This article was reviewed by Jes Harvey, RD, on November 7, 2019. Harvey is a registered dietitian specializing in the ketogenic diet for children and adults. She is a certified specialist in Pediatric Nutrition and educates children with epilepsy on the ketogenic diet as an anti-seizure medication. Harvey also manages a private nutrition practice consulting adults on the ketogenic way of eating.
When dietary carbohydrate is broken down into the energy substrate glucose, thereby raising blood glucose levels, the pancreas is stimulated to secrete insulin (the hormone that stores fat and inhibits ketone production). However, when carbohydrate intake is restricted, insulin remains suppressed, and the body’s primary fuel source shifts from glucose to fat, priming the body to enter a state of ketosis. When fat oxidation/breakdown is increased to a certain extent, ketones are made in the liver through a process known as ketogenesis (i.e., keto + genesis = ketone formation). When carbohydrate intake is restricted, blood glucose and insulin levels decrease, which allows fat stores to be broken down rapidly for energy. Most cells in the body can utilize either fatty acids or ketones for fuel, including the brain, which has shown to be more efficient in the presence of ketones rather than glucose.
Around this time, Bernarr Macfadden, an American exponent of physical culture, popularised the use of fasting to restore health. His disciple, the osteopathic physician Dr. Hugh William Conklin of Battle Creek, Michigan, began to treat his epilepsy patients by recommending fasting. Conklin conjectured that epileptic seizures were caused when a toxin, secreted from the Peyer's patches in the intestines, was discharged into the bloodstream. He recommended a fast lasting 18 to 25 days to allow this toxin to dissipate. Conklin probably treated hundreds of epilepsy patients with his "water diet" and boasted of a 90% cure rate in children, falling to 50% in adults. Later analysis of Conklin's case records showed 20% of his patients achieved freedom from seizures and 50% had some improvement.