Physicians of ancient Greece treated diseases, including epilepsy, by altering their patients' diet. An early treatise in the Hippocratic Corpus, On the Sacred Disease, covers the disease; it dates from c. 400 BC. Its author argued against the prevailing view that epilepsy was supernatural in origin and cure, and proposed that dietary therapy had a rational and physical basis.[Note 3] In the same collection, the author of Epidemics describes the case of a man whose epilepsy is cured as quickly as it had appeared, through complete abstinence of food and drink.[Note 4] The royal physician Erasistratus declared, "One inclining to epilepsy should be made to fast without mercy and be put on short rations."[Note 5] Galen believed an "attenuating diet"[Note 6] might afford a cure in mild cases and be helpful in others.
In the 1960s, medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) were found to produce more ketone bodies per unit of energy than normal dietary fats (which are mostly long-chain triglycerides). MCTs are more efficiently absorbed and are rapidly transported to the liver via the hepatic portal system rather than the lymphatic system. The severe carbohydrate restrictions of the classic ketogenic diet made it difficult for parents to produce palatable meals that their children would tolerate. In 1971, Peter Huttenlocher devised a ketogenic diet where about 60% of the calories came from the MCT oil, and this allowed more protein and up to three times as much carbohydrate as the classic ketogenic diet. The oil was mixed with at least twice its volume of skimmed milk, chilled, and sipped during the meal or incorporated into food. He tested it on 12 children and adolescents with intractable seizures. Most children improved in both seizure control and alertness, results that were similar to the classic ketogenic diet. Gastrointestinal upset was a problem, which led one patient to abandon the diet, but meals were easier to prepare and better accepted by the children. The MCT diet replaced the classic ketogenic diet in many hospitals, though some devised diets that were a combination of the two.
The ketogenic diet is indicated as an adjunctive (additional) treatment in children and young people with drug-resistant epilepsy. It is approved by national clinical guidelines in Scotland, England, and Wales and reimbursed by nearly all US insurance companies. Children with a focal lesion (a single point of brain abnormality causing the epilepsy) who would make suitable candidates for surgery are more likely to become seizure-free with surgery than with the ketogenic diet. About a third of epilepsy centres that offer the ketogenic diet also offer a dietary therapy to adults. Some clinicians consider the two less restrictive dietary variants—the low glycaemic index treatment and the modified Atkins diet—to be more appropriate for adolescents and adults. A liquid form of the ketogenic diet is particularly easy to prepare for, and well tolerated by, infants on formula and children who are tube-fed.
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Ketosis has been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties while also assisting with pain relief. Reducing glucose metabolism influences pain, so this could be one potential mechanism of action. In the review The Nervous System and Metabolic Dysregulation: Emerging Evidence Converges on Ketogenic Diet Therapy the authors look at numerous ways that a ketogenic diet can assist with pain and inflammation.
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Because some cancer cells are inefficient in processing ketone bodies for energy, the ketogenic diet has also been suggested as a treatment for cancer. A 2018 review looked at the evidence from preclinical and clinical studies of ketogenic diets in cancer therapy. The clinical studies in humans are typically very small, with some providing weak evidence for anti-tumour effect, particularly for glioblastoma, but in other cancers and studies, no anti-tumour effect was seen. Taken together, results from preclinical studies, albeit sometimes contradictory, tend to support an anti-tumor effect rather than a pro-tumor effect of the KD for most solid cancers.
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First reported in 2003, the idea of using a form of the Atkins diet to treat epilepsy came about after parents and patients discovered that the induction phase of the Atkins diet controlled seizures. The ketogenic diet team at Johns Hopkins Hospital modified the Atkins diet by removing the aim of achieving weight loss, extending the induction phase indefinitely, and specifically encouraging fat consumption. Compared with the ketogenic diet, the modified Atkins diet (MAD) places no limit on calories or protein, and the lower overall ketogenic ratio (about 1:1) does not need to be consistently maintained by all meals of the day. The MAD does not begin with a fast or with a stay in hospital and requires less dietitian support than the ketogenic diet. Carbohydrates are initially limited to 10 g per day in children or 20 g per day in adults, and are increased to 20–30 g per day after a month or so, depending on the effect on seizure control or tolerance of the restrictions. Like the ketogenic diet, the MAD requires vitamin and mineral supplements and children are carefully and periodically monitored at outpatient clinics.
To be on the safe side, be sure to discuss with your doctor whether the keto diet is right for you before you drastically change your eating habits. While the diet has roots in medicine, its widespread use is still new, and not every doctor understands the keto diet. For more information, you can look to national programs that are gaining steam. Two examples: Virta Health, where they are studying the diet’s role in prediabetes and type 2 diabetes treatment, and the Cleveland Clinic’s Functional Ketogenics Program.
