A new study in the journal Neurology suggests that a modified ketogenic diet could one day be part of the treatment for people with brain cancer.

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Keto Combats Brain Cancer?

A new study in the journal Neurology suggests that a modified ketogenic diet could one day be part of the treatment for people with brain cancer, in particular a form known as astrocytomas.

“There are not a lot of effective treatments for these types of brain tumors, and survival rates are low, so any new advances are very welcome,” said study author Roy E. Strowd, MD, MS, MEd, of Wake Forest School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C., and a Fellow of the American Academy of Neurology.

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“These cancer cells rely on glucose, or sugar, to divide and grow. Since the ketogenic diet is low in sugar, the body changes what it uses for energy — instead of carbohydrates, it uses what are called ketones. Normal brain cells can survive on ketones, but the theory is that cancer cells cannot use ketones for energy.”

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The study involved 25 people with astrocytomas, all of whom had completed radiation treatment and chemotherapy. 

They followed a modified Atkins diet with intermittent fasting for a period of eight weeks. The participants ate foods such as bacon, eggs, heavy cream, butter, leafy green vegetables and fish. Participants met with a dietician at the start of the study and then every two weeks.

They followed this modified Atkins diet for five days a week. For the remaining two days, they fasted, eating up to 20% of their recommended daily calorie amount.

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The main goal of the study was to see if people were able to follow the diet with no serious side effects. A total of 21 people completed the study, and 48% followed the diet completely. Urine tests showed that 80% of the people reached the level where their body was primarily using fats and protein for fuel – ketosis – rather than carbohydrates.

The diet was well-tolerated. Two people had serious side effects during the study: one was unrelated to the diet and the other may have been related.

By the end of the study, changes in the metabolism in the body and the brain were seen. Hemoglobin A1c levels, insulin levels, and fat body mass all decreased. Lean body mass increased. Specialized brain scans that detect changes in brain metabolites showed an increase in concentrations of ketones and metabolic changes in the tumor.

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Further research is needed to see whether ketogenic diets can actually be used to treat cancer, but initial results were promising.

“Of course more studies are needed to determine whether this diet can prevent the growth of brain tumors and help people live longer, but these results show that the diet can be safe for people with brain tumors and successfully produce changes in the metabolism of the body and the brain,” Strowd said.


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