My Experience on the Keto Diet: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
The ketogenic diet is all the rage these days, with what seems like everyone from weight loss enthusiasts to people trying to heal their guts jumping on this trendy diet.
And don’t worry if that’s you, I’m totally not knocking your dietary choices - I was there too.
I found myself researching a ketogenic way of eating after I had been on a low FODMAP/SCD diet for about two years in order to manage my SIBO symptoms and heal my gut.
I had gone so low carb for so long that I was having issues with my blood sugar. I would wake up at the same time every night (a cortisol spike in my body’s attempt to keep my blood sugar from dipping too low during the overnight fast). And I could barely go a few hours without eating before I would start to sweat and get shaky (another response by my body in attempt to bring my blood sugar back to a normal level).
From my research, I had discovered many keto experts proclaiming that getting into ketosis would help to regulate any blood sugar imbalances - so I was hooked.
I also thought that if I went even more low carb than I already was that it could help to starve out some of my overgrowth and my gut symptoms would get even better (hint: you can’t actually starve an overgrowth by reducing carb intake!).
So, I decided to sign up to participate in, what is now, a very successful online program to help women transition into ketosis safely and effectively. I thought I had nothing to lose - I was being safe by having the guidance of a trained professional, and this new diet would for sure help correct my blood sugar imbalances that my previous diet had caused.
What I didn’t know was that I was in for an interesting and fairly detrimental detour on my health journey. But don’t get me wrong, being in ketosis did some great things for my body. However, it also had a lot of negative side effects - some of which I’m still recovering from a year and a half later.
That’s why in this article I’m going to outline the good, the bad, and the downright ugly effects of my month and a half in ketosis.
What is a Ketogenic Diet?
For anyone who is unfamiliar with this trendy diet, here’s a super quick overview before we get into the good stuff.
A ketogenic diet is a style of eating where you drastically decrease your carbohydrate consumption (say to around 5-10% of your total calories), drastically increase your fat consumption (to around 60-80% of your total calories), and moderate your protein consumption (about 15-30% of your total calories).
In a standard, non-ketogenic diet, your body uses the glucose in the carbs you eat as fuel for all of its activities. But, when you limit your carb intake your body has no more glucose available to use for fuel.
That’s when the switch into ketosis happens - where your body starts to produce ketones as fuel in response to the increase in fat and decrease in carbs, instead of the glucose it used to use.
Ketosis will only happen if you both get your carb intake low enough AND your fat intake high enough. Many people simply lower their carb intake without realizing how much fat they actually need to eat in order to get their bodies to transition into ketosis.
Without increasing your fat intake substantially, you’ll be severely undereating and doing way more damage to your body than ketosis could ever fix.
That’s why it was important for me to make the switch into ketosis with a trained professional - and if you’re thinking about trying this diet, I recommend you do the same!
Now, on to my takeaways from my time as a fat burner!
It may seem that my experience with the ketogenic diet was all bad, when in fact that couldn’t be further from the truth! I don’t regret my decision to try this diet and get my body into a ketogenic state - it did great things for some areas of my health.
Before starting on a ketogenic diet, I was unable to tolerate most any FODMAPs. They would give me symptoms of gas, bloating, fatigue, and brain fog.
But, after decreasing my carb intake in increasing my consumption of healthy fats, I noticed that my body was able to tolerate more FODMAP containing foods that it could previously.
The version of keto I followed in the program had me eliminating all starchy carbs, but encouraged me to eat as many non-starchy veggies as my heart desired (things like asparagus, broccoli, brussel sprouts, and onions) - which were all high in FODMAPs.
I was a little hesitant to eat copious amounts of these FODMAP containing foods since they previously caused me tons of symptoms, but in the spirit of following the program’s guidelines I went for it, and I was very pleased with the result.
These vegetables no longer caused the severe symptoms that they once had. And while, I’m not saying that this will be everyone’s experience in ketosis, it definitely was mine.
And there is research to show that going on a low carb diet (<20g of carbs) can help to reduce the amount of bacteria in your gut, and the prevalence of short-chain fatty acids in your gut (which are produced by gut bacteria and can affect your metabolism among other things)
I also realized that, with my dietary restrictions on the low-FODMAP and SCD diets, I had been severely undereating which had likely been contributing to many of my symptoms (like fatigue and difficulty sleeping).
In the program I was in, we were given a template for a minimum amount of carbs, fat, and protein we were supposed to eat.
For me, this template not only served as a great guideline for helping me gradually transition into ketosis, but made me realize that the amount of food I was eating prior to starting the program was nowhere near enough for my body size and activity level.
As soon as I started eating more (even before I made it into ketosis) I had so much more energy and was able to function a lot better during the day.
This realization was truly eye opening, and has really shaped the way I eat and approach my meals currently by making sure that I’m fueling my body properly - and the changes I’ve noticed have been better than any supplement or protocol I’ve been on!
After I realized that keto wasn’t working for my body (details in The Ugly section), I did the only thing you can do to get out of ketosis, increase my carb intake.
However, going back to eating even a small amount of starchy carbs was not the easiest task for my carb-deprived body.
I had developed what science calls physiological insulin resistance. Which is basically just your body’s protective response to low levels of carbohydrate in your diet. It isn’t a disease state like traditional insulin resistance, but more of a conservation mechanism.
