Ketosis is a word which you may have seen recently in print and online media, usually in material about a very low carbohydrate diet in which most calories come from fat and protein. One recent headline alluded to a plan by the Pentagon to increase military fitness by imposing the “keto diet” on some of its soldiers. But you might also have the impression that there is some controversy around the diet, and that ketosis, whatever it is, might not be good for you. After all, it is very similar to that word ketoacidosis which is associated with poorly controlled diabetes, the problem that put your friend’s daughter in the hospital ICU for a week. In fact, both ketosis and ketoacidosis refer to physiologic body states that occur when come chemicals called ketones are produced from normal metabolic processes that produce energy from the body’s own fat. The circumstances surrounding ketone production determine whether ketones cause ketoacidosis (bad) or ketosis (not so bad but maybe not so good over a long period of time).
How your body produces energy
Most of the time you are utilizing at least some fat to create energy and producing ketones in small amounts as the fats are metabolized. At the same time, the bulk of your energy is derived from the carbohydrates you eat, all of which, even the “healthy” grains, vegetables and fruits, become a simple sugar called glucose in the process of digestion. That is correct – for the most part, you burn sugar to produce energy. Under normal circumstances, with sufficient food and regular eating schedules, some glucose is burned immediately by all parts of the body for energy production. Any remaining glucose gets shuttled off to the liver and muscles to be clumped into long chains called glycogen and stored for use between meals. These reserves last for about 24 hours at which point your metabolism switches over to fat burning, and to breaking down a little protein, mainly from muscle, to supply the liver with building blocks for making more glucose.
The brain has special needs
At this point, you must eat again or rely on free fatty acids from the triglycerides stored in your body fat. The brain, however cannot burn free fatty acids. But it can burn some of the ketones, called ketone bodies, that come from the breakdown of triglycerides. By about three days of starvation, the brain is a ketone burning organ, supplemented by a little glucose constructed in the liver from amino acids given up by proteins. The body is in a state of ketosis, with excess ketones exhaled, giving the breath a fruity odor, and released in the urine, turning a dipstick stick test positive.
Acidity makes the difference
Ketosis is not ketoacidosis. Ketoacidosis appears when the acidity rises in all the body’s tissues while it is in a state of ketosis. Acidity is measured as pH, and a fall in the body’s pH signals rising acidity. Outside a narrow range of pH, the body’s metabolic workings begin to fail. Rising acidity produces symptoms like rapid breathing, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, low blood pressure, mental impairment, lethargy, heart arrhythmias and ultimately, if uncorrected, death. In otherwise healthy people, diets that promote ketosis by restricting carbohydrates do not appreciably change the body’s pH, despite the acid nature of ketones and other breakdown products of triglycerides. What keeps severe acidity and its dire consequences at bay? In short, insulin, the central hormone of metabolism.
Insulin keeps the brakes on fat burning
Insulin is secreted by the pancreas in response to eating carbohydrates. In fact insulin is such a reponsive hormone that a burst appears from the pancreas in response to anything sweet in the mouth (the so called cephalic insulin response that prepares the gut to receive expected incoming carbohydrate, even when the sweetness is artificial and no carbs arrive in the stomach). In addition to its role escorting glucose into cells for energy production, insulin keeps the brakes on fat burning. When insulin circulates at normal or high levels in response to carbohydrate ingestion, triglycerides remain locked in fat cells, unavailable for energy production. As night falls and eating ceases, the liver and muscles break down their glycogen to glucose to keep the supply up. When this supply dwindles, insulin levels fall, unleashing fat burning. Free fatty acids and ketones appear in the blood, but in a controlled manner, unless insulin disappears altogether. Then the brakes come off fat burning, fatty acids and ketones flood the system, and their acidity begins to drop the body’s pH.
Ketoacidosis comes from insulin’s diappearance in type 1 diabetes
Type 1 diabetics are the most at risk for ketoacidosis because immune attacks against the insulin producing cells in their pancreases severely diminish or obliterate insulin production. Their blood sugar levels rise because sugar cannot get into cells. Fat burning comes to the rescue for energy production, and, with little or no interference from insulin, free fatty acids and ketones pour out into the blood. In new Type 1 diabetics, before treatment with insulin, major weight loss is very common – as is presentation to an emergency room in a state of profound ketoacidosis, requiring intensive medical care. Once patients are stabilized, urinary ketones are a useful guide for adjusting insulin dose– their appearance means more insulin is needed.
Type 2 diabetes is a different problem
Type 2 diabetics have a different problem, called insulin resistance. Their cells do not allow insulin to bring glucose in from the blood. In an attempt to compensate, their pancreases make more insulin. Blood glucose levels rise, but at the same time high levels of insulin block fat breakdown, preventing the release of large amounts of potentially acidifying fuels, and diminishing the risk of ketoacidosis. But if a crisis such as trauma, infection, or surgery occurs, sugar levels can rise to extraordinary levels in Type 2 diabetics, causing huge amounts of water to be lost in urination as the body passes the sugar out through the kidneys. Severe dehydration and electrolyte abnormalities make this condition, called hyperosmolar hyperglycemia, a crisis requiring intensive care, even without acidosis. When insulin production begins to fail in Type 2 diabetics, ketoacidosis does occur and type 2 diabetics account for 20-30% of ketoacidosis cases in hospitals. One class of Type 2 diabetes drugs, the SGLT2 inhibitors known as gliflozins, has been reported to trigger ketoacidosis.
The caveat about ketosis as a dietary strategy
There is some concern, from epidemiological research, that when a very low carbohydrate diet is continued over the long term, chronic ketosis may trigger insulin resistance, the underlying problem in type 2 diabetes. Insulin resistance is not well understood, but it is associated with a cascade of health problems associated with metabolic problems. If chronic ketosis does somehow trigger insulin resistance, the enthusiasm for deliberately inducing ketosis to lose weight and improve fitness will wane. The word ketosis will fade back into the scientific world.