What does high ketones mean?

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Ketones are natural substances that the body produces when it breaks down fatty acids from a person’s diet. Ordinarily, ketones will either be undetectable or present in very small amounts in the blood or urine as the body metabolises them effectively after fat has been broken down.

If a person’s ketone levels are higher than normal, it may be an indicator of an imbalanced diet or an underlying health condition.

Measuring and assessing ketone levels

Ketone levels may be assessed through a urine test or a blood test. In a urine test, the patient will be asked to provide a urine sample to a health professional who will then dip a test strip into the urine. The strip will change colour in order to indicate how high ketone levels in the urine are, either showing a negative result or a positive result graded between one and four depending on the concentration of ketones. Blood samples may also be taken to assess ketone levels. A blood test is usually a more accurate way of establishing how high ketone levels are.

Diet and high ketones

Diet is one of the major factors in ketone production. Ketone levels can rise if a person is not consuming enough of the carbohydrates that usually provide the body with energy throughout the day. Ketone levels increase when the body is forced to break down fat stores and can occur in high protein diets and when people have long periods of time between eating meals. Eating disorders can often cause ketone levels to rise, as can starvation and prolonged stomach upsets.

High ketones in diabetics

People with diabetes mellitus can experience high ketones when their bodies have little insulin, resulting in a condition known as ketoacidosis. The condition is particularly common in diabetics who have not been taking their insulin injections regularly or have not injected themselves with insulin for a long period of time. A lack of insulin prevents the body from gaining energy from glucose in the diet and the body begins to break down fat stores as a result. The high ketone levels produced as the fat is broken down can be an indicator than a person has ketoacidosis, along with symptoms including stomach pain, nausea, appetite loss, high temperature and a smell resembling pear drops on the breath.

Other considerations

While diet and diabetes are major influences on ketone levels, there are a number of other conditions that can cause ketone levels to rise, including fever, burns, breastfeeding, pregnancy and health conditions that cause a person’s metabolism to speed up. It is also important to ensure that tests are carried out accurately to assess ketone levels accurately. Factors that can influence test results include testing a urine sample a long time after it has been produced and taking certain medications, including glucocorticoids and even high levels of vitamin C.