There’s also some evidence that it might help with type 2 diabetes. “An emerging body of research is finding that a keto plan may have some real benefits thanks to its ability to improve the body’s ability to use insulin and also help control appetite, which can result in easier weight loss,” says Karen Ansel, R.D.N., co-author of Healthy in a Hurry.
The keto diet may also be beneficial for adults with epilepsy, though the Epilepsy Foundation notes that it’s less frequently recommended for this group because it is so restrictive and difficult to stick with. (1) One study, published in May 2016 in the journal Epilepsy & Behavior, found the diet reduced the frequency of seizures for many study participants, 7 percent of whom were seizure-free at the four-year mark. (2) And though it wasn’t the goal for this study, nearly 20 percent of the participants lost weight while following the diet.
For patients who benefit, half achieve a seizure reduction within five days (if the diet starts with an initial fast of one to two days), three-quarters achieve a reduction within two weeks, and 90% achieve a reduction within 23 days. If the diet does not begin with a fast, the time for half of the patients to achieve an improvement is longer (two weeks), but the long-term seizure reduction rates are unaffected. Parents are encouraged to persist with the diet for at least three months before any final consideration is made regarding efficacy.
Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) Because women with the infertility condition PCOS are at a greater risk for diabetes and obesity, some clinicians recommend the keto diet, says Taylor Moree, RD, LD, of Balance Fitness and Nutrition in Atlanta. But PCOS is no different from most health conditions mentioned here: Long-term research on the safety is needed.
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The day before admission to hospital, the proportion of carbohydrate in the diet may be decreased and the patient begins fasting after his or her evening meal. On admission, only calorie- and caffeine-free fluids are allowed until dinner, which consists of "eggnog"[Note 8] restricted to one-third of the typical calories for a meal. The following breakfast and lunch are similar, and on the second day, the "eggnog" dinner is increased to two-thirds of a typical meal's caloric content. By the third day, dinner contains the full calorie quota and is a standard ketogenic meal (not "eggnog"). After a ketogenic breakfast on the fourth day, the patient is discharged. Where possible, the patient's current medicines are changed to carbohydrate-free formulations.
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When you eat less than 50 grams of carbs a day, your body eventually runs out of fuel (blood sugar) it can use quickly. This typically takes 3 to 4 days. Then you’ll start to break down protein and fat for energy, which can make you lose weight. This is called ketosis. It's important to note that the ketogenic diet is a short term diet that's focussed on weight loss rather than the pursuit of health benefits.
When in the hospital, glucose levels are checked several times daily and the patient is monitored for signs of symptomatic ketosis (which can be treated with a small quantity of orange juice). Lack of energy and lethargy are common, but disappear within two weeks. The parents attend classes over the first three full days, which cover nutrition, managing the diet, preparing meals, avoiding sugar, and handling illness. The level of parental education and commitment required is higher than with medication.
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The low glycemic index treatment (LGIT) is an attempt to achieve the stable blood glucose levels seen in children on the classic ketogenic diet while using a much less restrictive regimen. The hypothesis is that stable blood glucose may be one of the mechanisms of action involved in the ketogenic diet, which occurs because the absorption of the limited carbohydrates is slowed by the high fat content. Although it is also a high-fat diet (with approximately 60% calories from fat), the LGIT allows more carbohydrate than either the classic ketogenic diet or the modified Atkins diet, approximately 40–60 g per day. However, the types of carbohydrates consumed are restricted to those that have a glycaemic index lower than 50. Like the modified Atkins diet, the LGIT is initiated and maintained at outpatient clinics and does not require precise weighing of food or intensive dietitian support. Both are offered at most centres that run ketogenic diet programmes, and in some centres they are often the primary dietary therapy for adolescents.
Metabolic Syndrome Limited research, including a study published in November 2017 in the journal Diabetes & Metabolic Syndrome: Clinical Research & Reviews, has suggested that adults with metabolic disease following keto shed more weight and body fat compared with those on a standard American diet, which is heavy in processed food and added sugars. (6)
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“You are literally starving” on an intermittent fasting diet, Keatley says. “Methods such as this are attractive as weight loss can go from one pound a week to four pounds, but this is mostly lean muscle which is essential to healthy functioning as you age and is very hard to get back once it is gone,” he adds. So…it’s not really recommended that you try this unless you hash it out with your doctor or nutritionist to make sure it's a fit for you and your lifestyle.
