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Ketogenesis has existed as long as humans have. If you eat a very low amount of carbohydrates, you starve your brain of glucose, its main fuel source. Your body still needs fuel to function, so it taps into your reserve of ketones, which are compounds the liver creates from fat when blood insulin is low. This process is known as ketosis: It’s like when a hybrid car runs out of gas and reverts to pure electricity.
“Muscle loss on the ketogenic diet is an ongoing area of research,” says Edwina Clark, RD, a dietitian in private practice in San Francisco. “Small studies suggest that people on the ketogenic diet lose muscle even when they continue resistance training. This may be related to the fact that protein alone is less effective for muscle building than protein and carbohydrates together after exercise.” Meanwhile, according to a small study published in March 2018 in the journal Sports, people following the keto diet for three months lost about the same amount of body fat and had about the same muscle mass changes as people following normal diets. Yet the folks on keto did lose more leg muscle.
If you do try the diet outside of medical supervision, Kizer says it’s important to test your urine with urinalysis ketone test strips to ensure your ketone levels don’t become dangerously high. Ketone urine test strips are also used by people with diabetes to determine if they’re at risk for ketoacidosis (DKA), a life-threatening complication that occurs when an individual doesn’t have enough insulin in their body. (Healthy ketosis is considered 0.5 to 3.0 mM blood ketones.)
Longer-term studies conducted on animals have shown the KD may be associated with some adverse events. For example, in rodent studies, some will develop nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (defined as liver damage that is not due to excess consumption of alcohol, viral or autoimmune causes, and iron overload ) and insulin resistance when put on the keto diet long-term. Other studies suggest that some individuals may be predisposed to heart-related problems if they eat a very high-fat diet for an extended period of time.
But when you consume a high-carbohydrate diet, your brain often can't convert enough glutamate into GABA because it's using glutamate as an energy source. This imbalance can lead to neurotoxicity, and this impaired functioning could potentially lead to brain fog. For reasons not completely understood, ketosis seems to favor an increased production of GABA, which can lead to reductions in neurotoxicity and, therefore, brain fog.
Perhaps the biggest anecdotal evidence on ketosis slowing down MS is the story of Dr. Terry Wahls. Dr. Wahls overcame being wheelchair bound after trying various drugs and conventional therapies without success. Eventually, she turned to dietary changes – including following a ketogenic diet – and a lot of her symptoms disappeared. She now lives an active life, riding horses and going on long treks. She shares her story and the protocol she developed in the book The Whals Protocol: A Radical New Way to Treat All Chronic Autoimmune Conditions Using Paleo Principles.
Cyrus Khambatta earned a PhD in Nutritional Biochemistry from UC Berkeley after being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in his senior year of college at Stanford University in 2002. He is an internationally recognized nutrition and fitness coach for people living with type 1, type 1.5, prediabetes and type 2 diabetes, and has helped hundreds of people around the world achieve exceptional insulin sensitivity by adopting low-fat, plant-based whole foods nutrition.
We have solid evidence showing that a ketogenic diet reduces seizures in children, sometimes as effectively as medication. Because of these neuroprotective effects, questions have been raised about the possible benefits for other brain disorders such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, sleep disorders, autism, and even brain cancer. However, there are no human studies to support recommending ketosis to treat these conditions.
If you’re wondering about the difference between ketosis and diabetic ketoacidosis, you’re not alone. “The word ketone is scary for most people with type 1 diabetes because they relate ketones to diabetic ketoacidosis,” says Patti Urbanski, MEd, RD, CDE, a certified diabetes educator with St. Luke’s Hospital in Duluth, Minnesota. “But with the ketogenic diet, we’re talking about a much lower level of ketones.”