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A Quick Dive Into Ketones

Will going “keto” i.e. eating a low-carb, high-fat diet, help you lose weight, boost your endurance and most importantly protect you from CNS oxygen toxicity on those long, deep scooter dives? (We’re talking about you Karst Underwater Research) Former WKPP member, now a human performance research scientist, Dawn Kernagis summarizes the state of the science. Call it Keto Rising!

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by Dawn Kernagis, PhD

If you follow the current trends in health and fitness, the words; ‘ketone’, ‘ketogenic’, and ‘ketosis’ have recently become synonymous with weight loss, wellness, endurance, and (of course) controversy with respect to effectiveness and safety. Despite the popularity of these terms, there is still a bit of confusion surrounding each of them and, specific to the undersea community, what research has been conducted on ketones and diving. 

In this post, I will provide a brief, high-level overview of what ketosis is, what we know about potential diving-related applications of ketones, and next steps in diving-related ketosis research.

Keto 101

Ketosis refers to the presence of elevated ketone bodies (also known as ketones)  in the blood. Ketones (beta-hydroxybutyrate,  acetoacetate, and acetone) are produced by the liver from stored fat when a person either strictly fasts (typically a minimum of 24-48 hours) or undertakes a ‘ketogenic diet’ (very low carbohydrate, low-moderate protein, high fat). During ketosis, the body shifts from using glucose as a fuel, as a result of carbohydrate restriction, to burning ketone bodies.

In addition to fasting and the ketogenic diet (endogenous approaches), ketosis is also achievable exogenously by consuming substances such as ketone salts or ketone esters. Exogenous ketones increase blood ketone levels to varying degrees, with the latter raising blood ketone levels greater than 4mmol/liter  without depletion of carbohydrate stores, even in the presence of a carbohydrate-rich meal (Stubbs 2017). Induction of ketosis by eating or drinking ketones is rapid and acute; that is, the ketones will typically be metabolized within a maximum of four to eight hours. Given their short-lived effects, research is underway to understand if regular consumption of exogenous ketones has the same effect on our cells, tissues, and overall physiology as a sustained keto diet or fasting. 

Ketosis can be monitored using a variety of commercially available options, including sampling blood from the fingertip (similar to blood glucose testing) to measuring blood ketones with a handheld meter, using urine test trips, and analyzing exhaled breath. The ketogenic diet is actually one of the few diets that has a biomarker that tells you whether or not you are actually ‘on’ the diet: if your ketone levels are above the threshold, you are in the physiological state of ketosis, and vice versa! 

The number of studies assessing the benefits versus potential risks of sustained ketosis are increasing, and the medical and sports science communities are grasping an improved understanding about if, when, and how a ketogenic diet or exogenous ketone consumption could either benefit or negatively impact health and performance. While summarizing these studies would be the subject of an extensive series of blog posts, the study that piqued the diving community’s interest in ketones was focused on protecting rats from CNS oxygen toxicity seizures.

Bringing Ketones into Diving

The history of ketosis in the medical community is largely centered around epilepsy treatment. While there are historic records of the starvation ketosis being used as a treatment approach going back to 400 B.C., the first formal clinical trials using dietary ketosis to treat epilepsy were conducted in the 1920s. Dr. Russell Morse Wilder at the Mayo Clinic developed the ketogenic diet as a way to obtain the benefits of fasting through a nutritional approach that could be sustained long-term. In 1921, he conducted the first trial to assess the effect of a ketogenic diet on epilepsy patients.

Photo courtesy of Dawn Kernagis.

Flash forward to just a decade ago, when Dr. Dominic D’Agostino at University of South Florida became interested in the effects of ketosis on seizure latency and its potential as a mitigation strategy for CNS oxygen toxicity in divers. With previous experience conducting research in undersea medicine, Dr. D’Agostino developed a study to assess the effects of exogenous ketosis (induced by consumption of a novel ketone ester, known as an acetoacetate diester) on oxygen toxicity seizure latency in small animals (D’Agostino 2013). Rats were monitored for oxygen toxicity symptoms and brain activity using EEG during a 5 ATA chamber dive on 100% oxygen, and they were either dosed with ketone diester (which exogenously increases all three ketone bodies), butanediol (which only increases the ketone body beta-hydroxybutyrate),  or water (control) prior to their dive. 

Compared to water, the ketone diester induced a rapid and sustained elevation of all three ketone bodies and increased latency by a factor of five compared with water. Butanediol did not increase seizure latency even though it did effectively elevate blood beta-hydroxybutyrate. Demonstration of the increased oxygen toxicity seizure latency in rats in response to the ketone bodies acetoacetate and acetone, but not beta-hydroxybutyrate, was a significant finding. The study results also point to the different effects of the three different ketone bodies and the fact that not all exogenous ketones are the same when it comes to their potential applications. 

It is important to note that findings from animal studies can fail to translate effectively to humans due to differences in physiology and a variety of additional factors. A human study that assesses the effects of the ketone diester on CNS oxygen toxicity will be critical before potential translation to the diving community. However, controlled human studies of human oxygen toxicity are also rare and can be difficult to conduct. 

