144: Joe Armstrong on Breath Acetone, Fat Burning, Metabolism, & Inflammation

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What Breath Acetone Can Tell You About Fat Burning, Metabolism & Inflammation
Wellness Mama » Episode » 144: Joe Armstrong on Breath Acetone, Fat Burning, Metabolism, & Inflammation
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The Wellness Mama Podcast
144: Joe Armstrong on Breath Acetone, Fat Burning, Metabolism, & Inflammation

So you may have heard about this little thing called the ketogenic diet from, oh …everyone?! Consider the low-fat craze of the 80s and 90s officially over, now fat is king! Eat more fat and you’ll be healthier, right?

True, a ketogenic diet uses liberal amounts of fat to fuel the body, but how much fat does each person’s body need to be in the zone? Without a window into what is happening on a chemical level inside the body, the truth is we’re just guessing what to eat and when.

Thankfully, you don’t need blood tests or doctors to find out exactly what it takes to get your body into fat-burning ketosis. Enter Joe Anderson and LEVL, an easy-to-use at-home device that gives personalized feedback on your metabolism … just from a breath!

The Science Behind LEVL and the Ketogenic Diet

Today’s podcast guest is the real deal — a scientist and researcher on the cutting edge of today’s health scene. Joe Armstrong brings over 20 years of expertise in pulmonary physiology and breath research to the table. His job is literally to pioneer new ways to personalize medicine to the individual, which I think is so exciting.

He holds a PhD in Chemical Engineering at the University of Washington and also serves on the faculty there, and he’s published in over 40 peer-reviewed publications, so he’s just the right person to explain how this technology works.

Yes, investing in this kind of health technology isn’t the norm (yet) but it’s becoming more and more accessible thanks to researchers like Joe. I’m looking forward to learning alongside you all on this one!

In This Episode You’ll Learn

  • what ketosis is and how to measure it … without needles!
  • how we are all in a mild state of ketosis throughout the day
  • the key difference between ketosis and diabetic keto acidosis
  • what the Warburg effect is and what it means for reducing cancer risk
  • simple changes that can increase blood acetone and reduce disease
  • what exogenous ketones are (and do they work?)
  • the best way to experiment with ketosis and know if it is working
  • how MCT oil can help improve ketosis
  • why WHO (The World Health Organization) changed its recommendations on sugar consumption
  • how much sugar should we actually consume (more like not consume!) for best health
  • and more!

Resources We Mention

What do you think? Would you buy a device to get this kind of real-time health feedback? Please share in the comments or leave me a review on iTunes. I read each and every comment, and my guests often do too and might answer your questions!

For More on This Topic, See

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Child: Welcome to my Mommy’s podcast.

This podcast is brought to you by Dry Farm Wines. This is the only wine I drink anymore. After researching and finding that many other wines contain added sugar, dyes like ultra vita-mega purple and filtering agents including fish waters, egg whites and some other unsavory ingredients. And things like sawdust to improve the taste. But the Dry Farm part is important too. What this means is that the grapes are not irrigated. Without the water, they don’t get as big or as sweet, yielding higher nutrient and lower alcohol wines naturally. Their wines are lab tested for purity and to make sure that they are free of even trace amounts of pesticides and herbicides. And they are all sourced from small family dry farm vineyards all over the world. I absolutely love their wines and I find them to be less expensive than other high-quality wines. And Wellness Mama listeners can get an extra bottle of wine for a penny at wellnessmama.com/go/wine.

This podcast is brought to you by Paleovalley. If you have not tried these, they’re awesome. They make grass-fed, naturally fermented beef and now pastured turkey sticks that are high in protein and nutrients and also a good source of probiotics because they’re naturally fermented. And they’re shelf stable so you don’t have to keep them refrigerated. We bring these along whenever we travel and our kids love them all time as part of an on-the-go meal. I bring them whenever I travel because they save me so many times from airport food. And Wellness Mama listeners can get 20% off of any order at wellnessmama.com/go/paleovalley.

