Keto diets ‘could help alcoholics deal with withdrawal’, new study suggests

Rob Waugh
·2 min read
Could a keto diet help people give up alcohol? (Getty)
Could a keto diet help people give up alcohol? (Getty)

Keto diets – where dieters cut out carbs in favour of foods rich in fat – may help alcoholics deal with withdrawal, a new study has suggested. 

The study of 33 patients with alcohol use disorder found that people who went on a ketogenic diet for three weeks needed fewer benzodiazepines to manage alcohol withdrawal.

Patients on the keto diet also reported reduced cravings when exposed to alcohol cues, and scored lower for withdrawal, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The researchers also found that – in experiments in rats – suggestions that a ketogenic diet could offer long-lasting benefits for people with alcohol use disorder. 

The researchers believe this is due to how the brain switches from metabolising glucose to metabolising acetate in people with alcohol use disorder. 

Watch: The keto diet explained

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Senior author Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse and chief of the Laboratory of Neuroimaging at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, said: "Even though our study needs to be replicated, ideally in an outpatient setting, I predict that some clinicians might start recommending a keto diet to their patients, since this diet is already being used for the treatment of epilepsy and is generally safe.”

The researchers put 33 patients seeking treatment on different diets, using shakes which either contained a ‘keto’ shake, or a shake with 50% calories from carbohydrates. 

The researchers found that rats which had been trained to access alcohol using levers consumed less alcohol while on a keto diet. 

"We were not surprised by the clinical findings since we had hypothesised the results and these were also consistent with prior preclinical work," said Volkow. 

"However, we were surprised by the reduction in alcohol consumption that Dr Vendruscolo and Dr Koob uncovered in the rats that had been exposed to a ketogenic diet. "

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The researchers had previously performed brain imaging studies that showed alcohol markedly reduced glucose metabolism by the brain.

The researchers believe that the brain switches to metabolising another chemical – acetate – instead of glucose, while intoxicated, and that this is particularly the case in people with alcohol use disorder.

Volkow said: "We reasoned that during withdrawal, as alcohol leaves the body, the brain of a person with AUD would be in a state of energy deprivation contributing to the withdrawal symptoms and neurotoxicity.

“This led us to hypothesise that, by providing ketone bodies, a ketogenic diet would help avoid the state of energy deprivation to the brain and improve withdrawal symptoms and brain recovery."

Watch: Seven things I wish I knew before I started the keto diet