Why the heck does it happen? Normally, the body uses glucose—or sugar—as its main source of energy. When you cut your carbs below 50 grams per day (the typical threshold for a ketogenic diet), you enter a metabolic state called ketosis: Instead of burning carbs for fuel, your body begins burning ketones—an alternative fuel source that the liver makes by breaking down fat. In turn, this can make you feel run down.
Ketosis is pretty different from what your body is used to, and this onslaught of symptoms is its way of dealing with carb withdrawal—and adapting, explains Kristen Mancinelli, RD, author of The Ketogenic Diet. “It takes a while, usually a week or two, for the metabolic machinery to shift to fat-burning mode. And you’ll feel pretty crummy while the transition is happening,” she says.
Insulin is a hormone that lets your body use or store sugar as fuel. Ketogenic diets make you burn through this fuel quickly, so you don’t need to store it. This means your body needs -- and makes -- less insulin. Those lower levels may help protect you against some kinds of cancer or even slow the growth of cancer cells. More research is needed on this, though.
A Cochrane systematic review in 2018 found and analysed eleven randomized controlled trials of ketogenic diet in people with epilepsy for whom drugs failed to control their seizures. Six of the trials compared a group assigned to a ketogenic diet with a group not assigned to one. The other trials compared types of diets or ways of introducing them to make them more tolerable. In the largest trial of the ketogenic diet with a non-diet control, nearly 38% of the children and young people had half or fewer seizures with the diet compared 6% with the group not assigned to the diet. Two large trials of the Modified Atkins Diet compared to a non-diet control had similar results, with over 50% of children having half or fewer seizures with the diet compared to around 10% in the control group.
In 1921, Rollin Turner Woodyatt reviewed the research on diet and diabetes. He reported that three water-soluble compounds, β-hydroxybutyrate, acetoacetate, and acetone (known collectively as ketone bodies), were produced by the liver in otherwise healthy people when they were starved or if they consumed a very low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet. Dr. Russell Morse Wilder, at the Mayo Clinic, built on this research and coined the term "ketogenic diet" to describe a diet that produced a high level of ketone bodies in the blood (ketonemia) through an excess of fat and lack of carbohydrate. Wilder hoped to obtain the benefits of fasting in a dietary therapy that could be maintained indefinitely. His trial on a few epilepsy patients in 1921 was the first use of the ketogenic diet as a treatment for epilepsy.
The ketone bodies are possibly anticonvulsant; in animal models, acetoacetate and acetone protect against seizures. The ketogenic diet results in adaptive changes to brain energy metabolism that increase the energy reserves; ketone bodies are a more efficient fuel than glucose, and the number of mitochondria is increased. This may help the neurons to remain stable in the face of increased energy demand during a seizure, and may confer a neuroprotective effect.
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It is possible to combine the results of several small studies to produce evidence that is stronger than that available from each study alone—a statistical method known as meta-analysis. One of four such analyses, conducted in 2006, looked at 19 studies on a total of 1,084 patients. It concluded that a third achieved an excellent reduction in seizure frequency and half the patients achieved a good reduction.
The ketogenic diet is usually initiated in combination with the patient's existing anticonvulsant regimen, though patients may be weaned off anticonvulsants if the diet is successful. Some evidence of synergistic benefits is seen when the diet is combined with the vagus nerve stimulator or with the drug zonisamide, and that the diet may be less successful in children receiving phenobarbital.
Another option is to decrease the intake of carbohydrates slowly, over a few weeks, to minimize side effects. But the “Nike way” (Just Do It) may be the best choice for most people. Removing most sugar and starch often results in several pounds lost on the scale within a few days. This may be mostly fluids, but it can still be great for motivation.