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Ketogenic Diet & Brain Cancer

By Berit Brogaard ; Updated July 18, 2017

The 80-year old ketogenic diet, which is low in carbohydrates and very high in fat, is promising as a treatment for brain cancer and other types of cancer. The diet was discovered by the German Nobel laureate Otto Warburg in 1924 as an effective treatment of seizures in children. When more anti-convulsion medicines became available, the diet went out of fashion. But it has been re-introduced as a treatment for seizures in pediatric patients who do not get relief from conventional medicine. The studies of this diet as a cancer treatment are still in their beginning phases.

The Components of the Diet

The ketogenic diet is similar to the better known Atkins Diet in restricting carbohydrates. However, unlike the Atkins Diet, the ketogenic diet also restricts proteins to the minimum amount needed to maintain muscle tissue, connective tissue, hormones and catalysts. The main component of the diet is fat. The diet requires strict monitoring by caregivers and physicians. A modified version of the Atkins Diet has also proven effective in preventing seizures. The modified version of the Atkins Diet is not aimed at weight loss and restricts carbohydrates more than the original version, which has a limit of 20 g of carbohydrates in its first phase.

Mechanism of Action in Seizure Prevention

The ketogenic diet relieves seizures in epileptic children and some adults by making the brain go into ketosis. Ketosis is a state in which the brain uses mostly ketone bodies rather than glucose as a fuel. Ketone bodies are a result of fat metabolism. When the brain switches from burning glucose to burning ketone bodies, more mitochondria, or cell engines, must be in place to keep the brain running. This appears to stabilize the brain and prevent the over-excitement of neuron that causes seizures.

Brain Cancer Prevention

While the brain's own neurons thrive on ketone bodies, cancer cells are not equipped for a ketogenic environment. They do not have the mechanisms for breaking ketone bodies into usable fuel. To divide and grow, cancer cells need sugar. Without sugar, they fail to grow and divide, or they die off. As sugar is a carbohydrate and the ketogenic diet restricts carbohydrates, the ketogenic diet makes it difficult for cancer cells to function. A sugar-free diet that does not limit the intake of carbohydrates and protein does not have the same effect on cancer cells, as both carbohydrates and protein can be converted into sugar. Fat, on the other hand, can only be converted into minuscule amounts of sugar when the body breaks down a small component of fat called "glycerol."

Clinical Trial

The first clinical trial testing of a ketogenic diet was conducted at the Würzburg hospital in Germany in 2007. The German hospital continues to recommend the diet for cancer patients with advanced cancer. In the initial trial, some patients died before the end of the trial, others went off the diet because of the prohibition of sweets. But all five patients who lasted till the end of the diet had positive outcomes. The cancer growth had either slowed down or stopped completely. In a couple of patients, the tumors shrunk. The doctors at the Würzburg hospital continue to have very positive results in the treatment of advanced cancer.

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