Ketosis for Cancer Treatment

DISCLAIMER: The information provided here is for discussion purposes only. In no way should it be considered as offering medical advice. Perfect Keto assumes no responsibility for how this material is used. Please check with a physician if you suspect you are ill. 

We’ve talked about the benefits of ketosis for many aspects of the body and brain, so you might be wondering whether ketosis could support those who are dealing with a cancer diagnosis or going through treatment. This is a complicated topic, so this article will explore ketosis for cancer treatment and any connections we’ve seen on the subject.

Ketosis for Supplementing Treatment

Cancer affects so many people worldwide, and diagnoses have unfortunately only gone up in recent years. Could a change in diet that spurs ketosis help in the treatment process? Let’s look at some aspects of cancer and how it might relate to the effects of ketosis on our cells:

The Warburg Effect

Besides being able to live in environments where normal cells can not, cancer cells have many differences from healthy ones. Understanding these differences helps researchers in developing possible effective cancer treatments. One example of this is the Warburg effect.

The Warburg effect is a well-known and recognized biochemical observation in which most cancer cells are seen to make energy differently than normal cells.

Cancer Cells vs Normal Cells:

  • Cancer cells produce energy through a high rate of glycolysis (when glucose is broken down for energy) followed by the fermentation of lactic acid within the liquid inside cells. 
  • Normal cells break down glucose at a slower rate. Tumor cells that are rapidly growing can have rates of glycolysis that are up to 200 times higher than the normal cells.

The Warburg Hypothesis

The Warburg effect hypothesizes that the underlying cause of cancer is this change in the rate of glucose metabolism. The fermentation process that happens in cancer cells becomes the main energy-making process in the cell of the tumor — and that fermentation is fueled by glucose.

Therefore, it’s been theorized that depriving cancer cells of glucose (their regular energy supply), which is severely limited with the ketogenic diet, could have some benefit.

Although it’s thought today that the causes of cancer are more from tumor suppressor genes and oncogenes (genes that sometimes change a normal cell into a tumor cell), the Warburg hypothesis still gives us insight into the energy differences of cancer cells.

In addition, the ketogenic diet has recently been studied in human case reports and animal models as a possible adjuvant to cancer treatment, which we’ll go more into below.

Cancer, Mitochondria, and the Ketogenic Diet

Inside of most living cells, you’ll find mitochondria, which are responsible for energy production of the cell. In studies, an increase in mitochondrial DNA mutations have been shown in many different cancers, including prostate, head and neck, liver, and ovary cancers [1].

Besides breaking down glucose at a higher rate, cancer cells show evidence of oxidative stress (an imbalance in which the cells can’t detoxify and damage is caused). [2]

This ongoing stress can also lead to chronic inflammation, which could be a factor in many chronic diseases we see today, including cancer [3].

So, how could ketosis help here? Here are two ways the ketogenic diet may be able to help in fighting cancer cells [1]:  

  • Shifting the body into using fat for fuel instead of carbohydrates (ketosis) helps “starve” the cancer cells of the glucose that they need to thrive
  • Unlike healthy human cells, cancer cells can’t use ketone bodies, which are produced while on the ketogenic diet, for energy.

In addition, increased metabolic oxidative stress on cancer cells caused by a ketogenic diet may also help make cancer cells more sensitive to conventional cancer treatments like chemotherapy and radiation, possibly enhancing responses to treatments. [1]

Studies on Ketosis and Cancer

There have been a few studies with humans involving the ketogenic diet. In 2007, a study found the ketogenic diet was helpful in managing brain cancer. [4]

The reason ketosis might be helpful in this situation is because the huge decrease in carbohydrates leads the brain to change its preferred source of energy.

Just like with studies we can currently point to as linking the ketogenic diet with anti-aging, most research on ketosis for cancer treatment or prevention is limited to rodent studies, which doesn’t guarantee the same results in humans. However, they do give us great information to work with.

A study done as far back as 1987 showed that following a ketogenic diet, mice with colon adenocarcinoma xenografts had decreased tumor weight and less weakness [5]

Other studies include:

Improved survival and decreased growth of tumors in animal models [1] with:

  • Colon cancer
  • Prostate cancer
  • Gastric cancer
  • Malignant glioma

Fasting and Cancer

As we know, fasting itself kicks the body into ketosis. Fasting has been shown to:

  • Improve some of the normal tissue side effects often experienced with chemotherapy [6]
  • Increase the quality of chemotherapy responsiveness in pre-clinical cancer therapy models [6]
  • Make cancer cells more sensitive to chemotherapy [6]
  • Slow the growth of tumors [6]

Following a ketogenic diet provides a way of fasting the body of carbohydrates while still continuing to eat healthy fats and moderate amounts of wholesome proteins, while still inducing and reaping the benefits of ketosis.

