The word ketones refers to a class of short-chain fats such as beta-hydroxybutyrate (BHB) and acetoacetate (ACA). These special fats are produced during vigorous exercise, starvation, serious illness, and fasting — all conditions that cause the body to metabolize longer chain fats into short chain ketones. This occurs mostly in the liver.
The reason a person can survive for months with no food intake is that we begin to burn fat tissue, creating ketones that supply cells with high-grade energy. (During periods of fasting, levels of BHB are much higher than ACA levels.)
In fact, ketones supply more energy per unit than either dietary fats (long-chain fats) or glucose (sugar).
When ketones are metabolized by mitochondria — organelles found in large numbers in most cells in the body — they produce far fewer free radicals than the metabolization of glucose produces.
And a high intake of sugar and sugar-containing foods (especially those containing high fructose corn syrup) causes cells to generate enormous numbers of free radicals, which are also called reactive oxygen species (ROS).
Another benefit of ketones is that they stimulate cells to produce more and healthier mitochondria, the powerhouses of cells.
This is important because a number of health conditions — including Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, ALS, heart failure, and aging itself — are associated with a loss or impairment of mitochondria. (Curcumin also stimulates generation of greater numbers of mitochondria.)
Fasting has been proven to reduce the incidence of several diseases, as well as slowing the degeneration associated with aging, which can result in longer lifespans.
This benefit seems to be related to the fact that when a person fasts, his or her body will generate much higher levels of ketones.
Until fairly recently, scientists thought that brain cells could only use glucose for fuel. But newer research has demonstrated that brain cells can also utilize ketones for energy — and may do so while producing fewer free radicals, and with greater energy efficiency.
One of the main advantages of using ketones for energy production is that insulin is not required, as is the case with glucose.
Insulin is critical for glucose to enter cells. When insulin is absent or when the cells are unresponsive to insulin (a condition called insulin resistance), glucose cannot enter the cells to produce energy.
As a result, even with high levels of glucose in the blood and extracellular spaces, cells are literally starving for energy. This condition is called diabetes.
That’s why diabetics’ (especially Type 1 diabetics’) blood ketones rise to such high levels — because the body is trying to prevent starvation.
Without ketosis occurring, a diabetic would probably die within hours.
Unfortunately, when ketone levels rise too high, the blood can become too acidic — a harmful condition called acidosis.
Fortunately, such dangerous levels are not produced by a ketogenic diet or taking ketone supplements.
While a great deal of attention has been paid to the ability of ketones to safely increase energy production, they also have significant effects on specific cell signaling systems that can profoundly benefit longevity and health.
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