August 29, 2012

Spontaneous Human Combustion and the Whitehorse Ketogenic Connection

There are at least three kids in Whitehorse using the ketogenic diet to control intractable epilepsy.  One of them is mine.

Because Jade has been on the diet for almost four years now (during which time we have successfully managed to eliminate her seizures. YAY!), I haven't done much research on the diet as of late.  It's old hat.  Recently, however, someone posted an article from NewScientist about a researcher who theorized (and tested) that spontaneous human combustion is caused by a dangerous build-up of acetone in the body - Acetone produced through ketosis.  (Go ahead and watch the video.  It's two-and-a-half minutes long.  If you want a longer one, here's the full hour-long video on youtube.)

After reading the article I thought, Good heavens!  Is my child at risk of spontaneous combustion?

While she was, for a time, on a remarkable 5:1 ratio (the diet is normally administered at a 3.5:1 or 4:1 ratio), and the ketone bodies could be clearly smelled on her breath, and the ratio was so high it was negatively-affecting her other organs, she never burst into flames - thank goodness.  She is now on a 4:1 ratio and we're hoping that, after her next appointment at BC Children's Hospital, she'll be reduced to a 3.5:1 ratio.  The good news is that people who have spontaneously combusted were incredibly ill and possibly in a deep, deep state of ketoacidosis, therefore, the likelihood of my daughter spontaneously combusting is, fortunately, unlikely. Not good news those poor, sick people combusted, of course, but good news that Jade is unlikely to combust spontaneously.

But it did get me on wikipedia looking up ketosis.  Until now, I'd only bothered looking up "ketogenic diet".  It turns out that there's some controversy around being in ketosis and what's preferred by the human body: burning carbohydrates (glucose) or burning fats.

Here's an except from the ketosis controversy section on Wikipedia:
Some clinicians regard restricting a diet from all carbohydrates as unhealthy and dangerous. However, it isn't necessary to completely eliminate all carbohydrates from the diet in order to achieve a state of ketosis. Other clinicians regard ketosis as a safe biochemical process that occurs during the fat-burning state. [...]  The anti-ketosis conclusions have been challenged by a number of doctors and advocates of low-carbohydrate diets, who dispute assertions that the body has a preference for glucose and that there are dangers associated with ketosis.
Now, that's not a huge surprise to me.  In our increasingly polarized diet world, I see people taking positions on "carbs good/fats bad"and "fats good/carbs bad" all the time. What did surprise me was the attention that the Wikipedia article gave to Arctic explorers and "hunter-gatherer" societies.
Because of the experience of Arctic explorers like Vilhjalmur Stefansson who adopted native Inuit diets which derived as much as 90% of energy from fats and proteins, many have held up the Inuit people as an example of a culture that has lived for thousands of years on a ketogenic diet. Conversely, it is speculated by Nick Lane that the Inuit may have a genetic predisposition allowing them to eat a ketogenic diet and remain healthy. According to this view, such an evolutionary adaptation would have been caused by environmental stresses. This speculation is unsupported, however, in light of the many arctic explorers including John Rae, Fridtjof Nansen, and Frederick Schwatka all of whom adapted to native ketogenic diets with no adverse effects. Note especially Schwatka, who specifically commented that after a 2- to 3-week period of adaptation to the ketogenic diet of the native peoples he could manage "prolonged sledge journeys, "including the longest sledge journey on record, relying solely on the Inuit diet without difficulty. Furthermore, in a comprehensive review of the anthropological and nutritional evidence collected on 229 hunter-gatherer societies it was found that, "Most (73%) of the worldwide hunter-gatherer societies derived >50% (≥56–65% of energy) of their subsistence from animal foods, whereas only 14% of these societies derived >50% (≥56–65% of energy) of their subsistence from gathered plant foods," suggesting that the ability to thrive on ketogenic diets is widespread and not limited to any particular genetic predisposition. While it is believed that carbohydrate intake after exercise is the most effective way of replacing depleted glycogen stores, studies have shown that, after a period of 2–4 weeks of adaptation, physical endurance (as opposed to physical intensity) is unaffected by ketosis, as long as the diet contains high amounts of fat. It seems appropriate that some clinicians have acknowledged this period of keto-adaptation the "Schwatka Imperative" after the explorer who first identified the transition period from glucose-adaptation to keto-adaptation.

Wow.  This Schwatka guy had a lot to say about being in ketosis, eh? He even has a period of keto-adaptation named after him!

Wait a minute... Schwatka... Schwatka... that names sounds familiar...

In Whitehorse, we have a small lake called Schwatka Lake.  There's even a tour boat called the MV Schwatka that starts and ends on the lake and travels through scenic Miles Canyon.

Picture of the MV Schwatka in Miles Canyon, lifted without asking for the kind permission of

Schwatka Lake was named after Frederick Schwatka, a US Army Leutenant sent to assess the military strength of the native peoples along the Yukon River in 1883.  Along the way, he named just about everything he saw - ignoring, of course, that everything along the way already had a name.  (What's up with that?) Many of the Yukon's most distinguished landmarks bear Schwatka's names today, including Miles Canyon (pictured above).

If you're interested in learning more about Schwatka, here's an article by ever-impressive local historian, Michael Gates.

So the whole point of the blog entry is that I thought it was neat that there's an historic Whitehorse connection to the ketogenic diet that I never knew existed before.  Perhaps you don't think it's as interesting as I, and if you made it this far into the entry, than I apologize and only hope that you thought the spontaneous human combustion part was interesting because, seriously, people just... catching fire all of a sudden?  Wow.  Crazy.  But true.


Stan Rogers said...

I have witnessed spontaneous human combustion.

Think its quite rare but it does happen.

Meandering Michael said...

Quite rare, indeed. I hope the experience wasn't too traumatizing. My condolences to the afflicted.

Stan Rogers said...

Let me make another comment and keep the madness going.

I heard someone saw a weird creature on a trail near town recently. It had what was it- 6 legs and looked like a cross between a person and a lizard. I keep looking but cannot find another account of it.

I always look but do not see things like that.

Meandering Michael said...

You must be looking too hard - or in the wrong place. May I suggest a visit here?

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing this.its really wonderful.

Anonymous said...

Being a public health nerd, I don't like the idea of deliberately switching your metabolism to ketosis, since the acetone really burns the kidneys, just like it removes nail enamel. It's fine when your metabolism burns several ways at once, eg. while exercising hard on a balanced diet, but our inner equilibrium isn't very happy on the wrong side of the line for any length of time. That's why many diabetics get kidney failure or just plain drop dead. My 19 year old cousin did. A friend had great success in reducing his epilepsy medication by increasing his intake of magnesium via magnesium sulphate (Epsom Salts). He put some in a small fruit juice each morning. I don't know of any long term controlled trials, but they DO treat high-blood pressure of pregnancy with magnesium, so it must stop/start some sort of neurotransmission. If I ever win the national lottery I'll be sure to drop by Lake Schwatka!