What are Ketones?
Dr. Kara's Health Insights

What are Ketones?

by DK Kara MD on Apr 21, 2022

When you hear the word “ketones”, what are some of the first things that come to mind? Diabetes, a current trendy diet perhaps?

While it's true that the keto diet is highly recommended among those who try it (1), what is it about this particular diet that makes it so effective?

The excitement begins when ketones are released into the body. There are a lot of buzzwords surrounding the word, but what are they exactly?

In this article, we’ll take a dive into the world of ketones – what they are, how they function, and other frequently asked questions.

What are Ketones?

Ketones, also called ketone bodies or keto acids, are chemicals your liver naturally produces. They’re made up of acetone, acetoacetic acid (AcAc), and beta-hydroxybutyric acid (BHB). These chemicals act as an alternative energy source when glucose, your body’s main source of energy, is running low (2).

This can happen a few different ways (3):

  • Fasting: If you forego eating for at least 72 hours, or 3 days, your body will begin shifting from normal metabolic processes to ketosis – using ketones for energy instead of glucose. 
  • Diet: For those interested in losing weight or reducing diabetic symptoms, certain diet changes can bring ketones onto the scene. Changes such as fewer carbohydrates and more healthy fats, can put the body into a state of ketosis. This process can take a few days to begin.
  • Supplementation: Different companies have developed ketone supplements that promise to bring your body to a ketosis state, regardless of diet or fasting. While this sounds like a winner, many of the claims are unreliable.

Function

When your body breaks down carbohydrates, a chemical reaction occurs and adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, is produced (6). This action is necessary for each of your cells to operate normally.

Ketones also lack a hydrogen atom, making them resistant against oxidation. Studies show this can be really helpful in keeping inflammation down, which can result in a healthier body and longer lifespan. (10).

Uses

There’s a lot more to ketones than meets the eye. While the term is gaining popularity in the health industry, ketones can also be used to make things (7, 8), such as:

    • Paints
    • Explosives
    • Antibiotics
  • Artificial hormones like progesterone and testosterone
  • But as far as your health goes, how do ketones benefit you? Research finds they can help with:

    • Weight loss: A meta-analysis of 13 studies show consistent results. Those that participate in low carb keto diets tend to weigh less than those on a low-fat diet (16).
    • Blood sugar balance: A small study involving 84 type 2 diabetics showed that eating a low-carb diet for a period of time improved overall glycemic levels. In some cases  led to them being able to reduce or stop medications altogether (15).
    • Epilepsy: Studies suggest ketones contain anti seizure properties (14). This recommendation has actually been used since the 1920s, as well as for those who don’t respond well to anticonvulsant medication.
    • Migraines: A study of 96 overweight women found that going on the keto diet helped reduce the frequency and severity of migraines (12).
    • Lower blood pressure: Because the keto diet encourages low carbs and high fats, one study noted the effects such a diet can have on those with high blood pressure (13).

    Some people believe having your body in a state of ketosis can boost athletic performance (4), although clinical results vary.

    Another study suggests ketones may be able to fight off cancer, because of the way cancer cells utilize energy (9).

    Symptoms of Ketosis

    Depending on your goal, you may choose to incorporate a keto diet or supplement. How do you know if your efforts are paying off?

    While they’re not the most pleasant, symptoms (11) of ketosis can include:

    • short-term fatigue
    • temporary decrease in exercise performance
    • weight loss
    • lack of focus
    • decreased appetite
    • fruity breath
    • bowel changes like constipation or diarrhea

    Some call these symptoms “keto-flu”. Eliminating carbs slowly, taking in more electrolytes, and staying hydrated can help ease or eliminate these symptoms.

    The Risks of High Ketones

    In healthy individuals, the production of ketones is a natural response to starvation. The goal is to break down fat to release energy when there is no other fuel source coming in.

    For those diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, ketosis can quickly become a life-threatening problem.

    When blood sugars get too low, the body sends out more ketones. Diabetics typically have issues regulating their insulin levels, so when there is too much insulin and too many ketones in the bloodstream, the blood pH becomes too acidic. This becomes a state called ketoacidosis, and can invite deadly complications if not dealt with immediately (5).

    Note: ketoacidosis can occur in those diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, if there is a significant increase in insulin resistance.

    Conclusion

    Ketones are chemicals your liver produces as a backup energy source. Typically they come onto the scene if glucose isn’t readily available.

    Not only can they be found in your body, they can be found in textiles and industrial areas. Some of its highest health benefits are related to weight loss, blood sugar balancing, migraines, epilepsy, and lowering blood pressure.

    The process of ketosis can be a natural occurrence, especially when making diet changes. But it’s important to be aware of the dangers of when ketones get too high in your bloodstream. If you’re diabetic, it’s crucial to keep your blood sugar under control.

    Ketones are a fascinating part of the human body. Who else do you know who might benefit from this information? Be sure to share with them!

    References & Disclaimer

    (1) https://health.usnews.com/wellness/articles/we-surveyed-people-on-the-keto-diet-heres-what-they-say

    (2) https://dtc.ucsf.edu/types-of-diabetes/type2/understanding-type-2-diabetes/how-the-body-processes-sugar/ketones/

    (3) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28599043/

    (4) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30531462/

    (5) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK534848/

    (6) https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/neuroscience/adenosine-triphosphate

    (7) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19619941/

    (8) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28399015/

    (9) https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnut.2021.594408/full

    (10) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8308443/

    (11) https://www.everydayhealth.com/diet-nutrition/ketogenic-diet/ketosis-what-it-its-safe-how-achieve-it-symptoms-more/

    (12) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25156013/

    (13) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20101008/

    (14) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29325899/

    (15) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19099589/

    (16) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23651522/

    ✝✝This noted statement is based on independent research and is not necessarily the opinion of the author