Katie: Hi, and welcome to the “Healthy Moms Podcast.” I’m Katie from wellnessmama.com. And I am here today with Joe Anderson. It’s gonna be a fascinating conversation because he has over 20 years of experience in pulmonary physiology and breath research science. He’s the owner of Anderson Bioscience, is an affiliate faculty member at the Department of Bioengineering at the University of Washington where he has a PhD in Chemical Engineering. He’s published over 40 peer-reviewed publications so he’s no stranger to this science, and he’s working with a new company that I’ve been involved with called LEVL. I’ve been using their device to understand ketosis in health and disease and how measurement of breath acetone can help individuals better manage their health and wellness. I think it’s gonna be a really enlightening episode. Welcome, Joe, and thanks for being here.

Joe: Yeah, thank you for having me.

Katie: So I think my audience is pretty well informed, but for those who aren’t quite familiar, I’d love to start at the beginning. Can you kind of just define what ketosis is for us, because I know we’re going to throw that term around.

Joe: Yeah, certainly, ketosis is the idea that your body’s burning fat, and part of that fat what we’d call fat metabolism, some of that fat’s being converted into these chemicals called ketone bodies. And ketosis is a way to kind of monitor and describe how many of those ketone bodies are in your body, in your blood, and in your brain etc. So that’s a lot of information there. I’m sure we need to unpack a little bit of that.

Katie: I was gonna say I know this is a really popular term right now, and there are tons of resources I’m seeing pop up online about ketosis and how it’s beneficial. But so like you just explained pretty much if your body’s burning fat which most people will want to burn fat, at least some of the time, then you’re technically in ketosis. So can you explain kind of what the difference is and the types of ketosis are and the ones that would be more common, versus more extreme, I guess?

Joe: Sure, and maybe to even take a step back if you don’t mind is, you know, there’s this movement towards understanding that maybe it’s the sugars that aren’t the best for us. That in fact, our kind of abolition of fat maybe was the wrong idea, and maybe we should really be cutting back our sugars, increasing our fat intake. The idea that perhaps it’s the sugars that are actually causing the inflammation, and causing some of the systemic failures we’re seeing with some medical conditions. So if you take a hold of that perspective and the science seems to be starting to support that idea that the sugars and elevating a lot of the sugars in your body really is not the best idea, then you wanna be burning more fat. And that’s why we get to this idea of how can you tell if you’re elevating your fat metabolism? How can you tell if you’re turning on that elevation fat metabolism? That’s where the ketosis comes in.

So once again, to take a step back. There was a study done about 30 years ago coming out of Abbott Laboratories where they showed that people who wanted to lose body fat just on a natural standard American diet, well-mixed but they restricted the calories, they cut their calories probably in half of what they would typically need. What they saw is those folks who did that and who were losing fat mass, they increased their ketone bodies, in this case, acetone in their exhaled breath.

So the reason I bring that up is even if you’re just eating your normal standard American diet, but you’re gonna cut back calories, you can get into a state of ketosis. In fact, no matter what you’re doing we’re all in some sort of state of ketosis. Meaning we’re all burning some fat and some of that fat’s being converted to these ketone bodies, and so everyone’s in the state and what I would term a basal state of ketosis.

Katie: Yeah, that’s fascinating. So just changing your diet even a little can get you into ketosis, even just reducing calories. And I know there’s a lot of data out there about the benefits of caloric restriction over the long term for longevity, and how like fasting can play into that, or different dietary changes. But what other things can come into play here? And when you’re talking about caloric restriction. I would’ve guessed the more caloric restriction the more advanced the ketosis that happens, or what’s that relationship there?

Joe: Yeah, absolutely. And that’s a great point is what I’m kinda hearing you say is, you know, what is the range of ketosis? And, you know, one thing I forgot to say is there are hopefully some people are saying, “Well, why does your body bother making these other chemicals? Why would you burn fat to make another chemical that seems useless?” Which would be a great question. So what happened and you can think years and years ago when we didn’t have meals every single day, you had to go out and scavenge or maybe you killed an animal and you ate, and you may have to wait a few days, right?

So what happens in that scenario is your body doesn’t have sugar, because your body burns that out fairly quickly and your brain is really reliant on sugar. So the sugar is gone from the system, then you need something to feed your brain and the brain can’t metabolize fat. So what happens is your body converts the fat into these ketone bodies that feeds the brain. So we’re really piggybacking off this long used biology that we’ve kind of neglected due to our current ways of living, and constant intake of food. That if you convert… You move away from sugars and start using more fats, some of those fats are gonna be converted to fuel for your brain, right?

