There has been a lot of controversy surrounding low-carb lifestyles, such as the ketogenic diet. Some say that eating high-fat foods will raise your cholesterol, contributing to heart disease or even cause kidney stones.
However, these statements are far from the truth: if you eat wholesome, nutrient-dense foods there is an abundance of health benefits that come with the ketogenic diet. From treating high cholesterol (yes, the good fats you’re consuming will combat your bad cholesterol and as a result, lower it), epilepsy, high blood sugar and obesity, there is a long list of benefits of the ketogenic diet.
In this article you will find how the ketogenic diet can benefit several medical conditions:
- Alzheimer Disease
- Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
- Metabolic Syndrome (MetS)
- Glycogen Storage Diseases (GSDs)
- Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)
- Diabetes Type 1 & Diabetes Type 2
- Parkinson’s Disease
- Glucose Transporter 1 Deficiency Disorder (GLUT1)
- Traumatic Brain Injury
- Multiple Sclerosis
- Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD)
1. Alzheimer’s Disease
Alzheimer’s is a neurodegenerative, progressive brain disorder in which the death of brain cells causes memory loss, reduced thinking skills and subsequently, the ability to perform daily routine tasks. In some, its onset can be shown between the ages of 30 – 60, however, most people are not diagnosed with this form of dementia until they are 65.
Scientists observed that one of the prominent features in Alzheimer patients include the accumulation of amyloid plaques in the brain, neuronal cell death and impaired glucose metabolism [*].
While there is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s, there are several studies which have shown that a change in lifestyle and implementation of the ketogenic diet may work preventatively and reduce neurodegenerative symptoms in patients who have already experienced an onset of Alzheimer’s by improving motor functions [*],[*]. Also, the state of ketosis is said to have a neuroprotective impact on aging brain cells and improvement of mitochondrial function [*].
2. Parkinson’s Disease
Parkinson’s is a degenerative disease of the central nervous system that is caused by a decrease in dopamine-producing nerve cells. Such cell death slowly begins affecting motor skills and movement. At the early stages of Parkinson’s, people may develop tremors in different body parts and as the disease progresses, they may begin to slur their speech, show absence of unconscious movements such as smiling, laughing, or even riding a bike. Parkinson’s manifests itself usually around the age of 60, however, potential signs may occur earlier.
While the cause of Parkinson’s is still unknown, several factors may affect a patient’s probability of developing this disease, including genetic factors and environmental triggers. Certain changes of those with this degenerative disease include the presence of Lewy bodies (clumps of different substances) which include a protein called alpha-synuclein.
Research shows that even while following an 8-week ketogenic diet, patients with Parkinson’s Disease showed a significant increase in both motor and non-motor skills [*]. Also, it has been found that the increase of ketones has neuroprotective qualities against the neurotoxic oxidopamine used in the development and testing of Parkinson’s Disease medication [*].
3. Type 1 Diabetes & Type 2 Diabetes
Type 1 Diabetes, also known as insulin-dependent diabetes or juvenile diabetes is a chronic, autoimmune condition in which your body mistakenly destroys the insulin-producing cells in your pancreas. Insulin is a hormone that allows your body to use or store glucose. In simple terms, insulin regulates your blood sugar so it does not go too high (hyperglycemia) or too low (hypoglycemia). People with type 2 diabetes have to inject insulin as needed.
On the other hand, Type 2 Diabetes is a milder form of type 1 diabetes and it is non-insulin dependent. Its onset usually begins later in life. Here, the pancreas produces some insulin, but not enough to feed the body or the cells are simply resistant to it. This is called insulin resistance – it happens when cells in your liver, muscles and body fat refuse to take glucose out of your blood and put it into your cells.
Research shows that patients who had type 1 diabetes and followed the ketogenic diet reduced their insulin doses and improved their glycemic control by lowering their HbA1c blood sugar levels by almost 10% [*]. Those who underwent the ketogenic diet with type 2 diabetes improved their glycemic control [*] and insulin resistance [*].
Did you know that the ketogenic diet has been used as an effective treatment for epilepsy since the 1920s? The general consensus states that when two or more epilepsy medications do not work, medical professionals turn to the ketogenic diet for a reduction in seizures and epileptic episodes.
