Fans of the keto diet love to tout the regimen’s merits for building muscle and burning fat, but new research shows it could give your immune system a boost, too. Researchers at Yale University recently published a study in Science Immunology showing that a high-fat, low-carb keto diet helped mice more effectively fight off the influenza virus, and the data has strong implications for humans, too.
In humans, a keto diet usually revolves around eating fish, meat, poultry, and non-starchy fruits and vegetables to achieve a high-fat, low-carb ratio. The researchers fed mice a similar diet (in terms of macronutrients), then exposed them to the influenza virus. They found that mice on the keto regimen had a higher survival rate than those on a regular diet. Further investigation revealed that the keto mice had activated a specific kind of T cell, a white blood cell that forms an integral part of the immune response in mice and humans. This specific T cell, called a gamma T cell, appeared in the lungs of the mice, where it stimulated mucus production that effectively trapped and neutralized the influenza virus. According to a Yale University blog post, this is the first time that gamma T cells have been linked to an immune response to the flu.
“This was a totally unexpected finding,” said co-senior author Akiko Iwasaki.
The researchers also performed experiments to narrow down exactly what caused the mice to fight off the flu so effectively. They tried feeding another group of mice a high-fat, high-carb diet, but those animals didn’t produce gamma T cells. Directly introducing a chemical ketone (the metabolic byproduct of burning fat) without altering the mice’s diet also failed to activate gamma T cells. Finally, the researchers put mice that had been bred without the gene to make gamma T cells on a keto diet, but they didn’t show the desired immune response, either.
Based on those experiments, the researchers concluded that a keto diet triggers a unique type of immune boost—one that could be a big factor in fighting off the flu this season.
“This study shows that the way the body burns fat to produce ketone bodies from the food we eat,” said co-senior author Vishwa Deep Dixit, “can fuel the immune system to fight flu infection.”
Now they just need to find a remedy for the keto flu.
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