If you want to win the battle of the bulge, cutting down on added sugars and processed food is mandatory. But during a pandemic, the primary concern shifts from cosmetic to one of survival. In light of this, does eating a low-carb diet support a healthy immune system?
You already know how toxic sugar is and how it can weaken the immune system. So these days, during a pandemic, you’re extra diligent about what you put in your body. You think twice before having that extra glass of wine and you’re eating Smartcakes and sweetening your home-baked goodies with Monk Fruit extract.
But let’s take it a step further. Does significantly reducing carbohydrates, i.e. following a ketogenic diet, have advantages for your immune system?
Research Supports Low-Carb Diets For Healthy Immune Systems
A study published in the journal, Nutrients, found indirect supporting evidence. In the study, which reviewed the most recent research within the last 15 years, ketogenic diets were associated with improvements in some cardiovascular risk factors, such as obesity, type 2 diabetes and cholesterol levels.
Considering that people with obesity, type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol are more at risk for developing COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, following a ketogenic diet may help improve these chronic conditions and may thus promote a more balanced, immune system.
In several preclinical trials, a ketogenic diet has been shown to “Impede tumor growth in a variety of cancers through anti-angiogenic, anti-inflammatory, and proapoptotic mechanisms,” says this abstract.
A study on mice in the journal, Science Immunology, showed that the immune systems of experimental rodents, who were fed a ketogenic diet, were better able to battle the flu.
There are dozens of other studies that demonstrate positive immune responses resulting from low-carbohydrate diets.
How Does The Keto Diet Enhance the Immune System?
Let’s start with the study above on mice fed a keto diet. Researchers discovered an unexpected finding: a ketogenic diet activates a subset of T cells (white blood cells) in the lungs not previously associated with the immune system's response to influenza. The T cells were better able to trap the virus. In addition, the keto diet blocks inflammasomes, which may cause harmful immune system responses.
The takeaway from the study, according to the researchers, is that not only can a ketogenic diet effectively burn body fat, the ketone bodies (fatty acids) also serve as fuel for the immune system. On a final note from the study, in comparison to mice fed a normal, high-carb diet, the keto rodents had a higher survival rate from the influenza virus.
Obviously, mice are not humans, so further testing is needed. But one thing to keep in mind is that to potentially achieve the same benefits as the mice, you need to stay in ketosis. Research has found that exogenous ketones (supplements that make it easy and quick to enter ketosis) did not provide the same flu-fighting protection as endogenous ketones (your body’s natural fatty acids).
Another link to keto diets and improved immune function involves gut health. Research studies show that keto diets help improve gut ecology. Having enough friendly bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract is vital for fighting infection and preventing autoimmune disease. Eating a diet high in carbohydrates can lead to gut dysbiosis, a condition in which there is too much yeast and not enough friendly bacteria.
Approximately 80% of the immune system resides in the gut. Therefore, if you want a healthy immune system, you have to have a healthy gut.
The Keto Diet for Low Inflammation
If your body is plagued with chronic inflammation, the inflammation can potentially wreak havoc on your immune system.
Remember reading about inflammasomes from above? Inflammasomes aren’t necessarily bad. They help us recover from an infection. But just like with anything else in life, too much of any one thing can be harmful. And this is certainly the case with inflammasomes. The amount of inflammasomes released by certain enzymes and proteins can be excessive. The ketone, BHB, may help solve the problem of an exaggerated inflammasome response by preventing their formation.
Another way in which keto diets curb inflammation is by making the body much more sensitive to insulin. If you are highly resistant to insulin, you are at more risk at developing infections.
Most likely, there are other ways in which following a low carb diet helps balance the immune system that have yet to be revealed by research studies. As interest in low carb diets continues to grow, we can expect more exciting finds in the link between the immune system and ketogenic diets.