If you follow a low or no-carb diet your body starts to make more of a compound that is strikingly similar to the drug GHB. This explains the feelings of euphoria that some people experience when on a low-carb diet. The Australian molecular scientist Andrew Brown puts forward this theory in the Medical Hypotheses journal.
In many religions and shamanic cultures fasting is practised in preparation for achieving a higher level of consciousness. According to Brown this is no coincidence. If you don’t eat your body has no carbohydrates available to get energy from. Then the liver starts to break down fats and releases ketone bodies into the bloodstream – acetoacetate, acetone and beta-hydroxybutyrate (BHB). The body tissues can then convert these compounds into energy.
BHB bears a striking resemblance to gamma-hydroxybutyrate or GHB, says Brown. And BHB may well have a similar effect to GHB in the brain.
GHB is a recreational drug. Its use leads to feelings of euphoria and loss of sexual inhibition, an overdose can result in coma. Before much practical knowledge on GHB became available, chemical athletes occasionally used the drug. They would take it after training and then go to bed. Under the influence of GHB the body produced more growth hormone, which is what the athletes were interested in.
By the time GHB use reached the club world it became clear that GHB is an addictive drug. In the literature there are also medical case studies of bodybuilders with a GHB addiction. To make matters worse, GHB abuse affects the memory. Addicts can no longer remember what they did the day before, and don’t even realise they are addicted. This can be very frustrating for carers as they are faced with ex GHB addicts who do not accept that they were addicted, come out of rehab and immediately go and score a couple of rolls.
GHB users have several micromoles of GHB in their brains. People who fast have similar concentrations of BHB in their brains, according to a study in which researchers got healthy people to stop eating for three days. [J Cereb Blood Flow Metab. 2000 Oct;20(10):1502-7.] The graph below shows what happened to the cerebral concentration of BHB.
Considerable numbers of people who reduce their carbohydrate intake report feelings of euphoria. “It is not an unpleasant feeling, a sort of mild, foggy euphoria”, writes Brown, citing an American journalist’s report of his Atkins diet experience. The journalist, who despite having some criticism benefited from the diet, named the sensation “The Ketosis Psychosis”. [metroactive.com 2004]
This sensation, Brown suspects, is the result of increased concentrations of BHB in the brain. This may not be a bad thing: some studies have shown that BHB actually protects brain cells.
Med Hypotheses. 2007;68(2):268-71.