There are theoretically no restrictions on where the ketogenic diet might be used, and it can cost less than modern anticonvulsants. However, fasting and dietary changes are affected by religious and cultural issues. A culture where food is often prepared by grandparents or hired help means more people must be educated about the diet. When families dine together, sharing the same meal, it can be difficult to separate the child's meal. In many countries, food labelling is not mandatory so calculating the proportions of fat, protein and carbohydrate is difficult. In some countries, it may be hard to find sugar-free forms of medicines and supplements, to purchase an accurate electronic scale, or to afford MCT oils.
Keto breath, on the other hand, is less of a side-effect and more of a harmless inconvenience (your breath literally smells like nail polish remover). Basically, when your body breaks down all that extra fat on the keto diet, it produces ketones—one of which is the chemical acetone, Keatley previously told WH. (Yes, the same stuff that's in nail polish remover.)
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When your body burns its stores of fat, it can be hard on your kidneys. And starting a ketogenic diet -- or going back to a normal diet afterward -- can be tricky if you’re obese because of other health issues you’re likely to have, like diabetes, a heart condition, or high blood pressure. If you have any of these conditions, make diet changes slowly and only with the guidance of your doctor.
The classic ketogenic diet is not a balanced diet and only contains tiny portions of fresh fruit and vegetables, fortified cereals, and calcium-rich foods. In particular, the B vitamins, calcium, and vitamin D must be artificially supplemented. This is achieved by taking two sugar-free supplements designed for the patient's age: a multivitamin with minerals and calcium with vitamin D. A typical day of food for a child on a 4:1 ratio, 1,500 kcal (6,300 kJ) ketogenic diet comprises three small meals and three small snacks:
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People claiming huge benefits of these supplements – despite the lack of solid scientific support – may sometimes have a financial reason to believe in the supplements. Some of these products are sold under a multi-level marketing arrangement, where sales people are paid based on commission. For example, the company Prüvit sells drinkable ketones, called KETO//OS with a multi-level marketing structure.
When you approach your normal body weight, the weight loss will slow. Just remember, a “normal” body weight differs from person to person depending on our genetics and environmental exposures and may not fit what we see in the popular media. The weight loss won’t go on forever. As long as you follow the advice to eat when you are hungry, you will eventually stabilize your weight.
Although many hypotheses have been put forward to explain how the ketogenic diet works, it remains a mystery. Disproven hypotheses include systemic acidosis (high levels of acid in the blood), electrolyte changes and hypoglycaemia (low blood glucose). Although many biochemical changes are known to occur in the brain of a patient on the ketogenic diet, it is not known which of these has an anticonvulsant effect. The lack of understanding in this area is similar to the situation with many anticonvulsant drugs.
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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.
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Children who discontinue the diet after achieving seizure freedom have about a 20% risk of seizures returning. The length of time until recurrence is highly variable, but averages two years. This risk of recurrence compares with 10% for resective surgery (where part of the brain is removed) and 30–50% for anticonvulsant therapy. Of those who have a recurrence, just over half can regain freedom from seizures either with anticonvulsants or by returning to the ketogenic diet. Recurrence is more likely if, despite seizure freedom, an electroencephalogram shows epileptiform spikes, which indicate epileptic activity in the brain but are below the level that will cause a seizure. Recurrence is also likely if an MRI scan shows focal abnormalities (for example, as in children with tuberous sclerosis). Such children may remain on the diet longer than average, and children with tuberous sclerosis who achieve seizure freedom could remain on the ketogenic diet indefinitely.
Here’s what we do know: The keto diet may be useful in treating symptoms of epilepsy, a seizure disorder. “The use of keto in treating epilepsy has the most evidence,” Angelone says. One study conducted by Johns Hopkins Medicine, for example, followed epileptic patients on the keto diet and found that 36 percent of them had a 50 percent reduction in seizures after three months on the diet, and 16 percent were seizure-free. However, experts aren't entirely sure why the keto diet has this affect, she adds.
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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.
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On a ketogenic diet, your entire body switches its fuel supply to run mostly on fat, burning fat 24-7. When insulin levels become very low, fat burning can increase dramatically. It becomes easier to access your fat stores to burn them off. This is great if you’re trying to lose weight, but there are also other less obvious benefits, such as less hunger and a steady supply of energy. This may help keep you alert and focused.
Those issues can be part of what's known as the “keto flu,” Warren says. Other side effects of the keto diet, all of which are tied to carb withdrawal, can include lightheadedness, nausea, mental fog, cramps, and headaches, in addition to tiredness. Luckily, the keto flu doesn't usually last more than a week—which is coincidentally about when people start to see the number on the scale go down, says Warren.