Furthermore, the ketogenic diet might also be able to increase the power of radiation treatment in non-small cell lung cancer models [7] and malignant glioma models.

Improved Quality of Life

There may also be ways ketosis could benefit those going through treatment.

Six out of 16 patients with who had advanced metastatic tumors reported less insomnia and better emotional functioning during a pilot trial of the ketogenic diet. [8] This may demonstrate a possible improvement in overall wellness through ketosis.

Take Away Message

Although there have been advances in chemotherapy and radiation in recent years, the overall outcomes are still unfortunately poor for many patients and come with adverse reactions of treatment. Many are looking for more holistic and natural routes in treatment, such as dietary inventions, for at least supporting treatment.

Ketosis and a ketogenic diet might serve as a potential complementary approach to cancer treatment options by reducing the amount of glucose available and increasing metabolic oxidative stress in cancer cells. Furthermore, current ongoing clinical trials may show us even more benefits of ketosis for cancer treatment in the future.


[1] Allen, Bryan G., Sudershan K. Bhatia, Carryn M. Anderson, Julie M. Eichenberger-Gilmore, Zita A. Sibenaller, Kranti A. Mapuskar, Joshua D. Schoenfeld, John M. Buatti, Douglas R. Spitz, and Melissa A. Fath. “Ketogenic Diets as an Adjuvant Cancer Therapy: History and Potential Mechanism.” Redox Biology 2 (2014): 963-70. Web. 12 June 2017.

[2] Aykin-Burns, Nùkhet, Iman M. Ahmad, Yueming Zhu, Larry W. Oberley, and Douglas R. Spitz. “Increased Levels of Superoxide and H2O2mediate the Differential Susceptibility of Cancer Cells versus Normal Cells to Glucose Deprivation.” Biochemical Journal 418.1 (2009): 29-37. Web. 12 June 2017.

[3] Grivennikov, Sergei I., Florian R. Greten, and Michael Karin. “Immunity, Inflammation, and Cancer.” Cell 140.6 (2010): 883–899. PMC. Web. 12 June 2017.

[4] Zhou W, Mukherjee P, Kiebish MA, Markis WT, Mantis JG, Seyfried TN. “The calorically restricted ketogenic diet, an effective alternative therapy for malignant brain cancer.” Nutr Metab (Lond). (2007): 4:5. Web. 11 June 2017

[5] Tisdale, Mj, Ra Brennan, and Kc Fearon. “Reduction of Weight Loss and Tumour Size in a Cachexia Model by a High Fat Diet.” British Journal of Cancer 56.1 (1987): 39-43. Web. 11 June 2017.

[6] Lee, C., L. Raffaghello, S. Brandhorst, F. M. Safdie, G. Bianchi, A. Martin-Montalvo, V. Pistoia, M. Wei, S. Hwang, A. Merlino, L. Emionite, R. De Cabo, and V. D. Longo. “Fasting Cycles Retard Growth of Tumors and Sensitize a Range of Cancer Cell Types to Chemotherapy.” Science Translational Medicine 4.124 (2012): n. pag. Web. 11 June 2017.

[7] Allen, B. G., S. K. Bhatia, J. M. Buatti, K. E. Brandt, K. E. Lindholm, A. M. Button, L. I. Szweda, B. J. Smith, D. R. Spitz, and M. A. Fath. “Ketogenic Diets Enhance Oxidative Stress and Radio-Chemo-Therapy Responses in Lung Cancer Xenografts.” Clinical Cancer Research 19.14 (2013): 3905-913. Web. 12 June 2017.

[8] Schmidt, Melanie, Nadja Pfetzer, Micheal Schwab, Ingrid Strauss, and Ulrike Kämmerer. “Effects of a Ketogenic Diet on the Quality of Life in 16 Patients with Advanced Cancer: A Pilot Trial.” Nutrition & Metabolism 8.1 (2011): 54. Web. 12 June 2017.

Dr. Anthony Gustin is a board-certified sports chiropractor, functional medicine practitioner, entrepreneur, podcast host, and founder of Perfect Keto.

Over the last few years, he has treated thousands of patients with movement rehab, internal diagnostics, and natural interventions, including NFL, MLB and NBA champions. After growing his sports rehab and functional medicine clinics to six locations in San Francisco, he shifted his mission to help as many people as possible achieve optimal health and well-being.

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Responses (2)

  1. I have so many questions…so where can a person get on a trial where they could be monitored? I am a cancer patient with GIST and have been on a ketongenic diet for over 6 months.

  2. what changes have you noticed? Please tell me about your experiences. My mom just got diagnosed with stage IV NSCLC and I would like to start her on keto.

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