A low-carbohydrate diet has a positive influence on metabolism. But the ketogenic diet has also proven itself in other areas. This was taken as an opportunity to examine the effect of the low-carbohydrate diet on other diseases, as in the experimental use in cancer treatment.
Positive experiences in epilepsy
The positive side effects of the most intensive form of fasting, in which solid food is completely avoided, include euphoric sensations and the positive effect in the treatment of epileptic seizures.
As early as 1920, the American doctor Russel M. Wilder developed a form of therapy for children suffering from epilepsy, which relied on a balanced intake of protein and was also high in fat and reduced in carbohydrates. The aim was to accelerate the fasting metabolism, which is said to have a positive effect of fasting.
So this so-called ketogenic diet turned out to be positive in the treatment. Russel put together 70 to 80 percent by weight of fat and 20 to 30 percent of a protein mixture
Seizures decreased drastically
The resounding successes of the young patients, in whom the frequency of seizures was drastically reduced, ensured that the ketogenic diet gained importance. However, further developments stagnated as innovative drugs against epilepsy conquered the market. Nowadays, the use of medicines is still being used more and more.
Side effects of standard treatments
Different ingredients, individually tailored to the respective type of seizure or epilepsy syndrome, are part of the standard treatments. In order to achieve freedom from seizures, however, the treated patient must always expect corresponding side effects. These include tiredness, attention or memory disorders as well as nausea. Around a third of the patients treated in this way respond only insufficiently or not at all.
For around ten years, the ketogenic diet has been increasingly used as a therapeutic agent in this area. Examples in which young patients were also relieved of their seizure disorder by means of a ketogenic diet increased the attractiveness of this alternative form of treatment. Where even operations and medication were unsuccessful, this form of nutrition gave the patients hope again.
In order to bring other people closer to the mode of action, the father of an affected boy, an American film producer, campaigned for the success of this diet and produced films to encourage other people. He also set up a foundation called the “Charlie Foundation” to support research in this area.
The triumph of the ketogenic diet was not only limited to the USA but also attracted attention worldwide. In about 45 countries, well-known clinics have adopted this diet and are treating children in particular with great success.
Discipline is required
In principle, the patient must assume a two-year treatment period, which must be carried out consistently and demands a high degree of discipline from the individual patient. Special meal plans are designed in close cooperation with nutritionists, which also makes it possible to make ketogenic food palatable for children. The principles of successful therapy include not only strict adherence to the nutritional plan but also permanent monitoring of the course, which must be carefully monitored and documented.
The children’s hospital in Zurich is considered to be an example, where the diet did not produce the desired result for around 50 percent of the children treated but achieved serious success with the others. In one-third of the young patients, the frequency of seizures was reduced by 75 to 90 percent. At the end of the therapy, around 10 percent turned out to be completely free of seizures.
Work is currently being done more successfully in this field in the USA. The resounding successes, it is assumed, are due to the fact that children are put on the ketogenic diet much earlier. Successes at Johns Hopkins Hospitals in Baltimore proved to be exemplary. After just a year of dieting, nearly half of the children treated in this way had their seizure frequency reduced by more than 90 percent. A synopsis conference showed that drug trials in the sector did not reflect positive results over a comparable period of time as with the ketogenic diet.
Increased cellular respiration in the brain
In the search for the reasons for the positive effects of this diet, it is assumed that ketone bodies are responsible. These are produced by the liver as an energy source during ketosis. Animal experiments show that adding ketone bodies to nerve cells reduces spontaneous activity. It is assumed that ketosis has a positive influence on the hyperactivity of brain cells in epilepsy patients in this way. At the same time, however, numerous other changes are also diagnosed.
It was found in young rats that cell respiration in the brain is increased when the body has to burn ketone bodies instead of glucose to generate energy.
Ketone bodies as energy carriers are also used in the treatment of other diseases. This includes people in whom glucose cannot be completely burned in the brain. Enzyme defects are responsible for this incomplete breakdown, as is the possibility that glucose cannot reach the brain in sufficient quantities.
The so-called “glut 1 defect” is responsible for this. Although these are rather rare diseases, the ketogenic diet also plays a special role here.
A few years ago, the pediatrician Jörg Klepper from the children’s clinic in Aschaffenburg reported on resounding successes in a specialist journal. He named a study in which around 94 percent of patients with the rare “Glut 1 defect” were freed from epileptic seizures on a ketogenic diet.
Hardly any side effects
But the focus of all treatments is always the question of possible side effects. After all, no one wants to be free from seizures if their general condition is expected to deteriorate at the same time. Not to be overlooked are the recommendations of many specialist associations for nutrition, which largely advise against a high-fat diet in order to prevent an increase in blood lipid levels. Children with epilepsy who switched to a ketogenic diet actually had significantly higher blood lipid levels after six months. In the course of this diet, however, a decrease in these values could be diagnosed. After six years, these values were then back in the normal range.
