For decades the advice has been to eat a diet high in carbohydrates and low in fat to prevent many chronic illnesses – especially heart disease. We’ve also been taught that the brain needs copious amounts of glucose in the form of sugars to work at peak efficiency. But, what if that advice was wrong?
There’s been lots of buzz recently about an alternate energy source that our bodies and brains can use: Ketones.
According to the most recent research, ketones are a naturally occurring substance that the human body can produce under certain conditions, and may offer a broad range of health benefits that starches and sugars don’t.
What Are Ketones
To understand ketones, and their role in human nutrition we need to go back to our early hunter/gatherer origins before the advent of agriculture.
For early man, there was no such thing as three meals per day. People ate when food was available and went hungry when food ran out until a new supply could be gathered or hunted down. We can assume that they went hungry more often than not – between winter shortages, the occasional drought and over-hunting an area, food could be scarce for weeks at a time.
When there isn’t a ready supply of the glucose which the body uses as its principal fuel source, and glycogen levels have been depleted, the body looks for another source of fuel – stored fat. This can happen when someone fasts, during starvation, or when eating a low-carb diet.
When the body breaks down fats for energy, ketones are produced to fuel the body and brain. This is known as being in ketosis.
People following a ketogenic (low-carb) diet intentionally reduce their carbohydrate intake to below 50 grams of carbs per day to produce ketones for energy. Recent studies have concluded that there are some incredible benefits to eating a ketogenic diet.
Ketones fight Diabetes
Eating a ketogenic diet keeps blood glucose levels at a low (but, still healthy) level which stimulates the break down of body fat into ketones. Being in ketosis can mean that people taking insulin may require smaller doses, which minimizes the risk of health-damaging dosing errors. A ketogenic diet encourages the body to burn fat and therefore causing weight loss that can help eliminate one risk factor for diabetes or reverse prediabetes if it’s already a problem.
Ketones and Brain Health
According to several recent studies, using ketones instead of sugar as the primary source of the body’s energy can have a protective effect on the brain. In the 1920s researchers found out that a ketogenic diet controlled epilepsy, and ketosis is still one of the most effective treatments for it. Since then, further studies have confirmed that ketones can alter brain metabolism in ways that help many neurological problems and even improve behavioral issues like ADHD.
Over the last ten years, other studies have supported the health benefits of ketosis in patients with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. A 2004 study treated twenty individuals with Alzheimer’s or mild dementia with a placebo or ketones. Treatment increased the level of ketone 90 minutes later, and these higher ketone levels corresponded with greater memory improvements.
By severely restricting sugar and starch intake, the ketogenic diet already reduces a major risk factor for heart disease: Obesity. But, using ketones for energy has other benefits for our cardiovascular health.
Changing to a ketogenic diet reduces almost all risk factors for heart disease. When carbohydrate intake is reduced, and fat intake is increased, these cardiovascular disease risk markers change:
- Blood glucose levels drop, reducing tissue damage from glycation (internal ‘cooking’ of proteins)
- Triglycerides in the blood are reduced
- There is an increase in ‘good’ cholesterol
- Blood sugar and insulin levels go down
Slowing the Aging Process
Ketogenic diets that encourage the production of ketones could slow the aging process in two ways:
- The ketogenic diet can reduce oxidative damage inside the body, and increases the levels of uric acid and other powerful antioxidants in the body. As written earlier, recent studies have suggested that ketosis and the relying on ketones for energy could provide relief for many neurological disorders. Besides Alzheimer’s disease, ketones could help heal ALS, brain injury, Parkinson’s disease, and stroke. There is even one study that showed a ketone called beta-hydroxybutyrate could slow down aging by initiating a gene which modifies factors related to the aging process.
- Ketones support mitochondrial function by increasing glutathione, a potent antioxidant found in all our cells that functions directly inside the mitochondria (power generators in the cells). This is critical because the antioxidants we eat in our diet can’t easily make it into the mitochondria.
Ketones in Your Diet
Besides eating a low-carb diet, there are other ways to increase your ketone levels. Coconut oil is almost 65 percent ketones (in the form of medium chain triglycerides) and has been used by people to help improve the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological issues.
It’s also possible to purchase medium chain triglyceride oil online and in many health food stores. There is also an increasing number of ketone containing drinks hitting the market. But, maintaining a low-carb diet is still one of the most convenient ways to reap the health benefits of ketones.