By Robert Schinetsky
As interest continues to grow in ketogenic diets, a number of keto supplements have surfaced in the past few years. Leading the charge of fat-fueled supps is a little compound known as beta-hydroxybutyrate, or BHB for short.
Chances are you’ve heard a great deal about BHB, as well as the potential benefits it offers, but you may not be entirely sure what BHB is, where it comes from, or why it’s included in a supplement specifically tailored to ketogenic dieters.
This article will answer all those questions and a whole lot more.
So, let’s get started!
When eating an ultra-low carbohydrate diet, the body switches from burning glucose to fat. As the liver breaks down fatty acids, it generates ketone bodies which serve as fuel for the brain, heart, and muscles in times when carbohydrates are in short supply.
In addition to eating low carb, the body also switches to running on ketones during periods of fasting, such as overnight while we sleep. Beta-hydroxybutyrate (BHB) is the most abundant of the three ketone bodies created by the liver, accounting 78% of the total ketones in the blood.
Acetoacetate (AcAc) is second most prevalent ketone body, accounting for ~20% of total ketones in the blood. And last, but not least, is acetone, which accounts for a mere 2% of blood ketones. Interestingly, both BHB and acetone are derived from acetoacetate, but it’s BHB that’s primarily used for energy production while AcAc is typically excreted via sweat and respiring (breathing).
While the brain only accounts for 2% of the body’s weight, it accounts for ~20% of the body’s energy needs on a daily basis. Typically the brain relies on glucose for fuel; however, during periods of low carbohydrate dieting, glucose is in short demand, which can lead to brain fog and difficulty concentrating. BHB supplies fast-acting fuel for the brain and is capable of supplying the brain with roughly 70% of its energy needs. Furthermore, BHB also exerts broad neuroprotective benefits including a reduction in free radicals, decreased neuroinflammation, and improved cognition in patients with dementia
DNA is the biological “instruction manual” that dictates how we grow, function, and reproduce. If DNA expression becomes limited or compromised, your cells’ ability to synthesize proteins is impaired leading to a host of health complications. BHB improves gene expression by inhibiting histone deacetylase (HDAC), an enzyme that cleaves the acetyl group from histone proteins on DNA rendering DNA less available to transcription factors.
Inhibiting HDAC improves the body’s accessibility to genes (such as FOXO and MLT1) setting off a cascade of biological activity which has been noted to lead to improvements in metabolic health, longevity, and resiliency.
In addition to their ability to support energy production and gene expression, BHB has also been noted in certain models to support the body’s resistance to oxidative stress through upregulation of FOXO.
FOXO proteins impact a wide range of mechanisms in the body including metabolism, apoptosis, and defense against oxidative stress. Together, these affect an organism’s longevity and lifespan. BHB also inhibits NLRP3, an inflammasome that stimulates release of inflammatory molecules including IL-1β, IL-18, and TNF-α. Preliminary studies note that BHB is capable of reducing levels of these inflammatory biomarkers.
Until now, we’ve been discussing ketones that are naturally produced by the body, otherwise known as endogenous ketone bodies. Ketones can also be supplemented in the form of BHB salts. BHB salts bind a molecule of BHB to a mineral such as sodium, calcium, or magnesium. When these are ingested, the body liberates the BHB to be used for energy while the minerals support a myriad of other functions in the body, such as hydration, muscle function, and blood clotting.
Now, you’re probably wondering, why would you need to supplement with BHB salts if you’re already following a ketogenic diet. Well, if a person is used to eating a very high carb diet and suddenly transitions to an ultra-low carb, ketogenic diet, it can take the body some time to get used to producing sufficient amounts of ketones to power it for its myriad of activities. While the body is “getting its act together”, flu-like symptoms can set in (lethargy, brain fog, cramping, etc). This condition in known as the keto flu.
Individuals transitioning to the keto lifestyle can supplement with exogenous ketones (in the form of BHB salts) to help ease the transition by supplying the body with readily accessible fuel. This may reduce fatigue and accelerate the body’s transition to burning fat for fuel.
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