Curious about the topics above? Dive into this interview with lead scientist Dr. Brianna Stubbs.
What are ketones and why would we want to use them… both from an athletic perspective and a longevity perspective?
A lot of people have heard of the ketogenic diet. This is one way to influence your body to make its own ketones. Ketones are small molecules that circulate in our blood and when we make them ourselves, we make them from fat. Your body makes ketones normally when you're either on a very low carbohydrate, “high-fat diet or when you’re fasting and not eating at all. A keto diet and fasting makes your body release fat and the liver changes the fat into ketones.
In human evolution, ketones are a result of starvation mode. If you're on the African Savanna and you haven't made a kill for some days, your body starts to run out of energy that's stored as carbs because a lot of our key processes in our body, especially our brain, really rely heavily on carbs. That conversion of our stored fat into ketones is a way to provide a backup energy source during times of energetic stress. Since they are an efficient fuel source, when your brain is burning ketones instead of glucose, you can experience a boost in cognitive performance and energy levels.
That's all great, but why is that interesting now? A lot of people find it difficult to stick to the low-carb diet while training and performing. Also, we know more people are trying it and are interested in the benefits of that fat-burning state, whether for weight loss or ultra-endurance.
Dr. Brianna Stubbs clarifies how consuming ketones can solve this equation and benefit both athletes and those who are simply conscious of healthy aging.
We think that putting ketones into a drink is a way to give the body some of the benefits of ketones as an additional energy source primarily, but without having to follow the diet.
The main role of ketones in the body is to be burnt inside the mitochondria, the “powerhouse of the cell”, and they power work. Whether that's work in the muscles or work in the brain or the heart, all of the vital organs of the body burn ketones as energy. For a long time, it was thought that energy was really all that mattered with ketones. That is why a lot of athletes were interested in ketones as a pre-workout energy source, but now we know there is a lot more to the story.
Juvenescence is interested in ketones because in the last ~10 years, people have discovered that ketones do more than just act as an energy source. According to Dr. Stubbs, they can interact with processes in the body that are involved with health – specifically healthy aging.
The way I like to think about sports is that they share many of the same stressors we get with aging. There's inflammation, there's damage to our cells, there's oxidative stress. There's quite a lot of overlap between the things that build up in our body as we age, but also the processes that we accelerate when we train really hard as an athlete. More and more research is being done into how ketones might mitigate some of these stressors, and be used to help athletes recover faster from exercise, especially during periods of intense training or back-to-back competition days. So [ketones] are specifically of interest in both the aging space and the athletic recovery space because of the overlapping importance of inflammation and oxidative stress.
What’s the difference between a diet-driven approach vs. utilizing a ketone supplement?
Ketone drinks are not the same as the keto diet. A lot of people use the keto diet for weight loss because they want to put their body into that fat-burning state, but if you drink a ketone drink like Cognitive Switch, the ketones that end up in your blood are derived from what’s in the drink and not derived from your own body fat. It's a bit of a common point of confusion that the keto diet and ketone drinks are going to be exactly the same. We think there may be some overlapping benefits, but there's still active research going on to find out how much similarity there is between being on a keto diet and drinking ketone drinks.
The really good thing for athletes is that you can tap into some of these energy and signaling benefits on demand, without having to change your diet. You can use it alongside gold-standard carbohydrate fueling protocols and gold-standard carbohydrate and protein recovery protocols, and you don't have to make any other changes. It’s an on-demand solution that doesn't require you to make big changes to a nutrition strategy that's already working for you.
Where would you position the use of ketones in endurance sports; ultra-endurance or short and intense?
A lot of the research that's been done so far on ketones has been on longer-distance and endurance events. The reason for that is that for those events, fueling is really, really critical. A lot of the studies have been done in research labs that are attached to Tour de France teams. The same lab recently published a study on ultra-endurance runners as well.
So, that's been where a lot of the interest has been focused and that's where we have the best understanding to date.
I did a summary of all the athletic recovery-related research studies that are out right now, and there have been some really hot buzzwords coming out in those studies. There was an interesting acute study with a single dose of ketone drink and they showed increased post-exercise EPO. I thought, “Well, that's interesting, but is that going to translate into a meaningful benefit to red blood cell count if people use ketones over several days or weeks?” And then my question was answered by a follow-up study by an independent lab, which is nice because it's important that different laboratories can replicate findings. This follow-up study actually found with long-term use, [there was] increased EPO production, but also increased red blood cell mass and increased capillarization in the muscles.
The difference with Juvenescence’s Cognitive Switch is the taste. The biggest barrier with a lot of ketone products is the appalling taste. While people have accepted it as “the price of performance”, Juvenescence has cracked the code.
As someone who's been working on ketone compounds for 10 years, I was in the same boat and really thought that we were never going to be able to fix this problem. Cognitive Switch is a follow-up from a previous ketone product by Juvenescence called Metabolic Switch, which still tasted bad. We knew that if we really wanted to make ketones accessible and implementable every day for people then we had to fix the taste. And we did.
The structure of the molecule that was used in the old version, Metabolic Switch, was two six-carbon fatty acid chains joined by ester bonds to an ester precursor. We were looking at how different fatty acid chain lengths might affect the taste and we found that making a really simple change from a six-carbon fat to an eight-carbon fat, completely removed the bitter taste. It was a very minor structural change that we actually have reason to believe could even improve the efficacy of the product because C8 is a very, very ketogenic fatty acid. There are lots of studies being done on C8 showing how ketogenic it is compared with other fatty acids.
In our studies so far, we’ve seen comparable blood ketone effects of both Metabolic and Cognitive Switch, and there was a radical improvement in the taste of Cognitive Switch. In order to launch the new product, Juvenescence had to go back, and work through the necessary safety and regulatory questions again, so it was not a simple fix. The company had to really commit to the program! Given the neutral taste of the C8 ketone ester, the team was able to build a delicious new tropical flavor, and then also make the powder as well, which is flavorless. We are excited that Cognitive Switch is the first ketone ester product with a really great tasting formulation [along with] a very accessible price point, that is going to allow people to use it more regularly in their training.
What do you see in the future of ketone use and what further education would be valuable?
One area that I really want to see more research in, which I think could be really impactful, is the effects of ketones on brain health. Specifically, as it relates to concussions, it's a huge unmet medical need. There's a lot of preclinical data that ketones can help with multiple aspects, whether that's the size of the injury in the tissue itself, whether that's energy levels in the brain, blood flow in the brain, inflammation in the brain, lots of different endpoints that have been looked at in animal studies.
That's an area that I think is really promising, that I could see in the future being part of concussion protocols for cycling, boxing, or any fighting sports, American football…really anything where there's a risk of concussion. What's powerful about ketones in that setting is that the preclinical data suggests that they could work effectively as a post-injury countermeasure.
It's been very interesting to see how there's been a trickle-down effect from those top teams. Now, more and more people who are serious amateurs and also professionals are using ketones. I hope that this will continue to trickle down and that the use of ketones for sports will be guided by new research studies. I think that a great way for research to happen is in conjunction with athletes, coaches, practitioners, and the research scientists themselves. What I would love is for coaches and athletes who are using ketones to get in touch with me, and get in touch with other scientists who are using them to share the benefits that they are seeing on the field, the road, or in the ring. Then, the scientists can run a study to see if that benefit is real in a controlled setting.