The brain is composed of a network of neurons that transmit signals by propagating nerve impulses. The propagation of this impulse from one neuron to another is typically controlled by neurotransmitters, though there are also electrical pathways between some neurons. Neurotransmitters can inhibit impulse firing (primarily done by γ-aminobutyric acid, or GABA) or they can excite the neuron into firing (primarily done by glutamate). A neuron that releases inhibitory neurotransmitters from its terminals is called an inhibitory neuron, while one that releases excitatory neurotransmitters is an excitatory neuron. When the normal balance between inhibition and excitation is significantly disrupted in all or part of the brain, a seizure can occur. The GABA system is an important target for anticonvulsant drugs, since seizures may be discouraged by increasing GABA synthesis, decreasing its breakdown, or enhancing its effect on neurons.
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).
Meat products make up a big part of the keto diet, but experts stress the importance of choosing quality. "Since the keto diet is based a lot on animal proteins, it's important to buy organic poultry and grass-fed, organic beef," says Aimee Aristotelous, RD. "Not only do organic selections help with limiting environmental toxins, but grass-fed options of red meats even change the composition of fats." The result, she explains, is that your body is able to better absorb those healthy fats.
Once “keto-adapted,” many tissues increase their capacity to utilize ketones for fuel. Some tissues even prefer to use ketones for their cellular energy needs. For instance, the heart, as well as many areas of the brain, prefers to use ketone bodies as opposed to glucose. One interesting fact is that Dr. Stephen Cunnane found that the uptake of ketone bodies in the brain is proportional to their production. Additional research has also demonstrated that as uptake of ketones increases, the uptake of glucose decreases in brain tissue. In contrast, there are certain cells that cannot use fatty acids or ketone bodies, and are considered “obligate glucose users.” Red blood cells and specific parts of the brain are obligate glucose users. Don’t stress, however, because even though you may not be consuming a lot of carbohydrates, these cells can obtain glucose through a biological process called gluconeogenesis (the production of glucose from other non-glucose materials).
Electrolytes: Due to the increased water expulsion by the kidneys, many electrolytes are simultaneously lost. Electrolyte imbalances are heavily responsible for feeling the “keto-flu.” Important electrolytes one must consider replacing: sodium, potassium, and magnesium. These electrolytes can be replenished by increasing your intake of certain foods and/or supplementation.
Implementing the diet can present difficulties for caregivers and the patient due to the time commitment involved in measuring and planning meals. Since any unplanned eating can potentially break the nutritional balance required, some people find the discipline needed to maintain the diet challenging and unpleasant. Some people terminate the diet or switch to a less demanding diet, like the modified Atkins diet or the low-glycaemic index treatment diet, because they find the difficulties too great.
Therapeutics: The ketogenic diet was originally developed in the 1920s as an alternative therapeutic option to treat children suffering from drug-resistant epilepsy. Since its inception, the utilization of the ketogenic diet has expanded as a therapeutic treatment for many other conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, GLUT-1 deficiency syndrome, Bipolar disorders and even cancer.
Achieving optimal ketosis hinges on finding the right balance of macronutrients (or “macros” in keto-speak); these are the elements in your diet that account for the majority of your calories, a.k.a. energy—namely, fat, protein, and carbohydrates. By the way, it’s often “net grams” of carbohydrates that are counted toward your daily intake; “net” deducts the amount of fiber in a food from its carbohydrate total.