This is an opinion post about ketosis. Is it good, bad or necessary?
Let's get the religion out of the way first. I follow an eating pattern loosely based around Dr Jan Kwasniewski's Optimal Diet. I vary from the OD in that I tend to vary my protein sources somewhat more than specified, I think a little omega 3 supplementation is worthwhile, that having a "normal" vitamin D level is probably worth while (though this is an interesting subject) and in that I specifically avoid gluten and most other grains. So I do my own thing somewhat, while still keeping a heavy emphasis on animal fat, egg yolks and trying to keep to real food as far as I practically can. When I say I avoid ketosis because Kwasniewski says avoid ketosis, that's religion.
My follow on problem from this that, when you can get hold of the data, Kwasniewski is usually correct. My even bigger problem is that, when you get beyond simple diet information, some of JKs ideas are very far off the wall. And some of the off the wall ones also seem to be correct to me, which is a little uncomfortable! So religion is a real non starter.
The first paper which had me thinking was this one:
"Both the pre-and post-exercise levels of adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol were enhanced"
This is the sort of thing I file as interesting. That is, until the anecdotes trickle in about people who have gone to extreme ketogenic diets and have developed abnormal cardiac rhythms. You know the thought train that grabs you when you discover LC eating, that moment of realisation: Carbs are bad. Followed by: All carbs are bad. Most people can do zero carb with absolutely no problem. With reasonable protein intakes it is really very easy and doing a "Stefansson", using an all meat diet, is not difficult. But a few people will get in to problems. If you are wired for a heart problem along the lines of Wolff Parkinson White Syndrome, cranking up your adrenaline and noradrenaline levels might not be a good idea. If you have atrial fibrillation, ditto.
This is the effect of a water fast on sympathetic nervous tone:
"After 17 days of TF [total fasting] norepinephrine (NE) and epinephrine (EPI) urinary levels showed a two-fold and nine-fold increase respectively, but they became undetectable at the end of TF"
So increased sympathetic tone seems to be a feature of both fasting as well as ketogenic eating. It does look as if the effect is transient during fasting, so this may also be the case in ketogenic eating, but I have no data on that. The fact it may well be transient is no consolation if you have been admitted to a cardiology ward via A&E due to severe palpitations!
An aside: Hyperglycaemia is also a potent elevator of serum catecholamines and seems to be the routine trigger for atrial fibrillation.
The next issue has to be renal stones. Anyone who has looked at the RECHARGE trial enrollment criteria will immediately have noticed that kidney stones are an exclusion criterion. Now kidney stones are a complex issue. Anyone who has treated a cat or dog for struvite urinary stones will be well aware that they are exquisitely diet responsive. Shrinking a 1.5 cm asymptomatic renal stone to a 0.5cm stone which then wedges in your ureter will again have you in the A&E department pleading for morphine. But you don't want to live with the stone for ever and it might well dissolve in situ anyway, but maybe not! But the bottom line is that you might easily develop a symptomatic stone from an asymptomatic one.
This having been said there is undoubtedly a high incidence of very symptomatic renal stones using the Ketogenic Diet for epilepsy management, there are loads of papers covering this. It is difficult to say whether these are directly ketosis related, are due to some of the bizarre lipid choices made by cholesterophobe dietitians for the diet or are to do with the chronic dehydration which was part of the original Ketogenic Diet. There are a few other possible explanations, but I feel there is a source for concern here.
While we are talking about the epilepsy Ketogenic Diet, let's also cover pancreatitis. I've got the Freedman's third edition of their classic "The Ketogenic Diet". The index does not include pancreatitis and the recipes tend to use real foods. There have been a number of deaths from pancreatitis on the Ketogenic Diet. None of the case reports are available to me in full text, so I cannot see what sort of fats were given to these children. Certainly Vanitallie's pilot study of using the KD for Parkinsons management suggested using unsaturated fats as the lipid source (to lower cholesterol, dontchano). Do this and you deserve whatever is coming your way.
OK, fasting hyperglycaemia. I have this mildly on a low carbohydrate, high saturated fat diet. My FBG is about 5.5mmol/l, ie 100mg/dl. I've discussed it here.
But I do know at least one person who can achieve a FBG of 8.0mmol/l on a deeply ketogenic diet. This is 144mg/dl and not a number that I would personally wish to sustain for any period of time. This is not a standard response to marked ketosis, but unless you are checking you blood sugar levels, how would you know that it wasn't your response? A few carbs should reverse this.
Muscle cramps. Anyone who went from a normal carbohydrate based diet to Atkins induction knows all about these. You faff around with magnesium or potassium supplements and they seem to help a bit, sometimes, maybe. But upping your carbs works beautifully. You would almost certainly adapt out of this with time, but short term it can be a problem.
Finally, auto immunity. Hyperglycaemia is probably the immunosuppressive aspect of diabetes. There can be costs to pay when improving immune function if the trigger for an autoimmune problem is still present. This is close to religion as it is purely based around non scrutineered anecdote from Lutz' Life Without Bread. He is particularly talking about multiple sclerosis. His clinical experience (not always the best guide, but better safe than sorry) suggests a sudden drop to 72g/d is too fast and can promote a flare. Kwasniewski has nothing to say about this but always seems to use the OD as a sudden onset protocol. Lutz suggests staged drops of carbs over several weeks. He certainly would appear to caution against going ketogenic. I guess this would eventually be a non problem and ketosis is probably neuroprotective in its own right. In the short term, take care.
Of course the flip side is the use of water fasting in rheumatoid disease.... YMMV!
I have to say that I am not anti ketosis. I drift in and out of ketosis as I'm quite active in a non-gym kind of a way. I suspect that by now I am VERY adapted to this. I'm a bit loathe to increase my carbs much above where they are now because I, in common with many other people, have better gut and joint function when I restrict starches. Adding a little glucose in the form of a chocolate truffle or two after my main meal is a pleasant way of augmenting the vegetables that were in the main meal but it's getting away from real food...
So I have some respect for the potential complications of ketosis, especially sudden onset. There are undoubtedly many plus sides, but nothing is ever completely problem free.