Ketosis Immune System

ketosis immune system

“Ketosis immune system” – this is a relationship that needs its own discussion. An improved immune system is one of the many purported benefits of the ketogenic diet. But does such a link exist or is it all just hype and marketing buzzwords? Let’s find out.

Most of us take our immune system for granted until something goes wrong. We mostly notice the immune system when it breaks down (when we catch a cold or a seasonal infection). But there is much more to the immune system than fighting off colds and infection.

The immune system plays a pivotal role in protecting the body from a range of diseases, invading organisms, pathogens, and anything else that could pose a threat. It’s like the body’s military intelligence system that is equipped with various defensive mechanisms to ward off the bad guys. And if a pathogen were to breach the body’s systems, it is met with immediate aggression as the immune system organizes an attack to thwart the intruder.

This simplistic, minimalistic explanation of the body’s defense mechanism is the immune system’s inflammatory response.

Perhaps even more surprising is the adaptation of the immune system to new pathogens and diseases as they evolve. Every time the body is hit by new diseases or viruses, the immune system finds more effective ways of killing them. The immune system also makes it easier for the immune cells to identify pathogens and viruses if they decide to invade the body again.

However, as impressive as the immune system is, it requires the right conditions to mount optimal defenses. It needs various aspects of the body to be healthy – including the skin, the gastrointestinal tract, and the respiratory tract. The immune system also needs resources in the form of macro and micronutrients, as well as healthy organs and vascular systems.

This means that everything from the food we eat and our sleep patterns to our electrolyte balance and stress burden can influence how effectively the immune system wards off an attack. This is where the keto diet comes in.

Explaining the Sophistry Behind the Adaptive Immune System

ketosis immune system

When bacteria invade the body, they have to face a formidable opponent: the adaptive immune system.

It’s a scientific term used to describe a ‘custom’ response that the immune system has for each antigen. The adaptive immune system comprises of lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell. Vero low carbohydrate diets such as the keto diet are known for profoundly impacting the specific responses of lymphocytes in a balanced way.

Lymphocytes develop in the bone marrow and are divided into two different types: B cells (B lymphocytes) and T cells (T lymphocytes). Lymphocytes have the ability to travel all around the body, but they are mostly concentrated in special areas known as the lymph nodes.

Our body contains lymph nodes in the neck region, chest, abdomen, and groin. So if you ever notice your neck swelling up when you’re under the weather, you’ve found one set of lymph nodes.

B lymphocytes are further divided into different types that can transform into plasmocytes and produce antibodies for specific antigens. Antibodies are molecules that bind to foreign invaders and initiate the process of clearing them from the body. If you’ve ever had an infection before, your B cells in the body will remember it in the future, immediately recognize the pathogen, and mobilize antibodies to combat it.

Although antibodies are good for discovering bacteria, you need something to kill them. This is where the T-cell activation comes in. T-cell metabolism can improve communication with B cells and phagocytes to coordinate an aggressive immune response to antigens that eventually leads to their destruction.

This was a very broad yet simplified way of outlining the immune system but should serve as a good introduction for anyone who wants to optimize the keto diet.

How the Keto Diet Supports Our Immune System

keto friendly fruits

The keto diet (or the ketogenic diet) follows a low-carb diet plan that redistributes macronutrients in the following ratio:

70% fat, 20% proteins, 10% carbs

The primary goal of the keto diet is to burn fat and make ketones for powering the body.

A growing body of health professionals agree that the keto diet helps optimizes the body’s metabolic state, improves mental clarity, lowers inflammation and blood pressure, and improves the immune system.

It is worth noting that every person’s response to the keto diet will depend on a number of factors including activity level, lifestyle choices, age, and genetics, among others.

There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach to the ketogenic diet. Keto dieters should regularly keep track of their health markers and how they change in response to dietary choices.

Studies indicate that ketone bodies can play a role in reducing cellular damage by improving the efficiency of the body’s inflammatory response. As such, the keto diet allows the body to regulate inflammation through the release and production of ketone bodies.

Evidence also suggests that the keto diet can improve the gut microbiome, reduce the likelihood of a leaky gut, and balance gut flora. It is a well known fact that there is a strong correlation between a healthy gut and a well functioning immune system. Poor insulin sensitivity and high blood sugar levels can also increase the body’s risk of various health issues.

For one thing, a keto diet eliminates gut irritants from causing intestinal inflammation in the first place. Traditional keto foods can help repopulate the gut with useful bacteria and reduce the damage of antibiotics in the body and strengthen the gastrointestinal tract against any pathogens that try to break in.

It may be helpful to take a probiotic supplement. The keto diet will also eliminate small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) that leads to gut symbiosis and starve helpful bacteria.

This doesn’t mean that the keto diet is perfect – there are always outliers who will have an adverse reaction to the diet.

While it’s true that a ketogenic diet can starve pathogens and unfriendly bacteria of nutrition, certain types of pathogens prefer ketones instead of glucose. This is a lose-lose situation for immune system cells because they need glucose to fight these pathogens.

Additionally, glucose is useful for strengthening the cell lining of the gut wall.

