Ketosis describes a metabolic state when your body breaks down fat for energy. Burning fat leans out the body while preserving muscle mass.
But ketosis is good for a lot more than simply looks or sports performance. The same reason it leans you out (lower blood sugar) also makes it preventative of major diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and many cancers.
“Many chronic disease states can be improved or prevented by a well-formulated ketogenic diet,” says Dominic D’Agostino, PhD, an associate professor at the University of South Florida.
How do I get into ketosis?
There are several approaches for achieving ketosis.
Know Your Macros
Macros are short for macronutrients, which are the nutrients that your body uses for energy. Macros consist of fats, carbohydrates, and proteins. Macronutrients make up the calories we consume. One gram of fat contains 9 calories, while protein and carbohydrates each contain 4 calories per gram. In order to achieve nutritional ketosis through dieting, you’re required to be within a specific macronutrient range. In a standard ketogenic diet, the percent of macronutrient distribution is 75% fat, 20% protein, and 5% carbohydrates.
There are convenient online calculators where you can plug in variables like age, sex, height, and activity level to figure out how many daily calories you should consume. It’s important when starting a diet to remember that calculating this number will involve some experimentation and you can adjust as you go along.
Count Carbs and Replenish Electrolytes
Counting carbohydrates is one of the most important steps when initially starting a ketogenic or low carbohydrate diet. The reason for this is because it’s deceptively easy to consume more carbohydrates than one might expect even while eating “healthy” foods. For most people, consuming only 20-50 grams of carbohydrates a day is needed to achieve and maintain ketosis.
Balance Your Electrolytes: When drastically limited carb consumption, our bodies begin to expel more water and electrolytes because carbohydrates tend to retain water. In other words, low-carb diets have a diuretic effect. Electrolytes are minerals present in our body that are necessary for proper functioning of a number of processes ranging from fluid retention to blood chemistry to nerve signal transmission. These electrolytes consist of sodium, potassium, and magnesium. Many symptoms of the “keto flu” can be attributed to lowered levels of electrolytes.
The easiest way to achieve and maintain ketosis is by using supplements like BHB exogenous ketones and MCT oil, which can help elevate ketones to boost energy and concentration.
Supplementing your diet with exogenous ketones can help induce a state of ketosis within hours of ingestion, even if you’re not on a strict keto diet. BHB can also help prevent or minimize symptoms of the keto flu because it often contains electrolytes.
Intermittent fasting can help you achieve ketosis because when you stop eating for long periods of time, your body will naturally start burning fat for energy. There are several methods of intermittent fasting. The most common one is the 16:8 method which means you fast for 16 hours, and eat during an 8-hour window. Those who do 16:8 fasting tend to skip breakfast and eat between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m.
What are the benefits of ketosis?
We know that the brain is made up mostly of fat and that it prefers ketones (fat) for fuel instead of glucose (carbs). Here’s how that works to promote and protect brain function and health.
May Help Prevent Brain Diseases
Some research suggests that low-carb diets reduce inflammation in the body’s tissues, and chronic inflammation is “the common factor in many diseases” according to Harvard Health. That may be because most carbohydrates are heavily processed foods, which are foreign to the body, and many are difficult for the body to digest, which inflames the tissues.
Your risk of developing diseases like diabetes, cancer, and heart disease may be greatly reduced when you switch to a more whole-food nutritional approach focused on quality fats and minimizing carbohydrates, like the ketogenic diet.
And believe it or not, research shows that the brain is where many of these diseases start.
For example, insulin resistance (which leads to diabetes) is caused by consuming too much sugar. Insulin resistance is linked to a reduction in the brain chemical brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) (3).
And now, studies are finding that people affected with Alzheimer’s disease may benefit from eating low-carb diets as well (4).
May Help Boost Memory
Got a big test to study for? Can’t remember where you put your car keys? Well, going keto may be beneficial to help you retain and recall information.
Ketosis acts like a natural nootropic — which is a substance used to improve cognitive function (usually a herb, or a drug). With keto, you may be able to achieve the benefits of a nootropic without having to take a pill.
The presence of beta-hydroxybutyrate (BHB), one of the exogenous ketones the body makes when you enter ketosis, improves memory function (7).
May Help Improve Digestive Health
Scientists call the link between the gut and brain the gut-brain axis (8).
Your digestive system is home to millions of microorganisms that keep your immune system healthy, help you digest food, and keep you energized. And those nerves send signals to and from the brain via the vagus nerve.
Diseases like Crohn’s disease have been linked to the health of the vagus nerve, as well as several different forms of mental illness (9).
A low-carb diet like keto that focuses on quality fats and whole proteins allows all the systems in your body to work together better. Your gut-brain connection keeps you healthy, allows you to absorb nutrients, and fights off diseases.
May Support Improved Brain Function and Performance
Forget coffee and other stimulants. If you want to feel your best and be able to think clearly, the keto diet might be the best weapon at your disposal.
When your body is in fat-burning mode, it naturally produces more mitochondria (10). Think back to high school biology, and you might remember that mitochondria are known as the “powerhouse” of a cell. Basically, the more mitochondria, the better your ability to function.
(Think of it this way: weightlifters and bodybuilders have way more mitochondria in their muscle cells than the average person. They need them to keep their energy up! (11))
When there are more mitochondria present in your brain, your brain can work at its very best, and keto is a natural way to promote this.
May Help Minimize Brain Fog
In the early days of low-carb dieting, you might experience brain fog. This is a common symptom of the “keto flu,” which describes symptoms you may experience as your body transitions from glucose-burning to fat-burning mode.
After you make it through that initial adjustment, most ketogenic dieters find that brain fog disappears for good.
Brain fog can be the result of several things. One common reason you experience brain fog is due to elevated ammonia or out-of-whack hormones (12). There are several neurotransmitters in the brain. When they aren’t balanced, that’s often what causes your brain to feel a little “foggy.”
On keto, your body naturally balances out the “chiller” neurotransmitters with more excitatory ones (13). This helps clear the fog, which then allows you to complete complex tasks without the dragging feeling many of us know too well.
Many keto dieters credit the ketogenic lifestyle with helping them focus better, sleep better (which in turn helps promote mental alertness), and avoid the mid-afternoon crash.
May Support Improved Mental Health
The benefits of a low-carb diet like keto can improve mental health in a number of ways.
For starters, keto is a proven method for weight loss. Body image and mental health are clearly linked to one another. How you look plays a role in how you feel about yourself.
For example, women with a positive body image are more likely to have good mental health (14). And losing weight isn’t just good for feeling better about yourself. It’s also been shown to reduce symptoms of mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder (15).
Moreover, a low-carb diet helps your hormones avoid the surges and crashes in insulin, ghrelin, and other hormones that impact your brain and provide those rollercoaster emotions.
Research is still being conducted to examine how a fat-fueled diet can support optimal mental health and early results are promising.