Starvation ketosis is a metabolic state in humans and many animals in which the body breaks down fat and produces acids known as ketones, then uses these as a primary energy source. The “starvation” part of the name owes to the fact that, in most cases, people only use ketones for energy when they aren’t getting adequate glucose from food. The body typically converts carbohydrates to glucose as a main source of energy, but once the liver has used all of its stored glucose it begins to metabolize fatty acids, forming ketone bodies. Malnutrition and fasting are two of the most common causes, but it can also be the result of conditions like diabetes, alcoholism, and a low carbohydrate diet. People sometimes intentionally trigger this state as a means of burning fat to lose weight, but whether this practice is safe or even advisable is widely disputed in the medical community. Ketones are capable of supplying energy to the body, but an abnormally high level can cause a number of problems, including organ damage, coma, and even death.
The liver typically makes ketones in response to some sort of energy crisis in the body. People generally get the majority of their energy by synthesizing glucose, which is a sugar molecule found in carbohydrates like bread and grain products. When people aren’t getting enough glucose, the liver begins creating ketones that the body uses in combination with any fat stores it has on hand. Ketones in many ways prevent the body from robbing muscles of their core proteins. Starvation ketosis happens when these become the body’s primary source of energy.
The condition can usually be identified by looking for excesses. The body gets rid of unneeded supplies by spilling them out through exhalations, urine, and sweat. When this happens people often get sweet smelling, fruity breath that could be mistaken for the smell of alcohol. The odor might also be noticed in perspiration that is sometimes said to smell like ammonia, and urine tests can usually detect it, too.
What Causes Starvation
There are a few conditions and situations that can result in this state. Prolonged fasting, a severely calorie-restricted diet, and eating disorders can all deplete stored glucose. Diseases such as alcoholism and diabetes can also interfere with normal metabolism and can in some cases prevent the body from properly breaking down sugar even if it’s present. In addition, many low-carbohydrate diets are specifically designed to use ketosis to metabolize fat and cause the dieter to shed excess or unwanted weight.
Impacts and Effects
Short periods of starvation ketosis are usually fine from a health perspective, and in fact the mechanism is one that the body uses as a sort of temporary stop-gap. It’s not usually a good idea for people to rely on ketone energy for the long term, though. When the condition is extreme or unmonitored it can result in ketoacidosis, a disorder in which ketones can reach abnormally high levels that are dangerous or life threatening. People suffering from this often experience organ damage and brain swelling, which in some cases can lead to coma and eventual death.
Dispute About Safety
A number of nutritional experts and health practitioners recommend extreme “low-carb” diets that essentially force the body into a state of starvation ketosis as a means of losing weight. This strategy is very controversial in the medical community. Some experts say that limiting or eliminating carbohydrates, one of the body’s primary sources of glucose energy, forces better efficiency, while others counter that this is an abuse of the body’s “emergency” plans that can lead to bigger health complications later on. Anyone considering a low-carb plan for weight loss is generally advised to talk with a medical provider first to discuss the risks and benefits.