Beta…hydro…what? Technical and “science-y” words can be super intimidating, but we’re here to break down one of the top words in the ketogenic diet community — betahydroxybutryate (or BHB). We’ll chat all about what BHB is, why you’d want to use it for energy, and all about side effects and benefits.
WHAT IS BETA HYDROXYBUTYRATE OR BHB?
Beta-hydroxybutyrate, or simply BHB, is a molecule that is considered a ketone body. It is one of the main molecules that helps your body produce energy in the absence of glucose. This molecule is essential if you using your own fat for fuel, or taking BHB as a supplement to increase energy production — essentially to be in nutritional ketosis. If you’re not certain about what ketones are or what nutritional ketosis is, you should back up a little bit and read more about that here.
Technically speaking, beta-hydroxybutyrate is NOT a ketone body. Ketone bodies, or ketones are technically carbonyl carbons who are bonded to two additional carbons atoms. One carbon has four available bonds, double bonded to oxygen and two single bonds to carbon, we have a ketone. If you have a carbon atom that is double bonded to an oxygen (carbonyl group), which is also bound to an -OH group instead of two different carbon atoms, that would be a carboxylic acid, but that really doesn’t matter in this case. For all intents and purposes of the ketogenic diet, betahydroxybutyrate should be considered one of the three ketone bodies and a “ketone” nonetheless.
Tip: Beta hydroxybutryate, or BHB is not GHB
BHB and GHB sure sound a lot alike, but don’t get these confused! One is ketone body and one is a party drug. Not the same.
WHERE DOES BHB COME FROM?
ENDOGENOUS BETA HYDROXYBUTYRATE (YOUR BODY MAKES IT)
Beta-hydroxybutyrate can be made in the body. Endogenous means your body makes it. Think EN = in.
In this scenario, when your body is done using up a certain substrate to create energy (acetyl-CoA) after eating carbohydrates, it will start to find creative ways to get the job done. If you didn’t do this, you’d be dead after fasting for a very short period of time. The liver will start making beta-hydroxybutyrate from long chain and medium chain fatty acids that are liberated from your fat tissue. You are turning fat into fuel.
EXOGENOUS BETA HYDROXYBUTYRATE (YOU PUT IT INTO YOUR BODY)
Sometimes waiting for your body to make the switch from carbohydrate metabolism to beta hydroxybutyrate metabolism (aka ketosis), it can be an uncomfortable and lengthy process. Another way to get beta-hydroxybutyrate into your system so your body is using “clean” energy is by taking it supplementally. This is an exogenous betahydroxybutyrate. Exogenous means you get it from outside of your body. Think EX = exit = outside.
Exogenous BHB is usually attached to some type of other compound (sodium, potassium, calcium, or magnesium) so that your body can process, then cleave the bond between the salt and the beta hydroxybutyrate. BHB + bound to a salt = BHB salts, which is what most people in the ketosis community call exogenous ketones.
Ok, so beta hydroxybutyrate is a compound that your body makes from fat in the absence of carbohydrate intake, or that you can take supplementally, but what does it really do and why should you care?
WHAT DOES BETA HYDROXYBUTYRATE DO?
BHB <–> acetoacetate —> acetone
Beta-hydroxybutyrate is the first substrate that kicks the metabolic state of ketosis into action. Revisiting the scenario from before, if you either take supplemental forms or if your body is making beta-hydroxybutyrate, it is able to start processing in your body resulting in energy.
Beta-hydroxybutyrate floats around in your blood, and importantly, can cross different important barriers to be able to be turned into energy at all times. One of the most important areas where this happens is in the brain. The blood-brain barrier (BBB) is usually a very tightly regulated interface, but since BHB is such a rock star and so hydrophilic, your brain knows to let it in so it can bring energy to the party at any time. This is one of the main reasons why increased BHB levels lead to heightened mental acuity.
How BHB turns into energy is a fairly simple process. As we’ve mentioned, beta-hydroxybutryate eventually leads to energy production. It does this by going into the cell, then enters the mitochondria (energy factories) at which stage it cleaves the carboxyl acid group and becomes acetoacetate (another “ketone body”). Acetoacetate turns into acetoacetyl-CoA, which then is cleaved to acetone (another “ketone body”) and acetyl-CoA. Acetyl-CoA is the whole reason we want BHB in the first place. This jumps into what is called the Kreb’s cycle (don’t you remember any of your biochemistry classes?) and is churned into ATP — the energy currency of your cells!
There you have it. BHB is important because it can freely float throughout your body in your blood, crossing many tissues where other molecules can’t, then it is processed into energy. BHB = ATP = energy.
HOW TO CHECK YOUR BETA HYDROXYBUTYRATE LEVELS
Now that you know all about what BHB is and what it does, you may want to know what is going on with your BHB. Easy!
Since beta-hydroxybutyrate is transported through the blood, the best way to check your true BHB levels is through a blood test. The good news is that you can just use a simple finger prick and an at home method that is very similar to how diabetics check their glucose. The bad news is that it can be pretty expensive at over $3 per strip.
To be in nutritional ketosis, you’re going to want to see your levels of beta-hydroxybutyrate at about 0.5 – 3.0 mmol as a reading from your blood test.
If you’re interested more in how to check your ketone levels (and beta-hydroxybutyrate levels) then check out our guide on How To Know If You’re In Ketosis.
IS BETA HYDROXYBUTYRATE SAFE?
Yes. Both producing BHB in your liver as well as supplementing with beta-hydroxybutyrate are very safe. As we mentioned before, levels of 0.5 – 3.0 mmol measured in a blood test are completely normal. Some people get stressed out when they hear the term “diabetic ketoacidosis” or DKA, which is an entirely different metabolic scenario where your BHB levels skyrocket to 15-25 mmol blood readings.
Diabetic ketoacidosis will not happen to you if you have a normal pancreas and essentially, aren’t diabetic. If you produce any insulin at all, you shouldn’t have a problem with this. Hint: you do.
SIDE EFFECTS OF BETA HYDROXYBUTYRATE
Some general side effects of your body producing beta hydroxybutyrate is essentially the lull in time it takes to switch from carbohydrate metabolism to fat metabolism, which can take 3-4 days. This can lead to mood swings, fatigue, and general low energy. If you want to skip that step, we recommend taking exogenous BHBs.
Some of the side effects of taking too much supplemental BHB is slight gastrointestinal distress. Basically, your body isn’t used to processing all of these ketones. If this is a problem, just stair step the amount you take until tolerance. For example, 1/4 scoop for a few days, 1/2 scoop for a few days, then 3/4, then a full scoop.
It can also sometimes help if you use BHB paired with other fats, which can slow down the absorption slightly.
BENEFITS OF BETA HYDROXYBUTYRATE SUPPLEMENTATION
Taking exogenous ketones by way of beta-hydroxybutryate will rapidly get you into ketosis and force your body to start using a sustained energy source. This essentially skips the whole “carb flu” and few day period where you have to restrict carbohydrates
If you’re unsure why ketosis would be a good thing and looking for the benefits, which are many, check out our guides What is the Ketogenic Diet, What is Ketosis and What are Ketones for the full run down.
WHEN TO TAKE BETA HYDROXYBUTYRATE
Some of the times when you would take a supplemental or exogenous ketone supplement would be:
– Before a workout for performance enhancement
– Daily for enhanced levels of ketosis and overall health benefits
– After a carbohydrate laden meal to get back into ketosis
– In the morning for a mental boost
– On an empty stomach to suppress hunger
At this point, all of your BHB questions should be answered. Now for further reading, check out our other guides: