How this low-carb diet might be linked to immunity

There is a certain feeling about having a bunch of french fries and a double cheeseburger, drinking a beer and finishing it off with a sleeve of Oreos.

For those of you who have not indulged yourself at this level, allow me to inform you: It’s queasy, tired, sluggish – a little nasty. In other words, you feel sick.

But what if you left out the oreos, fries, burger and then cut almost all of the other carbohydrates in your diet? Would you never feel sick again?

Probably not. However, a new study published in EMBO Molecular Medicine notes that there may be a measurable link between ketogenic diets – which advocate that followers minimize or eliminate carbohydrates – and immune cell activity. This compound helps support a ketogenic diet used to treat certain immune problems.

The study’s authors write that the ketogenic diet shows “promise as a feasible and effective clinical tool for a variety of disorders that are closely related to immune disorders.”

Keto is a popular diet trend, but critics argue that we don’t know enough about its effects to be recommended by doctors. Studies like this, while not addressing the long-term effects of maintaining keto, still help build the body of research necessary to come to an informed conclusion about what diet does to the body.

These are some of the most common foods people eat while on a ketogenic diet – the main features are a diet high in meat and fat and low in carbohydrates and sugar:

  • seafood
  • flesh
  • dairy
  • Oils
  • Green vegetables
  • nuts
  • Seeds
  • Berry

LONGEVITY HACKS is a regular series of Inverse about the science-based strategies to live better, healthier and longer without medication. Find out more in our Hacks Index.

HOW THIS AFFECTS Longevity – Immune diseases can span a range of diseases from multiple sclerosis to lupus and can affect more than 24 million Americans each year. The Western diet – typically full of sugar and refined wheat – has long been suspected in the scientific community as the culprit behind the rise in these difficult-to-treat problems.

If what these authors find is replicated in further studies – that simple diet adjustments could help alleviate chronic immune disorders – then low-carb or ketogenic diets offer promising alternatives to expensive drugs and other treatments.

There have been studies suggesting that ketogenic diets and the concomitant surge of certain ketones have anti-inflammatory properties and may even improve memory and reduce mortality. But these studies are mostly done in mice.

According to the authors, this new study is the first to examine the immune effects of keto in humans.

“By complementing classic approaches of modern medicine, nutritional interventions offer new perspectives for the prevention and treatment of numerous diseases,” the authors write in the study.

As with any diet, however, keto is not for everyone. It is always best to consult a doctor before changing your diet.

SCIENCE IN ACTION – Reducing carbohydrate intake through a ketogenic diet or, in some cases, fasting can increase the body’s use of ketones instead of glucose (blood sugar) for energy. Ketones are a by-product of the breakdown of stored fatty acids in the absence of blood sugar that comes from carbohydrates.

The researchers behind this study are investigating whether a ketogenic diet has an impact on human immunity. You are pursuing a two-pronged strategy:

  • In Vitro Testing: The researchers looked at human cells in a lab that had been treated with a type of ketone made in people on a ketogenic diet called BHB.
  • In vivo testing: The researchers put real people on ketogenic diets and then analyzed their blood samples both before and after the diet.

In the in vivo portion of their study, 44 people followed a ketogenic diet and received nutritional advice. They were allowed to consume 30 grams or less of carbohydrates a day for three weeks.

Initially, the researchers found that the ketones in the participants’ blood increased – this was not unexpected, but they also found that the activity of certain immune cells began to shift.

Both in the cell models and in the blood samples of the participants, the activity of an immune cell, called a T cell, changed in this specific way.

In the laboratory tests (in vitro):

  • BHB, a ketone, improved T cells’ ability to produce cytokines that T cells produce to help them function properly.
  • BHB increased the ability of mitochondria, a cell’s powerhouse, to use energy for T cells.
  • BHB helped T cells create “memory cells,” which are specialized T cells that “remember” an infectious agent so the immune system can respond quickly when it comes back.

In the human blood tests (in vivo):

  • Certain genes related to inflammation, metabolism, and the interaction of these two things have changed dramatically after the keto diet.
  • The keto diet appeared to increase the ability of human T cells to respond to an immune threat.
  • The keto diet also appeared to increase the ability of T cells to use energy and to promote the production of “memory cells”.
  • A blood test showed an overall better immune response after participants followed the keto diet.

WHY IT’S A HACK – Essentially, these critical immune cells seemed to get more active and productive after a keto diet. But above all, this booster effect would not necessarily be good if the immune system then became overactive.

Crucial to the results is that the T cells, part of your body’s natural “adaptive” immune system, are showing signs of increased activity – but the body’s “innate” immune system does not appear to be fundamentally changed by a keto diet.

The “innate” immune system is the tool the body uses to fight infections in general – while the “adaptive immune system” is what researchers say the keto diet has improved.

Think of a fire that burns an entire field versus a weed killer that only targets certain plants. Ketogenic diets only seem to affect the body’s ability to specifically respond to threats, such as adapting to and eliminating pathogens.

This lack of an “innate” response indicates, according to the authors, that a ketogenic diet “significantly reshapes human T-cell immunity in the direction of a stronger but controlled adaptive immune response”.

HACK score of 10 – 🥩🥩🥩 / 10

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