Epilepsy is a neurological disease that causes recurrent epileptic seizures. The ketogenic diet is a proven way of eating that deems itself to be an alternative for pharmacoresistant patients, whether they are adults or children [*]. While the diet itself may not work for everyone, it is the best alternative to medication for myoclonic astatic epilepsy, Dravet syndrome, infantile spasms and tuberous sclerosis [*]. According to research, ketogenic diet reduces seizures by more than 50% in 22-70% of patients. Also, in half of the patients, seizures were reportedly reduced by 90% [*]. In another study, after the implementation of the ketogenic diet, 13% of subjects became seizure-free [*].
5. Glucose Transporter 1 Deficiency Disorder (GLUT1)
GLUT1 is a genetic disorder that affects the nervous system, and can have a variety of neurological symptoms such as epilepsy and frequent seizures in their first months of life, involuntary, rapid eye movements, microcephaly and developmental delays [*].
GLUT1 Deficiency Syndrome is a result of mutations in the SLC2A1 gene which directly affects the glucose transporter protein needed to carry glucose into and between cells, as well as across the blood-brain barrier [*]. Although there is no cure for GLUT1 Disorder, medical professionals recommend using the ketogenic diet as the standard protocol in order to alleviate neurological symptoms of GLUT1, reduce seizures and improve movement [*].
6. Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)
PCOS is a condition where a woman produces more male hormones, affecting women’s ovaries and the reproductive organs which produce estrogen and progesterone, as well, in smaller quantities, male hormones called androgens. An increase in androgens and a decrease in other hormones such as estrogen and progesterone cause irregular periods, decreased fertility, excessive hair growth on the face and body, and most importantly, small cysts in the ovaries.
Medical professionals are uncertain as to what causes PCOS. Many speculate that a combination of genetic predispositions, as well as insulin resistance seen in 60-80% of women combined with increase body inflammation may be the cause [*][*]. Researchers say that implementation of the ketogenic diet in patients with PCOS leads to an increase in sex-hormone binding globulin, decrease in androgen secretion and an improvement in insulin sensitivity which in turn balances endocrine functions [*].
7. Glycogen Storage Diseases (GSDs)
This group of diseases is characterized by rare, inherited disorders of glycogen metabolism [*]. Glycogen is commonly known as the stored sugar in our bodies, stored in our liver and muscles. If glucose is not readily available, your body will reach for glycogen in order to supply itself with energy. However, patients with GDSs are missing an enzyme that breaks down glycogen. If such an enzyme is missing, glycogen builds up in the liver and muscles causing liver issues such as cirrhosis, weakened muscles, hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), and heart problems.
8. Multiple Sclerosis (MS)
Multiple Sclerosis is a disease of the central nervous system where the immune system attacks myelin. Because myelin is the protective sheath covering nerve fibers, if destroyed, it begins to affect nerve communication between your brain and your body. Potential signs and symptoms of the disease vary: some experience numbness and weakness in the limbs, tremors, vision problems, slurred speech, dizziness and overall tingling throughout the body.
Patients with multiple sclerosis who were on the ketogenic diet were found to have an improvement in fatigue, depression and a reduction in serologic proinflammatory adipokines [*], as well as offering a therapeutic benefit for the neurodegenerative component of multiple sclerosis [*].
9. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
Autism is a complex neurobehavioral developmental disability characterized by challenges in social interactions, impairments in developmental language and nonverbal communication, combined with repetitive behaviors. Because the range of signs and symptoms is wide, it is now called the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Children with autism also have their unique strengths that easily set them apart from normally developing kids. Usually, the disorder is diagnosed around the age of two, however, some children show signs of autism earlier, such as no verbal communication, seizures, sleep disturbances, anxiety, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) along with many other symptoms.
Several studies have shown that the ketogenic diet benefits those who fall within the autism spectrum. Researchers have found that a three-month gluten-free, ketogenic diet supplemented with MCT oil in children ages 2 to 17 showed a significant improvement in imitative behaviors body use and fear or nervousness [*], as well as improved sleep, sensory disturbances and anxiety [*].
