The use of exogenous ketones (BHB Salts) are becoming more and more popular in the keto community. However, there is a lot of misunderstanding around what exogenous ketones are and how they work.
In this guide, we will go in depth on what exogenous ketones are, how to use them and the benefits they can provide.
1 Information provided in this article is for educational purposes only and is not intended to treat, cure, or diagnose any disease or condition and is not a replacement for medical advice or a doctor-patient relationship. Be sure to talk to your doctor before embarking on any new diet. The mention of or reference to any individual researcher in this article should not be taken as an endorsement from that individual. All statements contained in this article have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.
The ketogenic diet is a high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet that shifts the body into a metabolic state called “ketosis” in which it burns fat as the primary source of energy. This article will review the basics of the ketogenic diet and how exogenous ketones may help boost your efforts in weight management, athletic performance, and enhanced cognition.
There are three types of ketogenic diets: the Standard Ketogenic Diet (SKD), Cyclical Ketogenic Diet (CKD), and Targeted Ketogenic Diet (TKD). Those trying to lose weight or improve their overall health generally choose the SKD, which limits carbohydrate consumption to 50-60 grams per day, depending on how much exercise you do. Athletes tend to choose the CKD, which allows for carbohydrate loading one to two days per week to enable faster muscle growth, or the TKD, which allows for carbohydrate loading in small amounts right before exercise. Many proponents of the diet, such as endurance athletes, suggest either a 50-60% fat, 20-30% protein, 10-30% carbohydrate diet or a more strict diet of 70-90% fat, 20-30% protein, 5-10% carbohydrate.
Normally, our bodies run on glucose from carbohydrate-rich foods. However, in special circumstances, we can burn an alternative fuel source called ketones. When the liver is deprived of carbohydrates in the context of a low-carb diet (like the ketogenic diet) or starvation, it converts dietary and stored fat into ketones through a process called ketogenesis. (1) These ketones come in three forms—acetoacetic acid, beta-hydroxybutyrate, and acetone—and the first two can either be used as energy throughout the body or can be converted to acetoacetyl-CoA and acetyl-CoA for synthesis of cholesterol, fatty acids, and complex lipids. An interesting note about acetone is that it makes your breath and urine smell a little fruity and even a little like nail polish. In fact, many people can tell when their body begins to produce ketones by the smell of their urine and breath!
Note: Ketosis is different than ketoacidosis, a life-threatening state that involves dangerously high levels of ketones in people with diabetes. If you have diabetes (type 1 or type 2), make sure to consult with your doctor about any changes to your diet or supplements.
While calculating percentages of macronutrients helps immensely when starting a ketogenic diet, the most accurate way to know your level of ketosis is through measuring ketone levels through blood, breath, or urine.
Blood ketone meters are the most accurate and expensive measuring tool. Breath meters and urine strips, while less accurate, are more popular than blood ketone meters because they are cheaper and still provide helpful feedback in measuring ketosis. In daily practice, many people on the ketogenic diet simply measure their level of ketosis by how they feel, because a frequent benefit of ketosis is a feeling of energy, mental clarity, and wellbeing. These benefits come from the presence of ketones, which provide a clean, lower-oxidative energy source than glucose.
Exogenous ketones are a game-changing supplemental source of ketones that you can add to drinks or smoothies for an energy boost. Adding exogenous ketones and Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCT) to a ketogenic diet may make it easier for people to achieve ketosis and stay there. In addition, exogenous ketones and MCT oil may also help those not on a ketogenic diet experience some of the same benefits of the diet.
Most exogenous ketone supplements on the market consist of beta-hydroxybutyrate (BHB), which is one of the ketone molecules that the body can produce itself and quickly convert to energy. BHB, a ketone salt, tends to taste better than ketone esters, which are generally used only in laboratory studies.
There have been many studies on the potential ability for exogenous ketones (BHB), especially when combined with MCT oil, to aid in performance enhancement for endurance athletes, weight management, and cognitive function.
