It is quickly becoming common knowledge that ketone bodies are a better fuel for the brain than glucose. But it’s one thing to believe and another thing to understand. If you’re reading this, we figure you want to understand. Be warned, the rest of this piece gets a little bit technical. But we at KetoDiet credit your intelligence and have confidence you’re up the challenge.
Big Picture: Analogy #1 – Hummers (Glucose) and Teslas (Ketones)
Let’s start with the big picture. Imagine your brain cells are like cars. Brain cells running on glucose are like a gas-guzzling Hummers. They are clunky, inefficient, and produce a lot of pollution. By contrast, brain cells running on ketones are like new Tesla. They are faster, more efficient, and produce very little population.
So, brain cells on glucose are slow and dirty Hummers, whereas brain cells on ketones are fast and clean Teslas. This analogy is meant to ground you, but it still doesn’t offer true understanding. Dig your trends into the asphalt and rev your engine because we are about to drive deep into your brain cells and talk biochemistry!
Ketones are cleaner because they produce fewer toxic byproducts of metabolism (“reactive oxygen species”).
Deeper Dive: Analogy #2 – Bowling Balls Rolling Down Stairs
Your brain cells’ car engine is called its “mitochondria.” Mitochondria are what turn glucose and ketones into energy. How they do so is complicated but involves converting the energy stored in glucose and ketone molecules’ chemical bonds into “high-energy electron particles.”
Let’s imagine these high-energy electron particles like bowling balls sitting at the top of a flight of stairs. To produce energy, your mitochondria roll the electron (bowling ball) down the stairs. Each bump releases energy that your brain cells can use to do work. You can think of the accumulated amount of noise produced with each “crash, crash, crash” as the amount of energy your brain gets from each electron particle.
In our bowling ball stair analogy, when your brain is using glucose, the staircase is short and the stairs are made of wood. Therefore, there are fewer “crashes,” less energy is produced, and the wooden stairs are damaged in the process. (In brain cells, these processes are respectively referred to as a short “electron transport chain redox span” and elevated “reactive oxygen species” production.)
However, when your brain is using ketones, the staircase gets longer and the stairs turn into stainless steel. Therefore, more energy is produced as the high-energy electron bowling balls made from ketones crash down more stairs. What’s more, the stairs are now stronger and resistant to damage. (In brain cells, these processes are respectively referred to as an expanded “electron transport chain redox span” and decreased “reactive oxygen species” production.)
Ketones are more efficient because they expand the mitochondrial “electron transport chain redox span,” a fancy way of saying cells get more energy bang for their buck.
Ketones as a Brain Fuel In a Nutshell
At the big picture level, brain cells on glucose are like inefficient and dirty Hummers and brain cells on ketones are like efficient and clean Teslas. This is because, at the molecular level, glucose produces electron bowling balls that bounce down short wooden mitochondria staircases, creating less energy and more damage. By contrast, ketones produce electron bowling balls that bounce down long steel mitochondria staircases, creating more energy and less damage.
Phew! I know that was a lot! If you didn’t follow, perhaps try trading your Hummer for a Tesla? And, if you need a keto charging port for your brain Tesla brain, Martina’s blog and books are a great place to start.