Other possible side effects of a ketogenic diet can include diarrhea, constipation, and kidney stones. However, according to statements by medical specialists, these side effects can be remedied with medication. Occasional growth retardation observed in young children normalized after stopping the diet.
Children become more alert and interested
Parallel to the observed side effects, however, positive side effects were also observed in the patients. According to descriptions by the parents of the little patients, the children appeared to be more alert and interested than before the change in diet and thus confirmed the observations made in the 1920s.
No endurance in adults
One of the greatest difficulties of this treatment method is that the entire diet is strongly influenced and has to be changed accordingly. Another difficulty is maintaining this transition for the time required to achieve the therapeutic effect. This naturally leads to frequent abortions, especially among adults who have had a fixed diet up to now.
Long-term effects not yet clarified
However, different variants of the former Wilder diet have already become established, which can even be made palatable for adults. One of the special features is that there are even patients who, despite reverting to the old eating pattern, did not have any further seizures and remained symptom-free. A study shows that around 12 percent of the children stopped the ketogenic diet after two years because seizures could no longer be observed. Around 80 percent of these patients were still seizure-free on average two and a half years later. Nevertheless, the question of the reasons for these long-term changes remains, which has not yet been clarified to this day.
Promising trials in cancer
Cancer is still one of the scourges of mankind. It is clear that the effect of ketone diets has had a positive effect on the treatment of epilepsy patients for around 90 years. Even if no conclusive reasons have yet been found, numbers prove the success of this measure. All the more frequently the question arises as to whether a change in metabolism can also be useful in the treatment of other diseases. Cancer is at the center of these discussions.
Cancer cells are starved
Cancer cells ferment to generate energy, in contrast to healthy body cells, increased glucose in the cell plasma. In return, their cell power plants are throttled, and the more aggressively the cells work. Considerations are moving in the direction of turning off the sugar energy tap of the cancer cells in order to prevent them from further growth. Such strategies have shown promise in numerous animal experiments. For example, it was observed that the growth of brain tumors in mice can be significantly slowed down. The tumor was less perfused when the animals ate ketogenic food that was also reduced in calories. These animals lived longer than diseased mice fed a normal diet.
It didn’t stop with animal experiments. People with brain tumors have also been treated in this way. More than ten years ago, two girls who were on the ketogenic diet were treated. This therapy was able to bring tumor growth to a standstill.
However, other treatment measures were also used, such as chemotherapy, radiation, and, in the case of one of the two girls, there were even several operations. Both experienced positive effects from the ketogenic diet, which related in particular to tumor metabolism. The sugar intake of the cancerous tissue could be reduced by around 20 percent under the diet.
Decreased tumor growth
In Germany, too, this type of treatment is given particular importance in various clinics and is used, among other things, in patients who suffer from brain tumors that are difficult to treat. According to all the statements, however, it is still too early to be able to make a definitive statement. A low number of participants makes it even more difficult to make precise statements, although at first glance the reduced growth of tumors could be identified in a not insignificant proportion of the patients. Even in the face of the fact that the growth could not be stopped, the general condition of the patients improved, which made it possible to increase their well-being.
Positive results in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease
Experts are also discussing whether other illnesses that are based on a defect in energy metabolism can also be influenced in this way, if not even cured in the long term. These include Alzheimer’s disease. It is caused by the fact that the utilization of glucose in the brain is reduced. Animal experiments on mice document that the deposition of the protein responsible for the disease in animals suffering from Alzheimer’s could be reduced by a quarter through the ketogenic diet.
Similar success has been achieved in animal experiments aimed at tackling Parkinson’s disease. A defect in the mitochondria is responsible for this serious disease.
Mice in which the disease was artificially produced by a neurotoxin showed improvement after just a week’s ketone infusion. Significant reductions in the typical movement disorders and nerve damage could be diagnosed. However, due to the small number of participants, individual studies on people with these clinical pictures cannot yet provide any meaningful results.
Many of our body cells use the glucose obtained from carbohydrates as fuel in the conventional mixed diet. If the body is deprived of carbohydrates, most cells are able to switch to fat as an energy source. However, brain cells are excluded from this because, under normal circumstances, the blood-brain barrier is not permeable to fat. However, around 70 percent of the energy requirement is covered by ketone bodies, which are produced by the liver from fat. The remaining 30 percent is made up of glucose, which is formed from glycerol and proteins by the kidneys and liver.
One of the pluses of the ketogenic diet is that, unlike fasting, there is no risk of protein depletion in the muscles. The sufficient protein content of the ketogenic diet has a positive effect on this.