And so your question was, what is the range of ketone bodies? What’s the range of this ketosis or this fat metabolism elevated? Well, the way I like to think of it is in terms of breath acetone, because I’m working with a company called LEVL that’s created a device to measure breath acetone. Breath acetone is an indication of ketosis. It’s actually one of those ketone chemicals, ketone bodies. We all have about one part per million of ketones or of acetone on our breath, and that’s why I call it kind of a basal level of ketosis.

Now, if you can crank up your ketosis even mildly, just by cutting back your calories like we talked about, maybe instead of 2,000 calories a day, you cut out to 1,000. You can increase breath acetone to maybe 10 parts per million, right? Eight to 10 parts per million, so it’s a reasonable increase. Now I think one of the other things you mentioned if you do something different, let’s say you cut back all your calories, you fast. And like I just stated, you know, 500 years ago, 1,000 years ago when people…the food wasn’t as abundant, that would be happening probably every week. You’d be fasting for a few days looking for your next meal. When you fast you can crank up your breath acetone between 10 and 100 parts per million.

And these are all from scientific studies. We published a study in “Obesity” which is a journal reviewing this science. The other way you can get it between 10 and 100 parts per million is by just eating higher levels of fat to really cutting back your sugar intake, your carbohydrate intake to, you know, less than 50 grams maybe 25 grams of sugar a day, and that’s really a small portion. You’re talking around a teaspoon of sugar when you think about it.

Now, so you can elevate your ketone bodies almost a hundredfold. Still be healthy, still be probably even more alert because those ketone bodies are great fuel for the brain. Some of you are probably medical folks and you realize, “Man, I remember hearing about acetone and the breath and that’s an indication of something like diabetic ketoacidosis.” Well, that’s true but that really happens in a totally different range. We’re talking probably 300 parts per million of acetone to 1,250 parts per million of acetone. So you’re talking almost a thousandfold higher than what we all have, just kind of sitting here eating our standard American diet. So those are kind of the ranges.

One is the basal, one to 10 is just some calorie, mild calorie restriction, 10 to 100 parts per million of acetone in the breath, fasting or very low sugar intake. And then, you know, above 100 you’re talking 300 to 1,250, that’s diabetic ketoacidosis. That obviously comes with other complications that are medically related.

Katie: That makes sense. So are there benefits to different levels of ketosis? And obviously, I would guess it’s dangerous at the point when you’re hitting the diabetic ketoacidosis level. But before that are there benefits at certain levels that are kind of a sweet spot?

Joe: Yeah, there are certainly benefits to elevating your ketone bodies. One of them is a reduction potentially an inflammation. There’s some data coming out that seems to indicate that in the mitochondria of the cell. The mitochondria is that power plant of the cell that converts nutrients into energy that your cell can use. That in that mitochondria, the inflammation is decreased. You can also think that if you get into elevated levels of ketosis, the reason that’s happening is you’re cutting out the sugar. So you’re gonna reduce some of the inflammation potentially in the arterial walls.

You also are going to reduce sugar which is going to reduce the insulin response. Insulin is the chemical in your body that tells sugar to go into the cells, without insulin the sugar just keeps circulating in the blood and causes quite a bit of damage, and leads to the diabetes we’re talking about. So reduction of insulin can be very beneficial, and the reason that is, is when you are constantly pumping out insulin, your cells can desensitize to that insulin, and with time can be a precursor to the type 2 diabetes. So that could be another one.

The other piece of the ketosis side with the elevation of these ketone bodies, would be brain fuel. And there’s some nice studies showing that the ketosis, the ketone bodies are great brain fuel. And actually a lot of people say when they get these elevated levels of ketosis, and that would probably be in the 10 to 100 parts per million of acetone, and we maybe want to talk about the blood side too, the ketones that are in the blood that they get better alertness, better mental function. And then the final thing is potentially this elevated level of ketosis can be therapeutic, and perhaps we’ll talk about that, helping maybe reverse some sort of diseases and also staving off other diseases as well.

Katie: It’s so fascinating. And I can at least personally speak to the brain benefits, like I’ve noticed and I know a lot of people who fast or enter ketosis on purpose, not even for like the health benefit so much as the brain benefits. And it’s like truly it’s a very clean fuel for your brain from what I’ve read, and I certainly notice the difference when I’ve experimented with ketosis. But I think we are referring to with the studies, I’d love to go a little deeper because I’m kind of a nerd in that I love to just scroll through medical journals and see what the latest research coming out. And I’ve seen quite a few and met some researchers lately talking about ketosis and fasting in potential cancer research, even being able to reduce chemotherapy levels with ketosis and different therapies like that. So I’d love to know if you’ve researched that as well and what your opinion is.

