Your cupboard is stocked with almond flour and psyllium husk powder. Your test strips are on standby beneath the bathroom sink. But what’s this about exogenous ketone supplements?
Google “keto supplements” or “exogenous ketones, and prepare to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of options and varieties. While the explosion of exogenous ketone supplements on the market is a clear indicator of how rapidly the ketogenic diet is gaining a reputation as a healthy and effective diet, it can be difficult to get a clear picture of your options for ketone supplementation, the difference between different types of supplements, and how each type of supplement works.
In this article, we’ll take a look at why ketone supplements are used, and how different types of exogenous ketone supplements interact with your body. While there’s no question that ketone supplements can have significant benefits--including enhanced performance, burning more fat, and counteracting the symptoms of keto flu--the more you know about your options, the more effectively you’ll be able to reach your goals with keto.
What Are Exogenous Ketones?
It’s keto 101: your body can either use glycogen (sugar) for energy, or fat--with the help of ketones. In response to low glycogen levels, the body naturally makes three different types of endogenous ketone bodies: Acetoacetate, Beta-Hydroxybutyrate, and Acetone. These three ketones allow the body to break down fat into energy on a cellular level.
“Exogenous ketones” simply refers to ketones that come from outside the body. Exogenous ketone supplements can effectively deliver ketones to help your body access and use energy from fat, particularly in situations where the body’s levels of natural ketones are low (for instance, in the early stages of ketosis or after consuming a high-carb meal).
Beta-Hydroxybutyrate, or BHB is the exogenous ketone body you’ll find in almost all exogenous ketone supplements on the market, because of its efficiency in energy conversion as well as its stability and effectiveness in supplement form. Once ingested, Beta-Hydroxybutyrate is used by the body to convert fat into energy through the Krebs cycle.
Why Use Ketone Supplements?
Exogenous ketone supplements can be extremely valuable for individuals who are using the ketogenic diet to reach specific performance or weight-loss goals, as well as for individuals who have chosen to follow the diet for medical reasons. The following are some of the biggest reasons people supplement with ketones:
Increase Fat Burning
If you notice a plateau in your weight loss, or if you simply have a hard time maintaining or entering a deep state of ketosis, exogenous ketones can boost your body’s ability to burn fat. The body cannot access fat stores directly, so think of ketones as the key that unlocks energy from fat. Adding more ketones when your endogenous (internal) levels of ketones are low can help you access and burn more fat.
Ease Keto Flu
Nobody looks forward to the keto flu--the time period in which your body transitions from using carbs for fuel to using fat. Symptoms--including nausea, headache, mental fog, and decreased energy--can make it difficult to work, engage socially, and exercise as normal. With ketone supplements, you can quickly and artificially boost ketone levels to access fat as energy while your body makes the leap from carb fuel to fat fuel.
Return to Keto Easily
For many people, it’s not desirable or realistic to follow a strict low-carb diet at all times. It’s not much fun to feel restricted on birthdays, anniversaries, and at social events. However, indulging in high-carb meals during these times can mean getting kicked out of ketosis and enduring the symptoms of keto flu again for a few days. Ingesting exogenous ketones in the form of BHB after a periodic high-carb meal allow you to return to ketosis smoothly without the negative symptoms of keto flu. For individuals who have chosen the keto diet out of medical necessity rather than specific fitness or weight loss goals, the ability to eat more carbohydrates can ease the transition away from many beloved foods.
When it comes to physical activity that requires endurance or quick, explosive muscle action, the body typically relies on stored glycogen for energy. In the absence of glycogen stores, the body can and will use fat stores for energy--but the process requires a significant amount of oxygen. When you supplement with exogenous ketones prior to a workout or race, those ketones are available for use immediately, meaning that the body can turn fat into fuel with less oxygen. The result? Greater endurance and less fatigue.
