The ketogenic diet has been making waves in the health and wellness community as both an answer to weight loss and a way to manage various health issues ranging from fertility concerns to chronic seizures. Established in the 1990s as a treatment for parents to provide relief for symptoms experienced by children with epilepsy, the keto diet was found to have a significant impact on weight loss, as well as contributing to many other health benefits. But is the keto diet safe during pregnancy? There’s quite a bit of debate on this topic, and it’s important to understand all the factors that contribute to contradictory opinions.
The keto diet is a low carb, high-fat diet that is similar to the Atkins Diet and other low-carb diets, yet this particular diet replaces many of the carbs with foods high in fat. This reduction in carbs and increase in fats puts your body in a state known as ketosis. During ketosis, your body is believed to become efficient at burning excess fat and turning it into energy. The burned fat is known as ketones, which provide essential energy to the brain, among other organs.
For some, the keto diet can reduce blood sugar and insulin levels and provide many impressive health benefits. There are also reports of an improvement in fertility. Some say the keto diet is perfectly safe for pregnancy, but many doctors express concern regarding ketone levels in the urine of pregnant women and fear complications to the pregnancy including organ dysfunction, and in some cases, smaller brains (in laboratory mice).
Unfortunately, because the rise in popularity of the keto diet is relatively new, long-term peer-reviewed studies are needed to adequately assess the potential risk to a fetus from continuing a keto diet during pregnancy. But there are many additional considerations to take into account.
What’s puzzling to many researchers is the positive effect that the keto diet seems to have on some of the most common fertility issues, including polycystic ovary syndrome (or PCOS).
PCOS is believed to be the most common cause of fertility issues in 1 in 10 women of childbearing age. Many experts agree that the two primary causes of PCOS are higher levels of androgens (or “male hormones”) and higher levels of insulin in the blood.
While both men and women produce androgens, women produce androgens primarily in the ovaries. Androgens are responsible for providing the basis for many hormonal functions, including estrogen production, which contribute to feelings of sexual desire, can prevent bone loss, and can even affect when and how often a woman gets her period.
An overabundance of androgens can create significant issues within a woman’s body, including missed periods. Insulin, on the other hand, is responsible for absorbing glucose from the food your body consumes and turning it into energy and then distributing it to your cells via the bloodstream.
When you have an elevated level of insulin, such as from excessive carbohydrates or a lack of physical activity, this can, in some extreme cases, lead to insulin resistance. Insulin resistance, in turn, causes your cells to have a dysfunctional relationship with glucose and struggle to absorb it appropriately. This creates an unhealthy demand on your own body to produce more insulin to maintain what is necessary for normal bodily functions.
It’s one long undesirable chain reaction: extra insulin stimulates the ovaries to produce an excess of androgens, which leads to hormonal imbalance, which ultimately makes the ovaries ripe for PCOS. According to a 2012 study, over 70% of women with PCOS have a sensitivity and resistance to insulin.