With Type 2 diabetes, the body either doesn’t produce enough insulin or becomes insulin-resistant, so it can’t move glucose from the blood into the cells for energy. Eating carbs results in an increase in blood glucose — so if you vastly cut down your carbs, your blood glucose levels won’t go up as much, and you won’t need as much insulin to manage blood sugars. It’s not surprising that researchers have been finding that people who follow a ketogenic diet can better manage their blood sugar by cutting down their carbs.
Early studies reported high success rates; in one study in 1925, 60% of patients became seizure-free, and another 35% of patients had a 50% reduction in seizure frequency. These studies generally examined a cohort of patients recently treated by the physician (a retrospective study) and selected patients who had successfully maintained the dietary restrictions. However, these studies are difficult to compare to modern trials. One reason is that these older trials suffered from selection bias, as they excluded patients who were unable to start or maintain the diet and thereby selected from patients who would generate better results. In an attempt to control for this bias, modern study design prefers a prospective cohort (the patients in the study are chosen before therapy begins) in which the results are presented for all patients regardless of whether they started or completed the treatment (known as intent-to-treat analysis).
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While the evidence behind ketogenic diets for diabetes is still preliminary and the evidence for weight loss isn’t all that convincing (more on that next), the evidence of using the diet to treat epilepsy is extremely robust. The idea for treating people with epilepsy with the keto diet came about in the 1920s, when researchers observed that people who fasted experienced fewer seizures. (Researchers still aren’t sure why the diet can work for epilepsy, but a few mechanisms have been proposed, including making neurons more resilient during seizures.)
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Those issues can be part of what's known as the “keto flu,” Warren says. Other side effects of the keto diet, all of which are tied to carb withdrawal, can include lightheadedness, nausea, mental fog, cramps, and headaches, in addition to tiredness. Luckily, the keto flu doesn't usually last more than a week—which is coincidentally about when people start to see the number on the scale go down, says Warren.
The ketone bodies are possibly anticonvulsant; in animal models, acetoacetate and acetone protect against seizures. The ketogenic diet results in adaptive changes to brain energy metabolism that increase the energy reserves; ketone bodies are a more efficient fuel than glucose, and the number of mitochondria is increased. This may help the neurons to remain stable in the face of increased energy demand during a seizure, and may confer a neuroprotective effect.