Bonn, Germany—A ketogenic diet may help in certain cases of asthma,according to a new studyfrom the University of Bonn.

A press release on the topic explains that asthma patients react to any concentration of some allergens with severe inflammation. The release explains that a part of the immune system called Innate Lymphoid Cells (ILC) produce inflammatory messengers, stimulating division of mucosal cells and promoting mucus production—which is very useful when mucus membranes in the lungs are damaged, by pathogens or other harmful substances. The mucus transports the pathogens out of the bronchial tubes and protects the respiratory tract against re-infection.

“With asthma, however, the inflammatory reaction is much stronger and longer than normal,” and the extreme breathing difficulties caused can be life-threatening, said Prof. Dr. Christoph Wilhelm from the Institute for Clinical Chemistry and Clinical Pharmacology, a member of the Cluster of Excellence ImmunoSensation at the University of Bonn. During the process, ILCs multiply and produce large amounts of proinflammatory cytokines. Scientists hope that if their division could be slowed down, this excessive reaction could be brought under control.

In their investigation, the researchers discovered that ILCs use several metabolic pathways to divide. One major pathway: ILCs absorb fatty acids from their environment to use for energy and for building cell membranes. The scientists then asked: What happens if cells are forced to use these fatty acids elsewhere?
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Researchers put asthmatic mice on a ketogenic diet, changing their cell metabolism to a fat-burning one. This means that cells lack fatty acids—and the division activity of ILCs in these rodents decreased dramatically. Dr. Wilhelm summarized the results: “Normally, contact with allergens increases the number of ILCs in the bronchi four-fold. In our experimental animals, however, it remained almost unchanged. Both mucus production and other asthma symptoms decreased accordingly.” Dr. Wilhelm speculates that the glucose deficiency also contributed to the reduced activity of the ILCs.

Researchers are now looking to investigate whether a ketogenic diet can prevent asthma attacks in humans. The release noted that a ketogenic diet is not without long-term risks, and should only be carried out in consultation with a doctor.