Joe: Yeah, certainly. We kind of look at the ketosis, kind of, three different ways, at least from the LEVL viewpoint. We have the way of ketosis is great to monitor your fat loss, right? So you wanna lose… This is what we have. In our company we have myself, middle-aged folks, metabolism is slowed, we’re gaining a few extra pounds. How can we get those pounds off without going too crazy? Well, the LEVL device helps you measure your fat metabolism, right? So fat loss is a great one. And the other side of it is to change your diet completely or, you know, or maybe not overnight but with some time and really start to cut back the sugar, so you’re getting the ketosis or ketogenic diet, those sorts of diets.

Now, the third one is what you talked about is trying to use the elevated ketone bodies for therapeutic uses, right? And what I mean by therapeutic uses is there’s we’ve gone through the literature, and kind of outlined about I think 8 to 10 different places where elevated ketone bodies or lifestyles that lead to elevated ketone bodies can reverse diseases. For example, type-2 diabetes. There’s a nice company out there called Verdant Therapeutics that’s reversing type 2 diabetes by having people cut out the sugars, going on a ketogenic diet. And what happens, if you remember sometimes people call type 2 diabetes sugar diabetes, is your body drops its insulin production and it allows your cells to resensitize to insulin, and it uses fat for the fuel.

And so instead of your body having to manage where sugar is going and the damage that potentially sugar is causing to it, fats filling the body and you can reverse quite a few of those symptoms of type 2 diabetes. The other ones are like we talked about some brain function. Different mental, I guess, you could call ’em mental diseases, whether it’s just mild dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s. Those are thought to be a consequence of poor utilization of sugar in the brain. Cancer’s another one. Once again and we can go into some detail on this obvious, but cancer, there’s been a hypothesis for about a 100 years called the Warburg Effect, that cancer is driven by sugar metabolism, and two things are happening.

Number one, the sugar is feeding the cancer but also sugar is elevating insulin in your blood, which is the signal for the cancer cells to continue to reproduce and grow faster. So the idea is cut the sugar out. You’re gonna elevate your fat metabolism. You’re gonna elevate your ketone bodies. The cancer cannot use the ketone bodies because they have a dysfunctional ability to metabolize fats and ketone bodies, and so the surrounding cells, the healthy cells use it but you essentially starve those cancer cells. And now you may not kill ’em all off, but like you said, if you were to fast and you start to desensitize those cancer cells and you start to starve them, then when you hit them with the chemotherapeutic, and potentially it could be a lesser dose, potentially, or radiation therapy then you may be able to kill more of them more effectively without the side effects.

And some of the thought processes is the ketone bodies feeding those healthy cells, when you hit the whole body with the chemotherapeutic or the radiation, those healthy cells are actually more protected due to metabolizing the fat and the ketone bodies prior to the therapeutic dose. So hopefully, that gives you some perspective. As you may know, some folks may know that they’ve used this ketogenic diet for epileptics, people with epilepsy. And what they’ve shown, they’ve known about this for close to 100 years, is that people on a ketogenic diet, their number of seizures and events have gone down dramatically 50%, maybe 90% depending on the populations of kids or adults, and can really reverse the symptoms of epilepsy.

Katie: That was actually my first exposure to what ketosis was, is a childhood friend with epilepsy, and my friend could not have any kind of carbohydrates at all, and was on an extremely ketogenic diet. And I didn’t really think of it much at the time, but when I started seeing this research it kind of came back to and I was like, “Oh, wow.” They really have known about this for a long time. It’s not some like new fad that we’re just figuring out. Is there a point where like, can you get too much of a good thing, I guess? Like is there a point when you need to add back in carbs? I know there’s a lot of people who recommend cycling or occasionally spiking carbohydrates. Have you seen any research on that one way or the other?

