Researchers (Accidentally) Discover The Keto Diet Can Help Fight The Flu

mbg Editorial Assistant By Eliza Sullivan
mbg Editorial Assistant
Eliza Sullivan is an editorial assistant at mindbodygreen. She received a B.S. journalism and a B.A. in english literature from Boston University.
Keto Meal Prep

Image by Ivan Solis / Stocksy

The flu season is upon us, and even if you already got your flu shot, you may be looking for more that you can do to stay healthy. The ketogenic diet has already been linked to tons of other health benefits, but a new study has found that going keto can also improve your body's ability to fight off the flu. 

For a quick refresher, the popular ketogenic diet is focused on a low-carb, moderate-protein, high-fat diet plan to help your body switch to burning fats and ketones for fuel (hence the name).

Researchers at Yale University wanted to see if diet could affect how the body's immune system responds to viruses. The result was a "totally unexpected finding," said co-senior author Akiko Iwasaki, Ph.D.

What did the researchers find?

Ryan Molony, a trainee in Iwasaki's lab, and with trainee Emily Goldberg from the lab of co-senior author Vishwa Deep Dixit, came up with the concept for the study following other research in this area.

"This study shows that the way the body burns fat to produce ketone bodies from the food we eat can fuel the immune system to fight flu infection," said Ditix. 

The study was conducted using a population of mice that were fed either a version of a keto diet or a high-carb normal diet. They found that more of the mice who were on the keto diet survived the flu than the mice who were fed a more standard diet. The change in diet began only seven days before infection with the flu, so it doesn't take long for this diet to make a big impact on the body's immune response.

But how does it work? Researchers discovered that the ketogenic diet activated the production of mucus-producing cells in the lungs. Though previously not linked to the body's flu response system, the mucus helped to trap the virus, giving those mice a stronger defense against the flu.


Why does this matter?

While another hack for getting through flu season unscathed is a great discovery on its own, the study also was able to isolate the reason the diet helped. By doing so, they uncovered a whole new part of the body's natural defense against illness.

In order to isolate the impact on the relevant cells, researchers went as far as to breed mice without the gene code for the cells they suspected matter. When they did the test with those mice, the ketogenic diet didn't help them fight the flu. They also found that providing chemical ketones or using a diet that was both high-fat and high-carb did not provide the same benefits as a true keto diet. It seems the change in diet is really what makes the difference when fighting the flu.

What's next for research?

The specific cells that this study homed in on are known as gamma delta T-cells, and they're based in the lungs. Before this study, they hadn't been linked to flu defense mechanisms, and this discovery could offer the beginnings for new treatments or prevention plans going forward.

While the thoroughness of this study means the impact of the ketogenic diet on influenza is fairly well laid out, the new knowledge of the impact of the ketogenic diet on cells in the lungs may offer the chance to explore how this diet can help in the prevention and treatment of other respiratory diseases.

If you think you'd like to go keto this flu season, we have lots of resources to help you learn more about the diet, including meal plans and even a list of foods to get your shopping started. 

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