The science behind ketones and performance enhancement: Ketones, when compared gram for gram to glucose, produce more ATP than glucose and therefore more energy for each cell in the body. (2) In addition, exogenous ketones have been studied for their potential to help boost speed and endurance for endurance athletes such as cyclists and rowers, possibly because the exogenous ketones introduce metabolic flexibility into the exercise process, which means the body can alternate between burning exogenous ketones, glycogen, and fat stores. (3,4) Research indicates that at high enough doses, ketones can potentially have an anti-inflammatory effect (5,6) and reduce lactic acid production, which can help athletes recover from high intensity workouts. (7)
How to use BHB for performance enhancement: When starting to take BHB and/or MCT oil, slow and steady wins the race. Both supplements have the potential to cause bloating, gas, and loose stools as your body becomes accustomed to digesting them, so start small. For example, begin with 6g total BHB salts and 3g of MCT per day, then work your way up to double those amounts at 12g total BHB salts and 7g of MCT. If you notice symptoms of GI upset, just start smaller and increase the dose very slowly. Most people who are on a ketogenic diet produce about 12g of total BHB salts naturally through their diet, so it’s advisable to stick with 12g as a daily average BHB intake.
The science behind ketones and weight management: The ketogenic diet, especially when combined with exogenous ketones and MCT oil, is very popular because people who follow it believe it quells hunger pangs, provides quick energy, trains your body to burn its own fat stores for fuel, and raises your resting metabolic rate. Sound too good to be true? Well, read on. There have been numerous studies on the potential metabolic advantage you achieve when in ketosis.
One of the most difficult hurdles to overcome when attempting to lose weight is hunger—how can you ignore that growling stomach? Well, if you’re willing to try the ketogenic diet and/or exogenous ketones, you’re in luck, because it appears that people in ketosis experience a reduced appetite because ketones influence the hormones that signal hunger. (9) In addition, adherents of the ketogenic diet believe that ketosis can help regulate blood sugar and stimulate ATP production, which means that if it works for you, you will feel steadier energy levels and avoid those blood sugar crashes that send you to the candy bowl in the mid-afternoon. Finally, there does appear to be evidence that people in ketosis experience a higher resting metabolic rate than those on a low-fat diet. A recent study comparing resting metabolic rates in various diets showed that high-fat, low-carb diets resulted in a resting energy expenditure of 67 kcal/day higher than low-fat diets. (10) The extra energy expenditure likely occurs because even when on a high-fat diet, the brain and liver still require some glucose to operate effectively. In the absence of dietary glucose, the liver creates its own through converting protein into glucose. So, the theory is that when you are in ketosis, even during a nap you could still be burning extra calories because your liver is working hard to make glucose out of protein.
A note to those looking to manage weight: Simply adding some exogenous ketone supplements to your morning pre-workout drink is probably not going to cause easy weight loss, although it might give you an energy boost. The greater potential for weight loss is found in combining the ketogenic diet with exogenous ketones and MCT oil, which creates the metabolic advantage described above. Also, while it may sound obvious, regular exercise is a necessary part of any weight loss program. We recommend weight-lifting at least two to three times a week combined with high intensity cardio (such as sprinting). Before beginning any exercise program, however, you should consult your licensed healthcare practitioner to make sure you are healthy enough to begin.
How to use BHB for weight management:
The science behind ketones and cognitive function: The ketogenic diet is believed by some to support cognitive function for people suffering from foggy thinking and the classic afternoon slump. While this Scientific American article points out that the mechanism of action is still somewhat unclear, many studies suggest that ketosis may make brain metabolism run smoother, cleaner, and faster. One study shows that ketosis seems to influence gene expression in how the brain processes energy and may even coax brain cells to produce more mitochondria. (11)
In addition, there is some evidence that restricted glucose intake might help protect cells from oxidative stress and, in some cases, might help prevent some amount of cell death. (12) The brain uses ketones almost immediately, and it uses them preferentially over carbs. Thus, even those with abnormal glucose metabolism (basically, the brain isn’t getting enough fuel from carbs) can use ketones and MCT to bypass this fuel problem for quick and clean brain energy.
How to use BHB for cognition function:
Exogenous Ketones have a wide variety of benefits and will continue to increase in popularity as awareness around the ketogenic diet grows. At Zhou Nutrition, we offer an exogenous ketone product called Keto Drive. We currently sell it in two flavors: Orange Mango and Matcha Lemonade.
Have questions about exogenous ketones? Ask us a question in the comments below.