This creates a dilemma for most keto dieters. On the one hand, the keto diet can manage bacterial overgrowth and boost immunity to certain pathogens; on the other hand, increasing your carb intake can provide nutrition to beneficial bacteria and boost human T-cell immunity against certain pathogens. Diabetic patients can improve human T-cell immune capacity by implementing the keto diet. The immune system releases T-cells in response to pathogens.

For more details on T-cell immunometabolism, read this study.

The good news is that you can get the benefits of the keto diet by cycling your carbohydrate intake. Combining the keto diet with intermittent fasting can result in several benefits of ketosis without requiring you to completely cut out carbohydrates from the diet. A moderate amount of starches can also satiate the body’s need for glucose, giving you the best of both worlds.

As is true with most health conditions, non-dietary factors can be a major contributor to immune problems. Sleep deprivation and chronic diseases are linked to inflammation. This means that even the most well-designed keto diet won’t be of much help if you’re not getting enough sleep.

The Macronutrient Content of the Keto Diet

Keto friendly smoothies for the immune system

Your nutrient intake is particularly important for maintaining a healthy immune system. It is not uncommon to have extremely low doses of one micronutrient that can devastate the immune system. Some people suffer from varying levels of deficiencies in their micronutrients, which can further impair their immune function.

This problem can be easily fixed by taking a balanced and healthy diet that meets the minimum levels of certain micronutrients. A balanced diet is a superior approach to taking enormous supplemental doses of, say magnesium or zinc.

Unlike the Western diet, the keto diet shifts the macronutrient ratio in favor of healthy fats. Fats can significantly boost the immune system. Increasing your fat intake, especially from medium chain triglycerides (MCT) found in coconut oil, can increase HDL to improve the immune system and resistance to all kinds of pathogens and viral infections.

The Keto Diet Improves Insulin Sensitivity

People who start a ketogenic diet can greatly improve their insulin resistance, primarily due to the release of ketones. Of course, it also helps that the body’s overall intake of carbohydrates is reduced. The loss of body weight due to the ketogenic diet also reduces insulin resistance.

However, we don’t have that many studies indicating the longevity of this improved insulin sensitivity. Although most individuals may not be required to stay in ketosis for extended periods of time, some individuals have been found to maintain their metabolic health by continuing a well-planned ketogenic diet.

It is possible to add carbs back into the standard diet, but this should be done in modest amounts over time. Studies also recommend that individuals should also monitor important health markers such as serum triglycerides, HbAC1, and fasting blood glucose to manage insulin resistant conditions such as type II diabetes and metabolic syndrome.

The Link Between the Immune System and Insulin Sensitivity

Although the link between immune health and insulin sensitivity isn’t very obvious, it is believed that immune cells are regulated by metabolic signals from insulin.

Specialists who have investigated the role of insulin on the immune system believe that there is a link between the two. For example, obese individuals, or people with diabetes (type II), seem to have poor immune responses to pathogens and infections compared to healthier people.

Research has also revealed that T cell, mostly found in abdominal fat, can negatively affect the body’s responsiveness to insulin. This points out to a strong link between chronic disease insulin resistance, and poor immune systems.

The same research also found that the insulin signaling pathway mobilized T cell stimulation, allowing them to multiply and bolster their signals, which helped activate the immune system.

This research was carried out on genetically modified mice but it does provide an insightful link between the keto diet, insulin sensitivity, and the immune system.

A Bad Diet Can Absolutely Wreck the Immune System

Regardless of the type of diet, the body needs access to high quality sources of macronutrients to improve the immune system. Studies have shown that processed sugar and fried foods can lead to lower insulin sensitivity, poor gut health, problems with inflammatory response, and blood sugar.

The modern diet includes many foods that can make the job of our immune system much harder. Grains (especially gluten grains) are gut irritants and legumes are well known offenders. These foods contain lectin, a harmful chemical compound that has been known to cause problems for some people.

Leaky Gut and Harmful Autoimmune Responses

Some food groups harm the immune system by triggering chronic inflammation that leads to irritation in the gut. This leads to well known problems such as leaky gut and intestinal permeability.

Leaky gut means that the gut lining has been damaged and can no longer function as a barrier because the smaller holes become larger. This allows harmful substances such as toxins and gluten to enter the system and cause unmitigated damage. When it works properly, the gut allows nutrients into the system but keeps pathogens and toxins out.

The cells of the gut are densely packed together, preventing anything harmful from entering the bloodstream, but when the gut becomes inflamed, the junctions between these cells become loose and the intestinal wall becomes a less effective barrier against substances that don’t belong in the bloodstream.

The permeability of the intestinal wall is bad because it triggers the immune system into attacking everything it identifies as harmful. This is bad because it puts too much unnecessary stress on the immune system and deprives it of the resources needed to fight off other pathogens in the body.

Worse still is the fact that a leaky gut can trigger an autoimmune response. It’s when the adaptive immune system attacks harmless parts of the body because they are similar to specific pathogens. Leaky gut is a contributing factor to autoimmune diseases such as Crohn’s Disease, Rheumatoid Arthritis, and Type I diabetes.

The good news is that the keto diet can improve symptoms associated with a leaky gut and permeability.