Joe: And here again, just to…want to take a step back. I think some of this research is still not necessarily new, but we’re starting to develop some of these areas. So we know that the ketogenic diet can be good, right? The question is, is it good for everyone? And I think there’s some studies coming out looking at different diets and genetics, so depending on your genetic profile one style of diet may be more preferential for you than others. So to get to your point is do you stay on it forever or do you cycle in and out? I think it’s gonna depend on the individual, and I think there will have to be a little bit of experimentation per individual to see, you know, maybe you stay on it for a week, or maybe do some intermittent fasting and you cut back your sugar, or maybe you can go in and out. I think it’s going to depend on some of the lifestyle choices, some of the genetic factors.

Some people simply can’t do it because the way they work, and they’re flying all over the place. So I know that’s not the answer maybe you want, but I do think that it’s going to be a little bit tailored per the individual.

Katie: No, that makes sense. And you mentioned going in and out of ketosis. I’m curious does it take a while especially if you’re not really used to being in ketosis for your body to kind of get into that groove? Because it seems like a lot of people if they just cut the carbs to cold-turkey, they tend to experience some uncomfortable symptoms for a few days, and then they’ll see the ketones. Have you seen that?

Joe: Yeah, a lot of people term that the keto flu, so you cut back the sugars. And remember when you’re cutting back the sugars, one of the things you’re gonna see, and a lot of people see this when they first go on a diet, is you start to urinate, you start to get rid of a lot of the water. Sugar needs water for storage, right? Fat doesn’t. Fat, you know, oils don’t like water. So one of the things that happens when you start to urinate out, you may urinate out some of the calcium, and sodium, and potassium. And so you may get some of this flu-like symptoms. And a lot of people can manage that just by drinking some bone broth that has some of those chemicals in it to relieve it.

So, certainly I think what I’ve heard and I’ve experienced some, is the first time you go into ketosis or the first time you fast is the toughest, but there’s some memory which I’m not sure how that is. But each time you do it again, for example, each time you fast again, it gets a little bit easier. So I would say the more you do it the easier it’s gonna become.

Katie: That makes sense. I’m curious how exercise plays into this equation of ketosis and fat loss, and fat metabolism and even breath acetone. Does exercise make a difference there?

Joe: Yeah, it certainly does. There’s a couple different things when you’re talking about the ketone levels. And by the way, maybe I want to maybe I should take a step back because I didn’t say this up front. When we’re talking about ketosis, we’re really talking about three ketone bodies. So when your fat leaves the fat cell, gets into the circulation, and finally hits the liver, that’s where the fat is converted into these chemicals called ketone bodies. The mother ketone body is acetoacetate, and I apologize for the big names but that’s just simply what we call it.

The acetoacetate can get interconverted, meaning back and forth between a chemical called beta-hydroxybutyrate. Both of those chemicals, the acetoacetate, beta-hydroxybutyrate, they’re only found in the blood or in the urine and it’s just because they’re too big. They can’t evaporate or what we call volatilize. Acetoacetate also converts one way into acetone, so once it gets converted into acetate it doesn’t convert back to acetoacetate. And acetone is small so that when acetone in the blood supply passes through the lungs, it can come out in the air and then out into your exhaled breath so we can measure it there.

So what can affect the levels of those ketone bodies? We talked about nutrition, right? A couple of the other ones that are factors would be exercise, right? So if you exercise for a long period of time at a moderate rate, you can increase your fat metabolism. You start burning more fat. That will show up in exhaled breath acetone as well as measurements of these ketone bodies in your blood and your urine. Two other ones that we typically think are pretty important are sleep and stress. So if you’re not sleeping well, you can change your body’s metabolism. One study showed and it was an interesting study about, I almost think it’s about 10 years ago showing that the ketone levels rise throughout sleep. Particularly your breath acetone rises throughout sleep, and it rises more in people who have deeper sleep.

And it was a small study and a small data set, but that was interesting to me. Then the other one is the stress piece, and that can really affect the levels of ketone bodies, because it really can mess up your metabolism. The other thing that’s interesting is that what we typically see in the scientific literature, is that women have higher ketone levels than men for a given fasting period etc. And that seems to be indicative of different hormonal distributions between the men and the women. And so when you say that then that kind of leads into the fact of that women will have different levels of ketone bodies based off their hormonal cycles, or other hormonal things that are going on.

Katie: That’s really interesting, but it makes complete sense. So I’m curious because I know there’s several ways you can measure if your body’s in ketosis. And I’ve seen like, for instance, like blood meters that would be different than like the LEVL device. Can you talk about the differences in those measurements and like do they tend to match up? Are they all accurate? Or what are the differences?