Cancer is a group of diseases that involve abnormal cell growth and have the potential to invade other cells and organs throughout the body. Currently, about 5% of the world’s population have cancer, with breast cancer, prostate and colon cancer occurring most often [*]. Did you know that glucose is the main energy that feeds cancer? Therefore, it has been found that when there is no available source of glucose, your body will begin to make ketone bodies in your liver, which essentially “feed” normal cells with energy, but do not benefit cancer cells in any way [*].
Other research shows that chemotherapy combined with the ketogenic diet can improve the body composition, biochemical parameters and overall survival in patients with breast cancer [*]. Also, it has been discovered that the ketogenic diet deems itself promising in creating an unfavorable metabolic environment for cancer cells [*].
11. Traumatic Brain Injury
Traumatic brain injury occurs due to an external force injuring the brain which causes damage to the brain tissue. This can be due to car accidents, motorcycle accidents, sports injuries, falls and assaults. Injuries can be measured from mild to severe, with the latter even causing permanent brain damage.
The effects of brain injuries include swelling of the brain, altered neuron function, insulin resistance, dementia, trouble sleeping, cognitive impairment and mood swings. Oftentimes, glucose metabolism is impaired after brain trauma. Studies show that a combination of both endogenous and exogenous ketones show promising results by providing an alternative source of energy for the brain, thus improving recovery [*].
12. Metabolic Syndrome
Metabolic syndrome characterizes itself by a cluster of conditions occurring together. These conditions include high blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol. While metabolic syndrome often does not have significant symptoms, a visible sign includes abdominal obesity, as well as other signs such as increased urination, lethargy and blurred vision. Together, these contribute to an increased probability in stroke, heart disease and type 2 diabetes. A staggering statistic shows that about 20-25% of the adult world population have metabolic syndrome [*].
Research shows that nutritional ketosis improves metabolic and inflammatory markers, including lipids, insulin and glucose levels, as well as weight loss [*]. It has also been confirmed that diets with restricted carbohydrates have a better impact on metabolic disorders in comparison to low-fat or low-glycemic diets [*].
13. Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD)
This disease is characterized by excessive fat build-up in the liver, not caused by alcohol. If untreated it may progress into hepatic cirrhosis, and eventually liver failure – similar to the damage seen in alcoholic patients. While there is usually no symptoms and signs of the disease, some of them include fatigue as well as pain and swelling in the right side of the abdomen. Jaundice (yellowing of the skin) and visibly enlarged blood vessels are also common.
Researchers found that a low-carbohydrate, ketogenic diet on patients with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease improved lipid retention, reduced inflammation and fibrosis. Also, there was a significant anatomical improvement of the liver, as well as patient’s weight loss [*].
Currently, about 15% of the world’s population suffer from neurological, chronic headaches, also known as migraines [*]. They are characterized by recurring headaches which may be mild to severe. The range of symptoms for chronic migraines is broad, ranging from nausea, votoming as well as sensitivity to light, smell and sounds, diminishing their quality of life.
Currently, patients use over-the-counter medications to reduce pain and alleviate some symptoms of the chronic illness, however, there is no specific cure available. Medical research found that implementation of the ketogenic diet significantly decreased headaches between the third and the sixth month in ketosis, possibly due to the ketogenic diet’s ability reduce neural inflammation and boost mitochondrial energy metabolism [*].
Obesity is a complex medical condition involving excessive body fat that may be linked to underlying health problems. Obesity is defined as “a chronic, relapsing, multifactorial, neurobehavioral disease, wherein an increase in body fat promotes adipose tissue dysfunction and abnormal fat mass physical forces, resulting in adverse metabolic, biomechanical, and psychosocial health consequences” [*]. It is also important to note that in the past forty years, worldwide obesity nearly tripled and it is estimated that 39% of people over the age of 18 is overweight, in which 650 million adults are considered obese [*].
According to research, obese patients who are on a ketogenic diet, in comparison to another group on a low-fat diet, lost on average three times more weight in six months [*]. Weight loss was not the only benefit of the diet – patients showed a decrease in the level of triglycerides, LDL cholesterol and blood glucose, while at the same time increasing levels of HDL cholesterol, also known as the “good cholesterol” [*].