Other lifestyle choices that disrupt the immune system include frequent smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, being sedentary for long periods of time, and taking too much stress.

Can the Keto Diet Manage Stress?

Stress, in particular, can disrupt immune health and affect its response to fight off viruses and pathogens. The human body is more susceptible to infections during high levels of stress. This is because the stress hormone, cortisol, can lower the number of lymphocytes that can lead to immune suppression.

And this is where the keto diet seems to show promise. Studies have shown that the keto diet can have beneficial effects in terms of relieving depression, stress, and anxiety. The keto diet can also improve mitochondrial function (also known as the ‘powerhouse of the cell’), which can reduce depression and mental anxiety.

Common Foods for the Ketogenic Diet

Let’s take a look at some of the most common foods that you can eat on a very-low-calorie ketogenic diet and their role on the immune system.

Broccoli

Broccoli is considered to be a superfood by health experts. It contains sulforaphane, a powerful antioxidant that can boost the immune system. Broccoli also contains essential minerals like phosphorus, iron, and magnesium. This is useful in the early stages of the keto diet when the body starts clearing itself of nutrients through urine.

Spinach

Spinach is a low-carb food that is incredibly rich in zinc, fiber, and niacin. It promotes gut health and plays an important role in fighting illness and disease.

Almonds

Most people following the keto diet probably already know the health benefits of almonds. They are full of healthy fats that can give your immune system a helping hand. One study found that almonds have a major antiviral effect.

Coconut Oil

Coconut oil is a staple of the keto diet. It has a low carb content with one of the healthiest oils you can use to cook, along with avocado oil and olive oil. Coconut oil is a rich source of monounsaturated fats which reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Coconut oil also reduces inflammation, which can protect you from various types of cancer, flu virus, and colds.

Raspberries

Raspberries are a low-carb fruit that are a favorite among keto dieters. They are rich in omega 3 fatty acids and can manage the risk of heart disease in certain individuals. They also contain manganese, which is necessary for regulating blood sugar as well as skin and bone health.

Blueberries

No list documenting keto-friendly foods is complete without mentioning blueberries. These immune-boosting superfoods are a rich source of antioxidants that can reduce tissue inflammation and oxidative stress.

For such a small fruit, they pack a nutritional punch. Blueberries also contain essential vitamins and minerals.

Salmon

Salmon is a rich source of healthy unsaturated fats and proteins. It is rich in omega 3 fatty acids like DHA and EPA that are good for human immunity and brain health. Salmon is both delicious and easy to prepare, making it one of the best foods you can eat when you are on the keto diet.

Strawberries

Strawberries are keto-approved fruits that are nutritious, delicious, and full of health benefits. They are low in carbs, and high in fiber. Their macronutrient content lends them well to low carb diets. As a matter of fact, a 1-cup serving of strawberries only contains 11.7 grams of carbs.

This was just a small list of low-carb immune boosting foods that also happen to be keto-friendly. Make sure to be smart about food portioning by properly counting your carbs. Here’s an article on what carbs look like to help you plan your keto diet.

Ketosis Immune System and the Keto Flu

Lemon tea

The term keto flu is used to refer to a state of fatigue that occurs when the body enters into a state of ketosis. It is worth noting that keto flu does not have serious negative conditions or any link between viral and bacterial illnesses that could impact the immune system.

With that said, keto flu can induce a range of mild negative effects such as bloating, dizziness, constipation, and muscle cramps. As mentioned earlier, there is a large degree of interindividual variability on a person’s response to the keto diet, including keto flu.

This is why it is strongly recommended to make the transition to the keto diet as gradual as possible. Slowly cutting out refined foods before switching over to whole foods for carbs, and then slowly decreasing the intake of carbs until it accounts for only 5% of the daily macronutrient intake.

Careful monitoring of your body’s biomarkers can also ease the transition to keto and reduce some of the unpleasant adverse effects associated with keto flu. Drinking more fluids to introduce more electrolytes into the body can also reduce the impact of keto flu.

It may also be recommended to take keto supplements to exogenously boost the amount of BHB in the body. This can go a long way in minimizing the uncomfortable experiences associated with the keto diet. Keto supplementation makes the transition to ketosis easier and allows a person to manage the symptoms of keto flu.

Working out to improve the body composition can also improve the immune system.

Important Takeaways for Ketosis Immune System

The keto diet appears to improve the body’s immune system through various mechanisms, including rapid weight loss, cutting out junk foods, and improving insulin sensitivity. The keto diet eases the burden on the body by emphasizing more green vegetables, moderate protein intake, whole foods, and cutting down on unhealthy fats.

However, not all people may find a positive association with ketosis on account of certain side effects that may be too much for certain individuals to tolerate. Sometimes the symptoms of keto flu may be too difficult to manage, inducing fatigue, sleep disruption, and headaches. You can improve this to some extent by taking in more fluids to restore electrolyte balance.

We strongly suggest consulting your doctor for more guidance on how the keto diet can improve your immune system, particularly if you are using it for blood sugar control.

Founder, Certified Ketogenic Diet and Ketosis Health Coach.

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