Joe: Yeah, that’s a great question. So like I said three different ketone bodies. There’s acetoacetate, beta-hydroxybutyrate, and then acetone. And each one really for the consumer is measured in a different fluid. Let’s start with the one that I think is the worst, and I think probably most scientists would agree with me on this one without a doubt, is that measuring ketones in urine, although it’s the most inexpensive way to do it is really the most inaccurate and problematic way, I would say.

Now, it’s very inexpensive but the problem is when you urinate and you’re measuring acetoacetate, you have a lot of factors that affect that concentration in the urine, and that can be the time between your last void, the last time you urinated. It can be acetoacetate converts into acetone in your urinary bladder. And so there’s quite a few factors that can affect that concentration. So that’s not really the best way to measure it, although it’s inexpensive it’s also not quantitative if you’ve ever done that. It gives you a color that you’ve then got to convert to some sort of numerical value.

The gold standard really would be blood measurement of beta-hydroxybutyrate, and what that is, is you prick your finger and you give a drop of blood on to a strip, and then you make a measurement of beta-hydroxybutyrate using the device, and that gives you a quantitative result. And that, like I said, is probably the gold standard at the moment. But there are a couple things as you can imagine, most people I think initially say, “It’s just a prick on my finger. Get some blood and we move on.” But that actually over time it starts to be painful, and it actually starts to cause bruising. And so, and I say this from experience so it’s not as much fun as you would imagine.

The other thing is actually the strips are fairly expensive. Now they’ve been fluctuating in price, but they can be 3 to 4 bucks a strip. So if you mess up the measurement you get to pay another 3 bucks, so it can potentially be, you know, 7 bucks a measurement if you mess it up. So those can be pretty expensive, and you’re not going to do it a lot, right? Just simply because the cost and also a little bit of the inconvenience. The other one is acetone in the exhaled breath, and that’s the one that the LEVL device provides. The reason we’re so excited and bullish about it is because you can make measurements as many times as you want throughout the day, and you can do it in a somewhat of a public setting because it’s not… It doesn’t feel private, you’re not pricking yourself, you don’t have to clean up your finger afterwards.

There’s, you know, pretty minimal overhead for it in that sense. So acetone also, the benefit is there’s some nice relationship between acetone, and at least fat metabolism, fat loss. How they each compare one to another. There have been some studies, there seems to be some comparison between acetoacetate and beta-hydroxybutyrate depending on some of the factors we just talked about. Are you exercising? Are you hydrated well? There’s a relationship between them, it’s not 100% clear what it is. I mean, we kinda have a range, you know, it could be one to one, it could be one to four depending on that. Acetone versus beta-hydroxybutyrate, like I said, kind of that gold standard has a relationship as well. But it seems like there may be a little bit of a delay between, kind of, an elevation in beta-hydroxybutyrate versus an elevation in breath acetone. So there you go.

Katie: That’s really, really fascinating. So I’ve been experimenting with the LEVL myself, and I’d love to like get clarity on the best way to use it. So basically, can someone use this at home to kind of gauge if they’re losing fat or not? And like what would you be looking for if you were using a device to do that?

Joe: Yeah, if you’re using the LEVL device to, you know, just cut some calories and try to lose some fat mass by reducing the amount of calories intakes. There’s a nice relationship between breath acetone and fat loss, and we have that on the app there. So a couple things we recommend. Number one, measure it in the morning, right? When you get up and doing that every day. And the reason is it gives you a time that’s repeatable, that’s also not really influenced by outside factors because you’ve slept overnight, you haven’t put any food in your mouth, you haven’t exercised. And so you’ve gotten up and your body is coming out of this restful, peaceful state, and so it’s a good time to make a measurement that allows it to be well controlled.

One of the things we say with the measurement is we actually have a breathing pattern we recommend to get the most repeatable and accurate measurement. And it’s fairly simple and we created it to try to make it fairly comfortable. So a deeper breath in. You hold your breath for about five seconds, and then just a full comfortable exhalation through the little breath pod before you do the measurement. So that would be the thing I would say. Now like I said before, you can certainly take measurements throughout the day, and sometimes I think that’s very beneficial to understand when you go and exercise, how did that affect your acetone levels, or maybe you ate some things, or maybe you’re stressed. So those sorts of things can help you calibrate what’s going on within your body, with your fat metabolism.

