The body utilizes three principal macronutrients to ensure it remains properly fueled at all times: carbohydrates, fats, and protein. Each of these fuel sources burn off on a predictable spectrum where each source serves a specific purpose.
Carbohydrates, for instance, act as an immediate fuel source that we use often throughout the day. Fats act as a reserve fuel source and are burned during bouts of low-intensity physical exercise or if our stores of carbohydrates are depleted. And finally, proteins are used to build and repair tissue, as well as make enzymes, hormones, and other body chemicals.
But what would happen if we chose to manipulate how our body uses its fuel? Often we do this by employing diets that limit our intake of certain macronutrients, thus making us more dependent on the other macronutrients. One of these diets is called the ketogenic diet — a popular diet that stresses eating an extremely limited amount of carbs (or no carbs at all) in order to burn more fats.
As a result of the ketogenic diet, or keto diet for short, the liver breaks down the fatty acids in fats, and creates ketone bodies as a result. These ketone bodies are individual, water-soluble compounds that serve as fuel for the brain, heart, and muscles in times when carbohydrates are in short supply. And the predominant ketone body that accounts for upwards of 78% of all ketone bodies in the blood is called beta-hydroxybutyrate, or BHB for short.
So why is this ketone body so important, and why do we produce so much of it? What purpose does it serve, and why should we care how much our bodies are making? To find out more, let’s dive deeper into the world of fats, ketone bodies, and BHB.
Let’s Talk About Ketosis
Now before we take a blind leap into the world of Beta-hydroxybutyrate, we need to first discuss the normal metabolic process of ketosis. Ketosis occurs whenever the body is running low on glucose from carbs, and therefore, can’t rely on glucose as a source of energy. At times like this, the body shifts to burning fats instead, and the process of ketosis takes place.
When the body burns fats for fuel, a build-up of acids called ketone bodies (or ketones, for short) will accumulate and must then be converted into fuel. Ketosis is often considered a healthy process because it induces weight loss, lowers blood sugar levels, and reduces seizures in epileptic children. Yet for a small portion of the population, ketosis can pose a risk if left uncontrolled.
For instance, those who suffer from type 1 diabetes can encounter diabetic ketoacidosis, a complication in which the body’s insulin deficiency causes ketone bodies to build up in the blood. When this occurs, the blood becomes acidic and systems within the body can’t function properly.
But for others, ketosis serves as a weight-loss method and can even be rather healthy. When ketosis takes place, BHB is produced as a result.
So What Is Beta-Hydroxybutyrate and What Does It Do?
As stated in brief detail above, BHB stands for beta-hydroxybutyrate, and it serves us as the most abundant ketone body of the three that are produced by the liver during the process of ketosis.
Beta-hydroxybutyrate is so special because of what it can do when our accessible calories from carbs run low. These calories may run low for a number of different reasons that include exercise, fasting, caloric restriction, or following a special diet plan like the keto diet. But when they do run low, BHB levels increase in the brain, heart, muscles, and other tissue.
So what does BHB do exactly? Ultimately, it serves as a crucial source of fuel for countless systems within our body, and provides us with a number of potential benefits. Let’s discuss what those benefits are in more detail.
Benefits of BHB
As the primary ketone body found in the blood during the process of ketosis, BHB serves us principally as a fuel source. During the process of breaking down this ketone, BHB is used as fuel by the mitochondria after being converted into acetoacetate and then to acetyl-CoA, an enzyme that works endlessly during metabolic processes to provide us with energy.
Additionally, beta-hydroxybutyrate acts as a powerful energy source for our brain. Because BHB can easily cross the blood-brain barrier, it’s particularly well-suited to providing the brain with energy. It should be noted, however, that BHB does more for our brains than simply provide them with fuel.
Beta-hydroxybutyrate can also trigger the release of chemicals called neurotrophins, which support neuron function and synapse formation. Research indicates that one of the neurotrophins BHB triggers is associated with cognitive enhancement, alleviation of depression, and reduction in anxiety
Measuring BHB in the Blood
In order to ensure the body remains in a state of nutritional ketosis, those who are strongly committed to the ketogenic diet need to regularly measure blood ketone levels to verify the presence of ketones in the blood, urine, and breath.
To do this, we can employ the same equipment used during diabetes care. A handheld blood glucose monitor is the most commonly used tool for the job because it has the ability to measure blood ketone levels with ease. And of the three ketone bodies that exist (BHB, Acetone, and Acetoacetate), BHB is the only ketone body that can be measured in the blood with a simple finger prick.
Acetoacetate is measured in the urine with a dipstick device, as urine ketones are commonly excreted during ketosis. And Acetone is measured in the breath (though this is more difficult to measure and a fairly uncommon thing to track even for the most dedicated keto practitioners).
Using Ketone Supplements
Employing low-carbohydrate diets or limiting carbohydrate intake are not the only ways to induce a state of ketosis. While we may consume high-fat foods as a means of lowering glucose levels endogenously (internally), we can also consume ketone supplements that seek to mimic ketosis and raise blood glucose levels without actually having to change our diet. These are called exogenous ketones.
There are two main forms of exogenous ketone supplements that seek to make this possible: ketone salts and ketone esters. Ketone salts are simply ketone bodies bound to a salt such as sodium, potassium, calcium, or magnesium. They’re most often found in powder form rather than mixed with liquid.
Ketone esters, on the other hand, are linked to a compound called an ester and are packaged in liquid form. These are used more commonly during research and aren’t as readily available as ketone salts.
The other primary reason we may use ketone supplements is in conjunction with the ketogenic diet. By taking these supplements, we actually stand to reduce the time it takes to enter a state of ketosis, which lessens the unpleasant side effects that can come from transitioning from a standard, higher-carb diet to a ketogenic one.
Potential Side Effects of the Ketogenic Diet and Ketone Supplements
As is the case with most diets and dietary supplements, side effects may occur and should be taken into account. For instance, the ketogenic diet may induce what’s known as the “keto flu.” Symptoms of this flu include constipation, headache, bad breath, muscle cramps, and diarrhea. Though these symptoms will subside over time.
Exogenous ketone supplements, on the other hand, may suppress appetite or even inhibit fat breakdown. Evidence does not fully support the use of ketone supplements, and further research is necessary to ensure they’re safe for long-term use and perform the tasks they claim.
And because ketone supplements are attached to a salt, they actually contain calories. As a result of this, you may be consuming more calories as you take repeated doses of ketone salts throughout the day to remain in a state of ketosis.
Beta-hydroxybutyrate, Ketosis, and You
When all is said and done, undergoing the process of ketosis allows your body to produce and utilize the three main ketone bodies that are fit for fuel. Of these three, BHB is a powerful ketone body that can provide a number of helpful benefits should you choose to utilize the ketogenic diet as a means of biohacking your body and losing weight. That said, it’s important to speak with your healthcare provider to determine whether entering a state of ketosis is right for you.
Should you receive the all-clear to adopt the ketogenic diet, remember the side effects that may occur and be prepared to experience the “keto flu.” And as your body receives fuel from those powerful ketone bodies, also remember to thank beta-hydroxybutyrate for all the good it can do along the way.