If you have already mastered the Very Low Carbohydrate (VLC) or ketogenic way of eating, and/or are eating at a caloric deficit, exercising or fasting you are naturally creating the optimal conditions for your body to produce ketones and put your body into nutritional ketosis. By strict adherence to a well-formulated ketogenic diet (complete with higher levels of mineral salts) you should be able to produce all the ketones you need naturally (endogenously). If you are new or inexperienced in ketogenic eating however; or if you or a family member struggles to adhere to a ketogenic diet, then supplementation with exogenous ketones may be very beneficial. Not only will ketone supplements help to mitigate hunger and carb cravings, but they will also help you stave off carb flu symptoms (see below), giving you the best possible chance of long-term success.
The major determinant of whether the liver will produce ketone bodies is the amount of liver glycogen present (8). The primary role of liver glycogen is to maintain normal blood glucose levels. When dietary carbohydrates are removed from the diet and blood glucose falls, glucagon signals the liver to break down its glycogen stores to glucose which is released into the bloodstream. After approximately 12-16 hours, depending on activity, liver glycogen is almost completely depleted. At this time, ketogenesis increases rapidly. In fact, after liver glycogen is depleted, the availability of FFA will determine the rate of ketone production. (12)
The culprit is often restaurant meals or other meals where the nutrition facts are not available with the food itself. Such “ignorance is bliss” situations allow us to avoid dealing with daunting numbers. Many people don’t hesitate to stop and enjoy a meal at a restaurant, but they freak out when they actually see the numbers on a label. By now, we all know that opting for fatty meat with a side of veggies cooked in butter isn’t that bad after all. It turns out that what you thought to be the safe, “healthy,” doctor-approved choice might not always be what you think it is.
Recently, two published studies investigated the effects of ketone salts in athletes (total n = 22).8,9 Performance over a four-minute cycling time-trial and a 150 kJ ( ~11 mins) cycling time trial were compared between ketone salts vs. carbohydrate. In the four-minute trial there was no change in performance, and in the 150 kJ test, performance decreased by 7%. Blood BHB levels peaked at 0.6 and 0.8 mM in these studies.
Electrolyte Imbalance – The physiological reasoning behind electrolytes becoming depleted during a state of ketosis is due to lack of water retention and frequent urination. When supplementing with exogenous ketones, the acute state of ketosis will likely increase the frequency of urination, but it won’t deplete glycogen stores. Therefore, it may be useful to drink an electrolyte solution if you are urinating a lot after taking exogenous ketones, but it’s dependent upon how you feel.
One common concern regarding the KD is its purported potential to increase the risk of atherosclerosis by elevating blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels [55, 56]. This topic remains controversial as some, but not all, studies have demonstrated that the KD elevates blood levels of cholesterol and triglycerides [57–62]. Kwitervich and colleagues demonstrated an increase in low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and a decrease in high-density lipoprotein (HDL) in epileptic children fed the classical KD for two years . In this study, total cholesterol increased by ~130 %, and stabilized at the elevated level over the 2-year period. A similar study demonstrated that the lipid profile returned to baseline in children who remained on the KD for six years . Children typically remain on the diet for approximately two years then return to a diet of common fat and carbohydrate ingestion . The implications of these findings are unclear, since the influence of cholesterol on cardiovascular health is controversial and macronutrient sources of the diet vary per study. In contrast to these studies, the majority of recent studies have suggested that the KD can actually lead to significant benefits in biomarkers of metabolic health, including blood lipid profiles [65–72]. In these studies, the KD positively altered blood lipids, decreasing total triglycerides and cholesterol while increasing the ratio of HDL to LDL [68–77]. Although, the KD is well-established in children, it has only recently been utilized as a strategy to control seizures in adults. In 2014, Schoeler and colleagues reported on the feasibility of the KD for adults, concluding that 39 % of individuals achieved > 50 % reduction in seizure frequency, similar to the results reported in pediatric studies. Patients experienced similar gastrointestinal adverse advents that have been previously described in pediatric patients, but they did not lead to discontinuation of the diet in any patient .
Personally, I do this on Friday night to Saturday night, so if something happens and my hunger hasn't crashed by Sunday morning, I have another day that I can go zero carb to keep the momentum going. While the body will trigger ketosis as soon as you run out of glycogen, hunger is attached to your triglyceride and insulin levels, which might take an extra day to normalize.
Interestingly, the effects of exogenous ketones on blood substrate concentrations were preserved with the metabolic stimulus of a mixed meal. Following KE drinks, FFA and glucose fell and remained low in both fed and fasted subjects, despite higher insulin throughout the fed arm, suggesting that there was no synergistic effect of insulin and βHB to further lower blood glucose or FFA. In agreement with previous work, the threshold for the effects of βHB on glucose and lipids appears to be low (<1 mM), as there was no significant dose-response relationship between increasing blood βHB and the small changes in plasma FFA, TG or glucose across all of the study drinks (Mikkelsen et al., 2015).
More tolerable than MCT oil: MCT oil has been known to cause gastrointestinal distress in users, especially when taken in higher amounts. Exogenous ketones in the form of ketone salts, in comparison, are well-tolerated. Thus they enable one to avoid adverse GI events while providing the body with similar types of benefits. Figure 2 shows Ketone esters can be effective at reducing appetite. A combination of MCT oil and exogenous ketones may aid weight loss and allow a lower loading of ketone supplements, without the GI distress seen with MCT oil.
I wrote this post at about the same time Germany won the World Cup in Rio de Janeiro in 2014. There’s been a lot of moving and shaking in the world of exogenous ketones since then, not to mention soccer. Looking back on my post, I still consider it relevant in terms of what exogenous ketones possibly can (and cannot) do for performance. In this case, to see if exogenous ketone esters provide me a “boost” by allowing me to do the same amount of work while expending less energy (and work at a relatively lower VO2) compared to no supplementation.
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