Katie: Yeah, I’ve been enjoying using it like after trying different foods, to see like which one seemed to affect my blood acetone levels and ketosis more. And it’s interesting to see things like sweet potatoes don’t really make that big of a difference for me if I eat them in moderation. Whereas like some fruits really do. So it’s been kind of cool to get to experiment like that.
This podcast is brought to you by Dry Farm Wines. This is the only wine I drink anymore. After researching and finding that many other wines contain added sugar, dyes like ultra vita-mega purple and filtering agents including fish waters, egg whites and some other unsavory ingredients. And things like sawdust to improve the taste. But the Dry Farm part is important too. What this means is that the grapes are not irrigated. Without the water, they don’t get as big or as sweet, yielding higher nutrient and lower alcohol wines naturally. Their wines are lab tested for purity and to make sure that they are free of even trace amounts of pesticides and herbicides. And they are all sourced from small family dry farm vineyards all over the world. I absolutely love their wines and I find them to be less expensive than other high-quality wines. And Wellness Mama listeners can get an extra bottle of wine for a penny at wellnessmama.com/go/wine.
This podcast is brought to you by Paleovalley. If you have not tried these, they’re awesome. They make grass-fed, naturally fermented beef and now pastured turkey sticks that are high in protein and nutrients and also a good source of probiotics because they’re naturally fermented. And they’re shelf stable so you don’t have to keep them refrigerated. We bring these along whenever we travel and our kids love them all time as part of an on-the-go meal. I bring them whenever I travel because they save me so many times from airport food. And Wellness Mama listeners can get 20% off of any order at wellnessmama.com/go/paleovalley.

Katie: How are you finding people are using these? Is that kind of the way that people are using these the most, is just on a daily basis to kind of gauge their response? And are you guys able to track the data to see like the results people are having?

Joe: Yeah, two great questions which a matter of fact I should have brought up. So one of the things that we’re excited about is that you have an app connected to the hardware device. The device is about the size of a Kleenex box. It’s probably a little smaller than a Kleenex box. And when you make the measurement by the device, the device sends the data to your app and so you can track and trend all your measurements throughout the day, throughout weeks, days, weeks etc. And so I think that’s one of the biggest benefits of having this sort of setup, is that what we see is people throughout the week are usually pretty good. You know, they’re like, they decide, “Okay, this is my lifestyle that I’ve chosen, and I’m gonna work hard during the week.”

And then the weekend comes and, you know, the schedule goes a little bit sideways and they have some fun, they have some friends over and you can see their acetone levels drop. And that’s just because they’re having some fun. You may have a few drinks on the weekend, or you may have a celebration of a birthday with a family member and have a piece of cake. All those things can make it drop off and then the week starts. And you can see it start to elevate, your breath acetone elevate again and get back into that elevated state of ketosis. I think a lot of people are using it to really monitor, just as you did what diet and exercise factors are causing changes in their fat metabolism.

There’s another set of people who are using it like I said for some therapeutic uses, and that may be I’m trying to reverse a disease condition, whether that’s diabetes, or cancer, or dementia and making sure my ketone body levels are elevated to a therapeutic level that’s gonna give me some sort of benefit.

Katie: Got it. That makes sense. And definitely, I should have mentioned in the beginning, we’re gonna have links in the show notes at wellnessmama.fm. So anybody listening, you guys can find out more and get to LEVL and check it out. So if someone is new to ketosis in general, and especially new to like testing like this, how would you recommend they get started with the least amount of like keto flu, or the least amount of negative effects? Is there kind of a good way to ease into it?

Joe: So what I would say is there are quite a few different folks who are pretty, in some sense, professional on this. And I’ll kind of quote some of them. I mean, a couple different ways you can do it, is that you could buy one of those exogenous ketones and eat some of that. You know, people may not be familiar with those but they are called ketone esters or ketone salts. You can eat some of that as a replacement for some of your food, maybe replace it for sugar which helps your body. What it does is it’s going to elevate the ketone bodies in your bloodstream exogenously and externally from your external ingestion, and then that helps you kind of move into ketosis a little faster.

Another way to do it is to is to eat medium-chain triglyceride. So once again, substitute some of your food and take in this kind of fat that’s a specific kind of fat called MCT, medium-chain triglycerides. And what those do is they almost immediately get converted into ketone bodies, so you can elevate your ketone bodies and go that direction.

