Exogenous Ketones: Do You Need Them To Start Your Ketogenic Diet?
Have you heard of ketosis? If not, you’re not alone. Ten years ago, you would have been hard-pressed to find even a general practitioner who knew anything at all about the ketogenic diet. Today, it’s grown into one of the most popular buzzwords among health advocates. The benefits are too darn good to pass up, so get on board! By the time you make your way through this blog, you’ll be a card-carrying expert on the topic.
What Is Ketosis?
First, let me say this. People walk around with a ton of health-related misunderstanding and mistaken assumptions in their minds, many of which are wrong, backwards, and even downright harmful. One of the top myths is that our body operates solely on glucose (sugar). It’s not so much a lie as an unfortunate half-truth.
Yes, your body uses glucose as a fuel source; more important is the fact that it can also function on something called ketones or fat bodies. These are metabolic compounds broken down from fat and utilized for energy by our mitochondria (our cellular power plants).
Fat: Biological High-Octane Fuel
Not only can your body operate using ketones, but they happen to be a far more efficient fuel source than glucose. One mole of glucose produces 36 ATP, whereas one mole of fat produces 147 ATP through beta oxidation. For a useful illustration, think of a fireplace. Ketones represent a hearty log, capable of burning well through the night; glucose is more like kindling or lighter fluid. Ketone bodies, especially BHB (beta hydroxybutyrate), provide more energy per unit of oxygen as well as being more bioavailable.
Your body utilizes three different types of ketones. Acetoacetate, beta-hydroxybutyrate (BHB), and acetone. BHB is the active form that can flow freely in the blood. This bioavailability allows BHB to be absorbed by your cellular tissue. Simply put, the more BHB you have flowing through your body, the more benefits there are to reap.
Traditionally, the only way to enter a state of ketosis was through dietary changes or prolonged fasting. Today, we have the modern miracle of exogenous ketones. These are compounds that are ingested externally and immediately raise blood ketones levels, independent of diet.
Under the umbrella of exogenous ketones, you’ll find 3 main categories: oils, ketone salts, and ketone esters. These nutritional supplements are composed of either raw BHB or close biological derivatives which are easily broken down into BHB by the body.
Salts vs. Esters
If you’re looking for the closest thing we have to biological rocket fuel, check out ketone esters. These compounds are synthetically created to contain raw ketones, normally BHB. It’s the most effective means to raise your ketone levels quickly and by enormous amounts.
The two largest drawbacks of ketone esters are their price and taste. The taste has been reported to be practically intolerable. Additionally, an extremely limited supply of ketone esters have been made available for commercial use, which has made access to them quite expensive. The good news is, considering the power behind esters, you can expect an eventual price drop.
Ketone salts are naturally-derived substances that bind salt to a ketone, thereby increasing absorption. Most commercial products offered through the market are ketone salts. While not as effective as ketone esters, they are cheaper and much more palatable, thereby increasing the odds they’ll actually be used.
Benefits of Exogenous Ketones
There are some health interventions too good to pass up. Adding exogenous ketones to your diet is, by all accounts, one such case. Depending on your baseline state of health and unique genetic profile, adopting a ketogenic diet can be life-changing.
In the 1950’s, the ketogenic diet was used as a highly effective treatment for individuals with uncontrollable epilepsy. One mechanism of action by which ketones ameliorate seizures is by naturally triggering an up-regulation of GABA, the primary neurotransmitter responsible for calming the mind. Even for those without epilepsy, ketosis is the very definition of a natural anxiolytic.
Improved Cognition and Neuroprotection
When the body has an elevated level of blood ketones, the brain directly utilizes these ketone bodies for creating phospholipids, which drives neurological growth and myelination. Myelin is critical for optimal brain function and mental health. In the absence of ketones, the compound used would be glucose, a far less efficient alternative.
Ketosis has profound neuroprotective effects. One study found that BHB protects neurons in cell culture models of Alzheimer’s as well as Parkinson’s. One possible mechanism of action is the fact that ketosis upregulates mitochondrial biogenesis in the brain. The more mitochondria you have, the better your biological system will function.
Athletic Enhancement: Protection and Energy
Ketones offer an alternative fuel, which is especially beneficial for aerobic exercise. When you use ketones instead of glucose to fuel aerobic exercise, the result is the preservation of muscle glycogen, effectively increasing the size of your biological gas tank. Using ketones and glycogen ensures you never run out of fuel.
Ketones don’t only upregulate mitochondrial biogenesis in the brain but in the rest of the body as well. This results in a general increase in energy. By creating a larger fuel reserve, ketones also prevent catabolism (protein breakdown). An average trained athlete has upwards of 2000 calories of muscle glycogen available. When those glycogen reserves are depleted, the body normally transitions into a catabolic state. The addition of exogenous ketones helps avert this deleterious metabolic state.
It normally takes days, sometimes weeks, before the body naturally enters a ketotic state. The most direct route usually means three days of water fasting. After three days, the body runs out of its glycogen stores and begins cleaving ketone bodies from stored fat then metabolizing them into BHB. Ingesting BHB (or any of its derivatives) results in instant ketosis.
For those interested in transitioning more gently into a ketogenic diet, exogenous ketones are also useful. Simply supplement your diet with these products for days or weeks before making the final transition. It takes the body time to adapt into a state where it can make best use of the ketones provided, and that process usually takes weeks. It’s just plain smart to trigger that change well in advance of completely changing your diet.
The normal American diet consists of 3-6 meals or snacks per day. The constant merry-go-round of food leads to sporadic jumps in blood sugar. The spikes are then followed by crashes, which leave you incredibly hungry. After entering a ketotic state, you’ll find that your blood sugar stabilizes and remains relatively consistent throughout the day, reducing hormonally based hunger pangs.
Ketosis is one of the fastest methods to lose weight. Whenever the body loses weight, a metabolic switch is flipped in response to the body’s fear that you are starving. That’s why most diets fail in the long term.
Ghrelin is responsible for hunger and normally is upregulated in the presence of a drop in blood sugar and general weight loss. Ketosis inhibits this upregulation of ghrelin, virtually eliminating your food cravings once you are fully fat-adapted.
Downsides to Exogenous Ketones
Price and Need
Exogenous ketones are almost entirely unnecessary for those already following a ketogenic diet. These folks are already limiting their consumption of carbohydrates and receiving most of their dietary calories from fat. They have already gotten the message. On the other hand, arguably, when going out to eat, it can be hard to find an entirely ketogenic meal. Exogenous ketones could be useful in restaurants: you can add your own stash of MCT oil to whatever it is your eating.
For those with the funds, buying exogenous ketones can be a great investment. It would be wonderful if they were simply offered freely, but for those of us living in real world, price is always a consideration. These products are expensive and generally unnecessary if you are willing to adopt a ketogenic diet. That said, the price of many of these products has been steadily decreasing. I imagine we’re all hoping that trend continues so we can add them to our diets without breaking the bank.
Whether you’re going whole hog and adopting a ketogenic diet or simply supplementing your existing diet with exogenous ketones, the potential health benefits of making this change are endless. Do you strictly need them for your keto diet? No. But if you want to get a jumpstart into – or back into – ketosis and have the cash on hand, exogenous ketones could be a great helper.