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.
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The ketogenic diet is not a benign, holistic, or natural treatment for epilepsy; as with any serious medical therapy, complications may result. These are generally less severe and less frequent than with anticonvulsant medication or surgery. Common but easily treatable short-term side effects include constipation, low-grade acidosis, and hypoglycaemia if an initial fast is undertaken. Raised levels of lipids in the blood affect up to 60% of children and cholesterol levels may increase by around 30%. This can be treated by changes to the fat content of the diet, such as from saturated fats towards polyunsaturated fats, and if persistent, by lowering the ketogenic ratio. Supplements are necessary to counter the dietary deficiency of many micronutrients.
Low carb, high fat diets have been used for centuries by doctors when working with obese patients. William Banting published the widely popular booklet titled ‘Letter on Corpulence Addressed to the Public’ in 1863. In this booklet he explained how he had slimmed down by eating a diet high in fat void of carbs. The Banting diet was used for decades by individuals looking to lose weight.
Around this time, Bernarr Macfadden, an American exponent of physical culture, popularised the use of fasting to restore health. His disciple, the osteopathic physician Dr. Hugh William Conklin of Battle Creek, Michigan, began to treat his epilepsy patients by recommending fasting. Conklin conjectured that epileptic seizures were caused when a toxin, secreted from the Peyer's patches in the intestines, was discharged into the bloodstream. He recommended a fast lasting 18 to 25 days to allow this toxin to dissipate. Conklin probably treated hundreds of epilepsy patients with his "water diet" and boasted of a 90% cure rate in children, falling to 50% in adults. Later analysis of Conklin's case records showed 20% of his patients achieved freedom from seizures and 50% had some improvement.
Keto is often suggested for children who suffer from certain disorders (like Lennox-Gastaut syndrome or Rett syndrome) and don’t respond to seizure medication, according to the Epilepsy Foundation. (1) They note that keto can decrease the number of seizures these children have by half, with 10 to 15 percent becoming seizure-free. In other cases, it may also help patients reduce the dose of their medication.
The first modern study of fasting as a treatment for epilepsy was in France in 1911. Twenty epilepsy patients of all ages were "detoxified" by consuming a low-calorie vegetarian diet, combined with periods of fasting and purging. Two benefited enormously, but most failed to maintain compliance with the imposed restrictions. The diet improved the patients' mental capabilities, in contrast to their medication, potassium bromide, which dulled the mind.
There are three instances where there’s research to back up a ketogenic diet, including to help control type 2 diabetes, as part of epilepsy treatment, or for weight loss, says Mattinson. “In terms of diabetes, there is some promising research showing that the ketogenic diet may improve glycemic control. It may cause a reduction in A1C — a key test for diabetes that measures a person’s average blood sugar control over two to three months — something that may help you reduce medication use,” she says.
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“Combining a super restrictive diet with long periods of non-eating is not good,” says Keatley. “The body will cannibalize its own muscle for energy if intake from food is too low but the body does not differentiate between something like a calf muscle or a heart muscle. Keep in mind all your important organs are made of smooth muscle and going on a diet like this may harm something like your bladder or lungs just as much as provide fat loss.”
On the ketogenic diet, carbohydrates are restricted and so cannot provide for all the metabolic needs of the body. Instead, fatty acids are used as the major source of fuel. These are used through fatty-acid oxidation in the cell's mitochondria (the energy-producing parts of the cell). Humans can convert some amino acids into glucose by a process called gluconeogenesis, but cannot do this by using fatty acids. Since amino acids are needed to make proteins, which are essential for growth and repair of body tissues, these cannot be used only to produce glucose. This could pose a problem for the brain, since it is normally fuelled solely by glucose, and most fatty acids do not cross the blood–brain barrier. However, the liver can use long-chain fatty acids to synthesise the three ketone bodies β-hydroxybutyrate, acetoacetate and acetone. These ketone bodies enter the brain and partially substitute for blood glucose as a source of energy.
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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.
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.
Infants and patients fed via a gastrostomy tube can also be given a ketogenic diet. Parents make up a prescribed powdered formula, such as KetoCal, into a liquid feed. Gastrostomy feeding avoids any issues with palatability, and bottle-fed infants readily accept the ketogenic formula. Some studies have found this liquid feed to be more efficacious and associated with lower total cholesterol than a solid ketogenic diet. KetoCal is a nutritionally complete food containing milk protein and is supplemented with amino acids, fat, carbohydrate, vitamins, minerals and trace elements. It is used to administer the 4:1 ratio classic ketogenic diet in children over one year. The formula is available in both 3:1 and 4:1 ratios, either unflavoured or in an artificially sweetened vanilla flavour and is suitable for tube or oral feeding. Other formula products include KetoVolve and Ketonia. Alternatively, a liquid ketogenic diet may be produced by combining Ross Carbohydrate Free soy formula with Microlipid and Polycose.
Another difference between older and newer studies is that the type of patients treated with the ketogenic diet has changed over time. When first developed and used, the ketogenic diet was not a treatment of last resort; in contrast, the children in modern studies have already tried and failed a number of anticonvulsant drugs, so may be assumed to have more difficult-to-treat epilepsy. Early and modern studies also differ because the treatment protocol has changed. In older protocols, the diet was initiated with a prolonged fast, designed to lose 5–10% body weight, and heavily restricted the calorie intake. Concerns over child health and growth led to a relaxation of the diet's restrictions. Fluid restriction was once a feature of the diet, but this led to increased risk of constipation and kidney stones, and is no longer considered beneficial.
It usually takes three to four days for your body to go into ketosis because you have to use up your body's stores of glucose, i.e., sugar first, Keatley says. Any major diet change can give you some, uh, issues, and Keatley says he often sees patients who complain of IBS-like symptoms and feeling wiped out at the beginning of the diet. (The tiredness happens because you have less access to carbs, which give you quick energy, he explains.)