Should You Try a Keto Diet if You Have an Autoimmune Disease?
March 10th, 2018
Ketogenic (or “keto”) diets have become tremendously popular in the past few years, leading many members of The Myers Way® community to ask, “Is keto recommended for people with autoimmunity?”
In this article, I’ll be going over everything you need to know about the ketogenic diet, including some important points to keep in mind if you have an autoimmune disease and are wondering if going keto is right for you.
What is a Keto Diet?
The ketogenic diet is a very low-carb, high-fat diet that triggers the body’s natural metabolic process known as “ketosis.” By consuming minimal amounts of carbohydrates, you deprive your body of its natural fuel source, glucose, and this forces it to burn stored fat for fuel instead.1 As stored fat is broken down, your liver produces “ketones”, a type of fatty acid, and sends them into your bloodstream where your muscles and other tissues can use them as fuel.2 Ketosis normally occurs in a fasting state, however it can also occur in the absence of glucose and in the presence of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), such as those found in coconut.3
As you can see, true keto diets contain far fewer carbs (only about 5% of your total daily calories) and more than double the amount of fats typically consumed in standard diets or even Paleo diets. On a keto diet, you also want to make sure you’re intaking only moderate amounts of protein–on the low end of what you’d normally eat on standard and Paleo diets–since too much protein can kick you out of ketosis.
I want to point out that although keto diets have seen a recent resurgence, they are not “new” in any sense of the word. The ketogenic diet was developed during the 1920s as an alternative therapy for children with epilepsy, while fasting in general has been used as a way to treat disease for thousands of years.4Nowadays, people use the keto diet primarily to lose weight, increase energy, and optimize brain function. However, given its success in reducing the number of seizures in epileptic patients, more and more research has emerged exploring the ability of the ketogenic diet to treat a range of neurologic disorders and other types of chronic illnesses.
Health Benefits of a Keto Diet
With the development of prescription medications for seizures, the ketogenic diet fell off the radar for some time. Now that it’s gaining traction again in mainstream society, researchers are beginning to look more closely at the keto diet for its ability to mitigate the symptoms of a number of disorders, including neurodegenerative diseases, obesity, diabetes, cancer, and even some autoimmune conditions.
There is already solid evidence that the ketogenic diet reduces seizures in children, sometimes as effectively as medication.5 It has been found to be especially effective when patients do not respond well to drug treatments.6
New research indicates the benefits of keto extend to a broad range of neurodegenerative disorders including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and multiple sclerosis (MS). It may also be protective in traumatic brain injury and stroke.7 One theory for keto’s neuroprotective effects is that the ketones produced during ketosis provide additional fuel to brain cells, which may help those cells resist the damage from inflammation caused by these diseases.8
Additionally, animal studies have shown the ability of the ketogenic diet to reduce oxidative stress and inflammation, increase ATP production (which is critical for neural development and signaling, as well as controlling the immune system), and improve learning, memory, and motor ability.910
Obesity and Type 2 Diabetes
Because your body burns stored fat when in ketosis, the keto diet is an effective tool for weight loss. A study on the long-term effects of ketogenic diets in obese patients found that it significantly reduced the body weight and body mass index, decreased the level of triglycerides, LDL cholesterol and blood glucose, and increased the level of HDL cholesterol.11
In addition to promoting weight loss and its associated benefits, low-carb diets also improve insulin sensitivity, making the keto diet ideal for anyone with type 2 diabetes. According to a study conducted by the University of Michigan, eating three low-carb meals within 24 hours reduced insulin resistance by more than 30%.12
Ketogenic diets may be one of the few treatments that show promise for cancer. Cancer cells feed off of glucose, so when you deprive your body of glucose by adopting a very low- to no-carb diet, you are effectively “starving” the cancer cells.13
As early as 1987, studies on ketogenic diets resulted in reduced tumor growth and improved survival for a number of cancers. Ketosis brought on by fasting was also shown to help alleviate the side effects of chemotherapy, and improve the effectiveness of both cancer and radiation. Advanced cancer patients may also benefit from a keto diet in terms of quality of life, such as improved mood and reduced insomnia.14
The ability of the keto diet to reduce inflammation and modulate immune response could make it an effective tool for reversing the symptoms of autoimmunity and moving you back down the autoimmune spectrum. Ketogenic diets also increase glutathione levels, your body’s most powerful detoxifier.15 People with autoimmunity are notoriously low in glutathione, and I’ve found in both my patients and myself that supplementing with glutathione is extremely beneficial for autoimmunity.
The Keto Diet and Autoimmunity
If you have any of the above conditions, by all means give keto a try! And if you have an autoimmune disease and are following The Myers Way®, you know the most important part is cutting out the toxic and inflammatory foods that lead to autoimmunity, so you can definitely do a ketogenic version of that! The Myers Way® already eliminates gluten, grains, and legumes, and is very low-carb to begin with, especially if you are following the Candida or SIBO protocols. This will give you a head start when transitioning to a keto diet. Before you go jumping on the keto bandwagon, however, there are a few important factors to consider if you have an autoimmune disease.
Though I’m not opposed to a keto diet, I personally did not do well on it, and I’ve found that for many of my patients with autoimmunity (particularly women and those with thyroid dysfunction), it’s not always the right choice. Many women, especially those going through perimenopause (which is when autoimmune conditions tend to hit) find the keto diet difficult because their hormones are so in flux that they need the support of carbohydrates to balance them out. Ketosis can also be a major strain on your adrenals, so perimenopausal women and those with thyroid dysfunction can experience issues with keto since their adrenals are already shot. The same goes if you are overly stressed. Chronic stress puts your adrenals into overdrive for extended periods of time leaving you in a state of adrenal fatigue, so you’d want to tackle your stress levels before attempting a keto diet in order to prevent total adrenal burnout.
And if you don’t respond well to keto, don’t beat yourself up! Just because it’s all the rage right now or your husband lost 20 pounds by going keto doesn’t mean you have to stick it out if you can’t tolerate it. I do find that men tend to tolerate the keto diet much better than women. Everyone’s an individual, so it really just comes down to listening to your body and knowing what’s right for you.
Top Supplements to Support Yourself on a Keto Diet
If you have autoimmunity and are interested in pursuing a ketogenic diet, there are a few ways you can support your transition.
Paleo Protein and Collagen
The first place I would start when transitioning to a keto diet would be adding Paleo Protein and Collagen Protein to your daily routine. Paleo Protein is a very low-carb, clean source of complete protein that you can blend right into your morning smoothie. And Collagen Protein is a zero-carb source of protein that you can stir into any hot or cold beverage, such as smoothies, juices, tea, or even water!
Women (especially those in perimenopause) and anyone with thyroid dysfunction or chronic stress can benefit from supplementing with Adrenal Support when following a keto diet. Adrenal Support promotes optimal stress response, adrenal health and stress hormone production.
Keeping an eye on your thyroid hormone levels is especially critical when transitioning to a keto diet to make sure that they are balanced and optimal. I recommend taking a multivitamin to ensure you are getting enough selenium, iodine, and zinc, all of which are necessary for supporting optimal thyroid function.
If your body is not used to consuming a high fat diet, it could take some time for your digestion to adjust to eating keto. Supplementing with digestive enzymes will help your body break down fat to ease you into the transition.
Keto can be hard on liver because it is primarily the liver that metabolizes fat for energy. For that reason, I recommend anyone following a keto diet to take Liver Support in order to optimize liver functioning.
- Martin, Colin R., Victor R. Preedy, and Angela M. Abbatecola. Diet and Nutrition in Dementia and Cognitive Decline. London, England: Academic Press, 2015. Print.