Since inflammation almost always gets a bad rap, let’s take a look at what it is, when you need it, and when you don’t.
What is inflammation?
Inflammation is, in point of fact, a very important part of the immune system’s command-and-control system, and which responds to both injury and infection.
Whether you cut your finger or have a more serious injury, inflammation is your body’s way to mobilize the immune system to repair and heal damaged tissue and to defend itself against unwanted bacteria and viruses.
In healthy inflammation, chemicals boost the body’s defenses against invaders, drenching the damaged tissue with fluid, blood and proteins, intentionally creating swelling and heat to protect and repair, allowing healing to begin (1).
Without inflammation, simple infections would become life-threatening events (2).
When inflammation goes too far
But if the inflammatory response goes on too long, or in areas where it’s not needed, it is a problem.
Chronic inflammation is a major factor in many conditions, including arthritis (3) heart disease, cancer, diabetes, arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease and cancer (4).
Low-carbohydrate nutrition to the rescue?
It is known that too much sugar can lead to chronic inflammation, which Swiss researchers confirmed in a 2011 study (5). They showed that sugary beverage consumption had “potentially harmful effects” in markers of glucose health and cardiovascular risk in a group of healthy young men.
Other research offers proof that diets high in refined carbs and starches increase the risk of chronic disease (6) and death from inflammatory disease (7).
Fortunately, a good deal of research is finding that diets very low in sugar and carbohydrates reduce inflammation and, in so doing, improve markers of heart health, glucose health and metabolism ─ in this way, helping us to fend off unwanted chronic issues.
The ketogenic diet
The ketogenic diet (KD) is a high-fat/low-carbohydrate diet with adequate levels of protein, which is designed to provide fat instead of carbohydrates.
Ketones, or ketone bodies, are manufactured by our liver’s mitochondria from fat. The three ketone bodies are beta-hydroxybutyrate (BHB), acetoacetate and acetone. Ketones are used as an energy source by the body in the absence of carbohydrates (8).
When a person enters what’s called “nutritional ketosis,” the body is primarily using ketones for energy instead of glucose.
Different ketogenic diets exist, but each typically restricts carbohydrate intake to 50 grams or less per day. While ketogenic macronutrient profiles do vary, but a common profile is 75% fat, 20% protein and 5% carbohydrates.
Ketogenic nutrition and inflammation
A 2008 study looked at the effects of a very-low-calorie ketogenic diet (VLCKD) in 40 overweight men and women over a 12-week period who received either a ketogenic diet or a low-fat diet (9).
The researchers found that the people who were on the ketogenic diet had greater decreases in markers of inflammation, such as tumor necrosis factor-α and interleukins. They also found very significant improvements in levels of blood fats.
A large group of patients with type 2 diabetes mellitus (T2DM) were studied over a one-year period (10). The researchers wanted to see what effects a carbohydrate-restricted diet ─ one that maintained nutritional ketosis ─ would have on indicators of heart health and inflammation.
The carbohydrate-restricted participants saw many heart-health markers improve, including decreased blood pressure and reduced levels of C-reactive protein (CRP, an indicator of inflammation).
Other studies have shown the anti-inflammation effects of a ketogenic diet in Alzheimer’s disease (11), epilepsy in children (12-14) and animal examples of Parkinson’s disease (15).
Can the ketogenic diet reduce inflammation?
In a word: yes. We can feel really good about following a ketogenic diet, especially since its inflammation-reducing powers translate to so many potential benefits in heart health, insulin health and neuroprotection.
- Anft, M. “Understanding inflammation.” John’s Hopkins Health Review. Spring/Summer 2016. Available here: https://www.johnshopkinshealthreview.com/issues/spring-summer-2016/articles/understanding-inflammation
- Szalay J, et al. “What is inflammation?” October 19, 2018. Available here: https://www.livescience.com/52344-inflammation.html
- “What is inflammation?” September 13, 2018. Available here: https://www.webmd.com/arthritis/about-inflammation#1
- “Inflammation: A unifying theory of disease?” Harvard Health Letter. April 2006. Available here: https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/Inflammation_A_unifying_theory_of_disease
- Aeberli I, et al. “Low to moderate sugar-sweetened beverage consumption impairs glucose and lipid metabolism and promotes inflammation in healthy young men: a randomized controlled trial.” Am J Clin Nutr. 2011;94(2):479-485.
- Dickinson S, et al. “High-glycemic index carbohydrate increases nuclear factor-kappaB activation in mononuclear cells of young, lean healthy subjects.” Am J Clin Nutr. 2008;87(5):1188-1193.
- Buyken AE, et al. “Carbohydrate nutrition and inflammatory disease mortality in older adults.” Am J Clin Nutr. 2010;92(3):634-643.
- Akram M. “A focused review of the role of ketone bodies in health and disease.” J Med Food. 2013;16(11):965-967.
- Forsythe CE, et al. “Comparison of low fat and low carbohydrate diets on circulating fatty acid composition and markers of inflammation.” Lipids. 2008;43(1):65-77.
- Bhanpuri NH, et al. “Cardiovascular disease risk factor responses to a type 2 diabetes care model including nutritional ketosis induced by sustained carbohydrate restriction at 1 year: an open label, non-randomized, controlled study.” Cardiovasc Diabetol. 2018;17(1):56. doi: 10.1186/s12933-018-0698-8.
- Pinto A, et al. “Anti-oxidant and anti-Inflammatory activity of ketogenic diet: New perspectives for neuroprotection in Alzheimer’s disease.” Antioxidants (Basel). 2018;7(5). pii: E63. doi: 10.3390/antiox7050063.
- Dhamija R, et al. “Ketogenic diet.” Can J Neurol Sci. 2013;40(2):158-167.
- Phillips MCL. “Ketogenic diet therapies in children with epilepsy.” In: Epilepsy─Advances in Diagnosis and Therapy. Intertech Open. Published January 18, 2019.
- Lima PA, et al. “Ketogenic diet in epileptic children: impact on lipoproteins and oxidative stress.” Nutr Neurosci. 2015;18(8):337-344.
- Yang X and Cheng B. “Neuroprotective and anti-inflammatory activities of ketogenic diet on MPTP-induced neurotoxicity.” J Mol Neurosci. 2010;42(2):145-53.