drop the number of carbs they eat, many people experience a collection of symptoms that are typically known as the “low-carb flu.” Common symptoms include:

  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Brain fog
  • Fatigue
  • Low energy
  • Hunger
  • Carbohydrate cravings

These symptoms typically only last a couple of weeks, then your body will start to adjust and you’ll begin burning fat instead of carbs for fuel.

Mental health benefits of a low-carb diet

At this point, you might be wondering why someone would put themselves through weeks of nausea and low energy just to start burning fat instead of carbs. Well, for many people, the low-carb flu is worth it in exchange for the mental health benefits they experience once their symptoms go away.

Some of the most common mental health benefits people experience include:

1. Reduces anxiety

Low-carb diets have been shown to reduce inflammation throughout the body, including in the brain.

Low-carb diets also improve the body’s ability to convert glutamate (a brain-stimulating neurotransmitter) to GABA (a neurotransmitter that reduces brain stimulation). When these two neurotransmitters function properly, feelings of anxiety are reduced.

Another study found that the decrease in sugar that accompanies a low-carb diet also helps improve mood and minimise feelings of stress and anxiety.

This is especially true when a decrease in carbs is paired with an increase in consumption of healthy fats (avocado, extra-virgin olive oil, salmon, etc.), which reduce inflammation, promote healthy cell growth, and boost brain function to combat mood disorders.

2. Relieves depression

Low-carb diets can also help fight depression. In fact, in animal studies, low-carb diets have been shown to have a similar effect to traditional antidepressants drugs.

In this study, rats who were fed a low-carb diet were less likely to exhibit “behaviour despair” than rats who were fed a high-carbohydrate diet.

It’s believed that one of the main benefits of a low-carb diet for depression is the fact that low-carb diets minimise inflammation in the body and brain. Severe inflammation in the brain has been connected to increased feelings of depression.

3. Minimises symptoms of bipolar disorder

Finally, a low-carb diet can also benefit from those who suffer from bipolar disorder.

Low-carb diets have profound benefits for people who struggle with epilepsy, and researchers have found a number of connections between epilepsy and bipolar disorder. In fact, many of the mood stabilising medications that are prescribed to people with bipolar disorder are anticonvulsants that were originally meant to treat seizures — examples include Depakote, Lamictal, and Trileptal.

Research into the benefits of low-carb diets for people with bipolar disorder is still relatively new. However, the studies that have been conducted have yielded impressive results. For example, one study looked at two women with bipolar disorder who maintained a low-carb diet for two and three years, respectively.

These women experienced significant stabilisation in their moods without any adverse side effects.

Tips for sticking to a low-carb diet

Many people are hesitant to start a low-carb diet because they think it’s unsustainable. While it does take some time to adjust to this new way of eating, it’s not as unattainable as many people believe.

If you’re interested in trying a low-carb diet but aren’t sure where to begin, listed below are some tips that will help you get started:

  • Plan your meals in advance and meal prep when possible to ensure you always have low-carb options on hand
  • Don’t restrict fat — if you’re eating fewer carbohydrates, you need to replace those calories with fat, otherwise, you could end up undereating
  • Be patient and prepare yourself for some discomfort — accept that you’re going to experience some low-carb flu symptoms for a couple weeks after you get started
  • Plan ahead when eating out to make sure you can find a low-carb option
  • Find low-carb recipes to replace your favorite high-carb treats

Finally, remember that you don’t need to be perfect to make progress. If you slip up every once in a while, it’s not the end of the world. You can still reap the benefits of a low-carb diet, even if you’re not eating low-carb 100 percent of the time.