It’s a protective state that ensures the brain gets all the glucose it needs to function when glucose availability is scarce. The brain is the only organ that actually NEEDS glucose to function - all other organs can adapt to getting fuel from ketones, but not the brain!
So, instead of having insulin shuttle the glucose into cells, the body reduces insulin levels so that any available glucose remains in the blood stream for the brain to use when necessary.
And as you could imagine, this results in a consistently elevated baseline blood sugar level. Which, for me, made the consumption of foods that raise blood sugar further (like starchy carbs) very difficult without having severe high blood sugar and then blood sugar crashes.
Basically - my body didn’t remember how to use insulin (the hormone that moves glucose out of the bloodstream and into the cells) effectively. So, when I tried to eat foods with higher carb content, all that glucose just stayed in my bloodstream giving me some pretty awful symptoms.
During this phase of carb reintroductions I would react with heart palpitations, racing heartbeat, and grogginess even to just eating half a banana.
I had found myself so deep into a state of low carb dieting, that I was afraid my body wouldn’t know how to ever get out.
Fortunately, I realized that I had to introduce these carb-heavy foods slowly, and my body eventually regulated itself and this insulin resistance resolved.
But, it was a very trying few weeks - as I knew I needed to get out of ketosis, but it seemed like my body was so resistant to carbs that I didn’t know if I’d be able to.
Now that you see all of the blood sugar issues that being in ketosis caused for my body, it probably comes as no surprise that using ketones for fuel did not rebalance my blood sugar as I imagined it would, but it really only masked the symptoms.
While in ketosis, my blood sugar was very stable - but it was also elevated from what normal blood sugar would look like. My fasting blood sugar levels were always around 5-10 points higher than what is considered normal (which, according to Chris Kresser should be less than 86).
So, the effects that being in ketosis had on my blood sugar were severe, and definitely served as a huge stressor on my already stressed out body - and, in retrospect, is not something that I would recommend someone with issues controlling their blood sugar take on.
I learned the hard way that being in ketosis is a stress response on the body, and in a body that is already under stress from having an autoimmune disease and chronic gut infections, it’s a recipe for disaster.
Like I said before, the brain needs to use glucose as fuel, it just can’t function without it. And when there isn’t enough glucose available from your diet, your body (being the smart, capable body that it is) makes its own glucose.
The creation of new glucose (or gluconeogenesis for all you sciency people) occurs in the liver and is carried out when there isn’t enough glucose available to support the brain’s energy needs (like on a ketogenic diet).
This process of creating glucose by the liver is stimulated by none other than cortisol (our stress response hormone) - making this process part of the body’s stress response.
So, while I thought I was doing my body a favor by being in ketosis, I was actually creating a highly stressful state, causing my adrenal glands to pump out cortisol in order to maintain adequate amounts of glucose in my body for my brain to function.
All of this resulted in me feeling completely awful the last few weeks I was in ketosis.
I knew my body was pretty unhappy being in this state when I found myself winded just going up the stairs in my house, and not being able to concentrate or think straight. My body was crying for help, and I finally learned that I really needed to start listening and eat some carbs!
As a result of this massive amount of stress I put on myself, I developed HPA dysregulation (more widely known as adrenal fatigue), and some serious cortisol dysregulation. These conditions manifested themselves in my body producing far too much cortisol in the morning, and then having a subsequent cortisol crash in the early evening - leaving me feeling jittery and anxious early in the day, and utterly exhausted by 3pm.
And, whenever cortisol is dysregulated, other hormones are bound to be out of whack as well. Since my cortisol was so elevated, I started exhibiting other symptoms of an overstressed body - my hair started falling out in clumps, I started getting night sweats and hot flashes during the day (not something any 26 year old wants to experience!), and I was unable to exercise like I was used to (exercise is also a stressor on the body).
My body was trying its best to keep itself afloat while I was in ketosis, that when I finally made my way back to a glucose filled diet, my body was left drained and depleted.
It’s been about a year and half since my days as a fat burner, and I’m just now beginning to fully recover my exercise tolerance and see my adrenals and stress response calm down - definitely a long road to recovery after just a short, but highly stressful period.
Now, I don’t want you to think that my experience speaks for everyone - there are plenty of women who thrive in ketosis, I just wasn’t one of them.
And I hope that by putting my unique experience out there, I can help other people looking into a ketogenic diet make a more informed decision than I was able to.
The Bottom Line
Despite all of the challenges and detrimental effects it had on my body, I don’t regret my time in ketosis - it helped me get to a place where I could expand my diet (which I’ve been able to maintain today), and likely brought issues to the surface that would have emerged anyways (but probably not in the extreme and urgent fashion that ketosis made them).
I learned a lot about my body, and exactly how I need to care for it - eating plenty of real food and including loads of carbs!
But, I do hope that you take my experience as a word of caution. Nothing we do, whether it be through diet, supplements, or medication, is done in a vacuum. Your body is not a group of individual organs, it’s a very intricate system of interconnected parts - so a change in one area is bound to have an effect on another.
And if you do decide to try a ketogenic diet, I highly recommend that you do so with a trained professional who can determine if it is actually the right choice for you, and guide you every step of the way. This isn’t a diet just to “try out” - you’re altering a very fundamental piece of how your body operates, and not everyone’s body will take kindly to this change.