Given the low incidence of oxygen toxicity in divers, along with the ethical considerations of conducting oxygen toxicity interventional research in a non-medical, field-based setting, these human studies need to be conducted in a laboratory environment with the appropriate safety considerations, statistically-driven study design, and outcome measurements. As a starting point, and at the time of this article, a double-blinded, lab-based study of oxygen toxicity in humans on a ketogenic diet compared to normal diet was underway at Duke University.

Future Research

When it comes to ketosis, there is still a significant amount of research that needs to be conducted before we know whether it could be beneficial and, most importantly, reliably safe in divers in a variety of conditions and exposures. In addition to the Duke oxygen toxicity study in humans, there are laboratory studies currently underway to evaluate the effect of ketone esters on cold water performance (e.g., core temperature, hand temperature, dexterity, and diver performance), hypoxia mitigation, and a variety of physical performance parameters. Beyond diving-specific applications, long-range studies that assess the health effects of sustained ketosis are underway and will provide a better understanding as to how the ketogenic diet and repetitive dosing of exogenous ketones impact long-term health and performance.

Additional Resources:

The SpruceEats.com: The 9 Best Keto Meal Delivery Services of 2020 


Dr. Dawn Kernagis is a research scientist in the area of human performance optimization and risk mitigation for operators in extreme environments, such as those working undersea, at altitude, and in space. Her team’s current research efforts are funded through several DoD agencies and the NASA Translational Institute for Space Health.

Dawn came to IHMC from Duke University Medical Center, where she was an American Heart Association Postdoctoral Fellow and funded by the Office of Naval Research (ONR) to identify mechanisms and potential therapeutic targets for acute brain injury. She completed her PhD at Duke University as ONR Undersea Medicine’s first Predoctoral Award recipient. 

Dawn is a technical diver and has managed numerous underwater exploration, research, and conservation projects around the world since 1993, including the deep underwater exploration of Wakulla Springs and surrounding caves. Dawn was inducted into the Women Divers Hall of Fame in 2016, and is a Fellow of The Explorers Club. In 2018, she received the Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society’s Young Scientist Award. She loves traveling, playing piano, and spending as much time outdoors and on the water as possible.

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Evolution of Dive Planning

Unbeknown to many tekkies, sophisticated dive computers like Shearwater’s offer divers real-time dive planning tools that enable them to adjust their dive plan on the fly. This summary of erudite tech educator Mark Powell’s latest blog outlines some of the specifics. Be sure to check out his blog.

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Header image courtesy of Trisha Stovel

Find the full story in the Shearwater Blog

Photo by Trisha Stovel.

Mark Powell discusses decompression planning for technical dives with diving computers and PC planning tools. More time is spent planning technical dives than recreational dives. This is due to increased risks, greater depths, high gas usage at depth, increased decompression obligations, increased oxygen toxicity loading, and a host of other reasons. He describes how in the early days of technical diving, there were no PC planning tools or dive computers suitable for technical dive planning. Now computers are much more available and reliable. Also, the costs have reduced so much that many people have backup computers. The flexibility offered by the computer is in contrast to the rigid nature of tables. Unfortunately, when your backup is based on written tables, you can’t make full use of this flexibility. When you have a backup computer, suddenly this flexibility comes into its own and this is where significant changes to planning styles started to be adopted. 

In reality, a dive computer gives a much more flexible tool for managing the dive. However, many divers keep the tables mindset even when using a very reliable and flexible planning tool. It is important to understand the features incorporated in your dive computer as they can provide additional information that can be used to manage the situation. On the Shearwater computer range, the NDL is shown on the display and counts down the time available until it reaches 0. Once the diver goes into deco, this field can be configured to show several other pieces of information. Any one of these can be selected to be shown in the NDL space once the NDL reaches zero. Alternatively, all of the following options can be viewed together by stepping through the display options: TTS, @+5, Δ +5, CEIL, GF99 setting, and SurfGF display. This article is intended to show that, far from removing the need to plan a dive, the sophisticated dive computers available today can help to improve the planning process. They can be used to provide a more realistic and more flexible planning tool. They can also be used to adapt the plan when the situation changes. This is only possible if the diver understands the tools they have at their disposal and practices using them. 

After reading and digesting the information contained in this article, I would encourage you to make sure you know where to find the various display options on your computer. On your next dive look at the SurfGF value during the dive and watch the relationship between it and the NDL value. During the NDL ascent, look at the GF99 and SurfGF values. Then on a decompression dive, compare the CEIL and Stop Depth values as well as comparing the CEIL, GF99, and SurfGF values. It is essential that you understand all of the information in this article and practice it before using it to plan your dive or modify your dive plan. Like any tool, you must practice before using them for real. However, a bit of investment in time and practice will give you the ability to manage your ascent in a much more intelligent way than blindly following your computer or a fixed set of deco tables.


Read the full article on Shearwater’s Blog.

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