Depending on your diet and your unique body, ketone levels may fluctuate throughout the day, especially if there is a sudden influx of carbohydrates. This can result in dips in mental energy and clarity as the body struggles to convert fat into energy and deliver that energy across the blood-brain barrier. However, by supplementing with exogenous ketones--particularly on days you eat more carbs than usual, you can help maintain high of mental clarity.
Types of Ketone Supplements
Beta-Hydroxybutyrate is available for purchase in three main forms: salts, esters, and oils:
Salts are, by far, the most popular delivery method for the exogenous ketone BHB. Salts--in other words, a substance made by combining a ketone body with a salt like sodium, calcium, magnesium, or potassium-- are the perfect delivery system for moderately raising ketone levels. They have few negative side effects that can afflict other ketone delivery vehicles, including unpleasant taste and diarrhea. For post people, salts are the ideal way to supplement with exogenous ketones. Salts are also widely available for purchase in different formats including pills, powders, and drinks (read below to learn about the benefits and potential drawbacks of each option!).
An ester simply refers to ketones that are not combined with any other substance. Ketone esters allow the body to absorb the ketone more quickly and raise blood-ketone levels more efficiently. However, while esters might seem like the natural choice when the goal is to quickly boost the body’s ketone levels (you’ll see many people on message boards extolling esters’ virtues) these supplements come with some pretty unpleasant side effects. Most ketone esters have an extremely foul taste and cause severe diarrhea, gas, and bloating. For this reason, ketone esters aren’t widely available for retail purchase and are used primarily in research.
Medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) such as coconut oil are another method some people use to boost ketone levels, albeit indirectly. MCTs are broken down by the cells and used as effective fuel to produce ketones. While MCT oils are a great addition to a keto diet and will facilitate the production of ketones, it’s important to understand that this method of ketone supplementation is indirect, meaning the ketones are not immediately available--as they are for salts and esters. It’ also difficult to supplement with a significant amount of MCT oils without causing gastrointestinal distress. Most keto dieters make moderate amounts of MCT oils a regular part of their diets while supplementing with salts or esters for more immediate ketone boosts.
Important! Raspberry ketones are not related to exogenous ketone supplements. While the name seems to indicate differently, this popular diet supplement is a completely different animal.
Ketone Pills, Powders, or Drinks?
The most widely available exogenous ketone supplement, BHB salts, come in packaged in several different formats. There are a few things you should know about each:
Because ketones can have a notoriously unpleasant taste, even in salt form, pills are the most popular choice for supplementing. Pills are easy and discreet to carry at work, while traveling, or simply while on the go. They also eliminate any taste aversion. Follow recommended dosing carefully, and listen to your body to avoid gastrointestinal distress. You may need to start at a low dose and move up gradually, as your body adjusts to the exogenous ketones.
There is a wide variety of powders available for making your own ketone supplement drink. Powders are easy to bring with you, but rely on a source of water or other mixer to use them. For people who have trouble taking pills or don’t enjoy the taste of premixed drinks, powders can be a great option for supplementation. And chances are, with the variety of flavors, you’re bound to find one you enjoy!
The powder form is said to be the most tolerable of all the forms. Powder exogenous ketones are also easier to travel with. So if you’ll be moving around a lot from work, to gym, to home, powdered should be your first choice.
Drinks are a convenient option for ketone supplementation, if pills aren’t for you, and you don’t have the option to mix your own drink with powdered supplements. Many people enjoy using these drinks as a substitute for a meal during the day that not only eliminates the need to prepare breakfast or lunch but adds a boost to their ketone levels.
No matter which type of supplement you prefer, remember to follow dosing recommendations carefully, listen to your body’s signals, stay hydrated, and keep your levels of electrolytes high to maintain a healthy state of ketosis. If you experience GI distress, cut back on the amount of supplement you’re taking, and increase your levels slowly.
Once you know your options and understand the benefits of each type of supplement, exogenous ketones can be an invaluable part of the ketogenic diet by helping you reach your goals more quickly and easily.