There is a tiny worm that may tell us a big story about ketones. Called Caenorhabditis elegans, or C. elegans for short, this is a transparent free-living nematode (roundworm) less than 1/8 inch long (1 mm) that moves like a snake. The worm lives only about 2 to 3 weeks and emits a blue fluorescence when it dies. It is one of the simplest organisms that has a nervous system, consisting of 302 neurons (brain cells) and has been used extensively since 1963 in medical research. Every type of cell in this worm has been thoroughly studied and its entire genome has been mapped out. C.elegans is a regular passenger on space flights and on the space station and actually survived the space shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003. It has been used to study conditions like nicotine addiction, effects of zero gravity on muscle atrophy, sleep and aging.
So, what does this have to do with ketones? A recent research study using C.elegans strongly suggests that ketones extend lifespan and have anti-aging effects. As we age, our cells deteriorate, often leading to chronic medical conditions and brain diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Dietary restriction of calories slows the process of aging down and increases the lifespan of many organisms including primates and C.elegans. Dietary restriction is known to increase ketone levels and this could at least partly explain its effects on prolonging life. Researchers in the anti-aging field look for substances that mimic dietary restriction and lead to longer lifespan and delay the onset of diseases of aging. It turns out that the ketone betahydroxybutyrate, found in ketone salts (marketed by the Pruvit company), is one of those anti-aging substances. Medium-chain triglycerides (MCT) found in coconut oil, palm kernel oil and MCT oil, partly convert to betahydroxybutyrate as well.
In 2015, researchers at the University of South Florida published their study in which they found that high levels of D-betahydroxybutyrate extended the lifespan of C.elegans by 26% and that this effect was likely due, at least in part, to suppressing certain enzymes involved in inflammation and damage from reactive oxygen species. They then studied the effects of betahydroxybutyrate on models of the worm that were engineered to represent Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. They further found that betahydroxybutyrate delayed the onset of signs of Alzheimer’s in the worm by 15% and also delayed the formation of clumps of the abnormal protein found in Parkinson’s disease by 35%. The bottom line here is that betahydroxybutyrate prolonged the lifespan and was found to protect brain cells in the worm.
In an article published in 2017, Dr. Richard L. Veech and his associates at the National Institutes of Health further explain how these findings in C.elegans might be translated to prolonging human lifespan and delaying effects of aging on the brain. The likely ketone effects involved include anti-inflammatory effects, reduction of damage from reactive oxygen species, and reducing levels of glucose and insulin. My summary here is just a simple explanation for the very technical, complicated biochemistry involved.
We gigantic humans share many of the same chemical pathways as C. elegans, including those studied in the University of South Florida experiments. Do ketones have anti-aging effects? Based on the latest information from studying this little worm, the answer to this question appears to be yes!
Edwards C, J Canfield, N Copes, et al. D-beta-hydroxybutyrate extends lifespan in C. elegans. Aging Vol. 6 No. 8 (2014):1-24.
Edwards C, N Copes, PC Bradshaw. D-beta-hydroxybutyrate: an anti-aging ketone body. Oncotarget Vol. 6 No. 6 (2015): 3477-8.
Veech RL, PC Bradshaw, K Clarke, et al. Ketone bodies mimic the life span extending properties of caloric restriction. IUBMB Life Vol. 69 No. 5 (2017):305-314.