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What are Ketones?

Malcolm Tatum
Updated May 17, 2024
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Ketones are organic molecules that are created with the joining of an oxygen atom and a carbon atom. This double bond or compound found in organic chemistry is produced when the body engages in the task of breaking down fat in the body, functioning as an acid. Levels in the system increase when there is an absence of enough insulin to allow glucose to permeate the cells of the body. Stress can also cause the number of ketones produced to rise. When an unhealthy number of ketones are generated on a continual basis, this leads to a health condition known as ketosis.

Another factor that can trigger an excess production of the molecules has to do with stress. Prolonged and intense periods of stress may lead to more stress hormones showing up in the body and passing into the urine. This can in turn impact the amount of insulin available for processing glucose and trigger the production of more ketones to break down the fat and create energy.

The presence of too many ketones in the system indicates that the body’s ability to manufacture insulin has become seriously impaired. For this reason, ketone levels are monitored closely in people who suffer with diabetes. The measurement can be very important in determining how much insulin the diabetic patient must take in order to restore some semblance of balance. By injecting insulin into the body, the production is returned to a safer level.

When ketone production is not kept within balance, a number of health risks can develop. The individual may begin to experience periods of passing out with no apparent warning, become forgetful or experience short periods of disorientation. If the balance is not addressed, the condition can eventually lead to a coma or even death.

Fortunately, there are effective ways to measure the levels of ketone compounds in the body. Blood samples can be tested to determine if the number of ketones in the system is within acceptable limits. In between tests, using a blood glucose monitor to determine how well the body is functioning in terms of allowing glucose to enter the cells and create energy can give some idea of whether or not ketone levels are rising. When the blood glucose readings are within acceptable limits at one and two hours after a meal, that is an indication the ketones are not overproducing and the glucose is being absorbed properly.

When diagnosed with ketosis, patients should make sure to follow any instructions issued by the attending physician. The course of treatment may include oral medications as well as changes in diet and exercise in an attempt to restore balance to the body.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Malcolm Tatum
By Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing to become a full-time freelance writer. He has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including WiseGeek, and his work has also been featured in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and newspapers. When not writing, Malcolm enjoys collecting vinyl records, following minor league baseball, and cycling.
Discussion Comments
By anon313399 — On Jan 11, 2013

If the body prefers to be fueled by fat and protein, why then does painful constipation result? Constipation is common among most people who eat a high protein/low carb diet. Our bodies are better designed for carbohydrate foods high in fiber. Beans, corn, rice, lentils, vegetables, etc are digested very well by the body, contain many nutrients and don't promote constipation. I tried the low carb diet and it resulted in headaches, chills, sweats and constipation so bad there was blood.

By anon308677 — On Dec 11, 2012

In the book "Power Eating," it is suggested that carbohydrates are required for protein synthesis. A 3:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio should be a baseline for all diets. However, everybody has different needs due to their goals.

But as far as weight loss is concerned, which is the primary reason most people engage in a ketosis diet, and this isn't the way. I have personally done this to win a weight loss challenge, but you will crash your metabolism as you burn your muscle tissue away. Best bet, eat balanced, train hard, and sleep well!

By anon303297 — On Nov 13, 2012

@anon217311: No, the human body doesn't need to be fed glucose. It doesn't need to be fed any carbohydrates. The human body prefers to be fueled by fat and protein. The gluconeogenesis that you mentioned is a perfectly acceptable way to obtain glucose. And no, it doesn't cause hypoglycemia. Hypoglycemia is caused by kidney/live/endocrine disorders, not by what you eat.

"Fasting state metabolism" (vs. fed-state metabolism) is a state where the body burns off its glycogen, triacylglycerol, and labile protein reserves. The thing you're thinking of, where the body burns fat as its primary source of fuel, is called "ketosis".

By anon217311 — On Sep 25, 2011

Just in response to anon168086's post: I think you will find that your body most certainly does need glucose, perhaps just not in the form of simple sugar but more as complex starches. Glucose is the only form of fuel that can be utilised by the central nervous system and without having some glucose in your diet there would be profound effects on your body and CNS - ever heard of hypoglycemia?

Yes, glucose can be synthesised from other sources (this is called gluconeogenesis - the creation of glucose from non-carbohydrate materials), although this method of glucose production also causes more lactic acid to be produced.

Also, "fasting state metabolism" is a term that refers specifically to fat being used to create fuel rather than carbohydrates - it is not a subjective term that refers directly to the quantity of food you are eating.

By anon168086 — On Apr 15, 2011

Having been in ketosis for over nine months now due to a relatively low carbohydrate diet, I can say for sure that it is not toxic. I've been able to workout and live normally, actually far better because I no longer crave the sugars and starches I used to cram into my poor body on a daily basis.

I wouldn't necessarily call this a 'fasting state metabolism' as I sure eat a lot, and get more than enough calories. I just get my calories mostly from fats, especially the good, natural, saturated ones. The body doesn't need glucose. We can synthesize our own using the proteins we ingest, but we can't synthesize the essential fatty acids, amino acids or b vitamins we need. Seems to me like we're built to eat meat and animal fat, with the occasional nut and berry thrown in when they're available.

By burcinc — On Feb 10, 2011

I run track and have been training for the past several weeks. Last week, I woke up early morning feeling nauseous, tired and had a fever. Mom forcibly took me to the doctor who asked for a couple of tests. When they came back negative, he checked my blood for ketones and found high levels.

I had never heard this term before. My doctor said its due to dehydration. I'm forcing myself to drink more water and I also told all my friends who are training to watch out for these symptoms. I thought I had the flu and would have just taken a pain reliever and slept if I hadn't gone to the doctor.

By anon78153 — On Apr 17, 2010

It is not just lack of insulin that leads to ketone production.

Lack of dietary glucose in a person without diabetes also causes ketone production. They signify that the person is in fasting-state metabolism. It is this reason that fasting or the Atkins diet also causes positive urinary ketones.

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing...
Learn more
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