I would say probably one thing you don’t want to do is just to say, “Today I’m on a mixed American diet and I’m gonna start fasting.” That’s probably gonna be the most challenging way to do it. And if you’re up for a challenge and you have some time in your hands, then go for it but that’s really a tough, tough way to do it. I think an easier way is probably the way I would do it, to be honest with you, it would be to start to gradually cut back the sugars, add in like a medium-chain triglyceride to try to ease that conversion, and then also potentially have some bone broth. Have something to try to minimize the flu that’s gonna come with the loss of calcium, potassium, and those chemicals due to the urination of the fluids out.

Katie: Yeah, I definitely would echo that. And I think that I love that you said about, you know, reducing sugar because I think whether fat loss is a goal or not, that’s a good thing to do. And I know there’s a lot of research out there, and we’re seeing more and more but all these increases in disease and certainly, the body doesn’t need processed sugar at least. So I love that you said that, I do. I always like to highlight that whenever someone says it because I think we’re certainly eating much more sugar than our bodies need. And you’ve probably seen some research on that too.

Joe: Yeah, and I wanted to jump in here, I apologize. But one of the things I found interesting I just ran across is the World Health Organization basically said they changed their recommendations, and they’re telling people to only eat 25 grams of what they call free sugar. And I think that’s interesting because when you think about it, there’s all sorts of different sugars, right? There’s sugars in your fruits and your vegetables. There’s just natural sugars in those. I mean, there’s sugars in honeys, right? But then there’s this other class of sugars that the World Health Organization has deemed free sugar. So imagine you take white granulated sugar and you mix it into cookies. They would call that free sugar and that sugar is gonna be more readily absorbed and then it’s gonna spike your blood glucose, is the idea.

So what I’m trying to get at here, is potentially if you wanted to go on that path to try to get sugars out, try to take out those sugars that are maybe the free sugars that are in, you know, your desserts and in those snacks, and even maybe not just get rid of them, but maybe just at first to substitute ’em with a natural sugar, like you’d find in a banana or an apple. And then you can move from that and then maybe take the banana and apple and maybe substitute nuts for that, right? So it’s just kind of a slow easy process as opposed to trying to transform your lifestyle and say, “I’m gonna give up cookies forever.” That can be challenging.

Katie: Yeah, that’s a good point. And I know what’s working for me, because I’ve been using the LEVL to kind of, like I said, gauge my food reactions to things, and it’s been fascinating. So what tends to work the best for me now is to do intermittent fasting a few days a week or just extending the amount of time between dinner and breakfast. And then occasionally I’ll do like a little bit longer of a fast, but I find the more I do that and the more I keep any kind of sugars low and carbs low, the faster I get back into ketosis on the days that I do eat carbohydrates. It seems like you said, the body with the memory, kind of, once you learn how to do it your body gets there a lot faster and without any of the negative effects, kind of, once you adapt to it. Is that what you’ve seen as well?

Joe: Exactly. I love the idea of the intermittent fasting. I have done that a bit myself, where you simply you eat a meal at dinner and then like you said maybe, you don’t eat again till noon which would give you 16 hours of fasting. And that’s pretty simple. And a matter of fact some folks, and I think this was Tim Ferriss who said this which I like, is if you get to the point where you feel like you have to have food, maybe you eat medium-chain triglyceride, which is simply a key…which is gonna be converted into a ketone body. Now that technically, it would take you out of your fast, but it doesn’t totally when you think about the other foods that you’re gonna be…you’re probably gonna be eating some proteins and some sugars, and proteins can be converted into sugar. So you’re kind of hybridizing your fast into this ketogenic state. So, yeah, the intermittent fasting is great. And I do agree that it seems to get a little bit easier day in and day out, and you can do a 24-hour fast really easy, right?

You go to lunch and then you just wait a little bit longer, and maybe have an early dinner and you’ve almost got into 24 hours. So it’s a nice way to go about it. And, you know, the idea of the fasting too, is I think it gets overlooked, is when you think about it. Think about your heart, your heart is beating every second of the day. There’s no rest for your heart, and in a sense, we don’t give our GI tract or gastrointestinal tract any time to rest either. We constantly are pumping foods through that tract all the time. So if you can give your organ systems just a break. If it’s 24 hours, I mean, if you can do it for 7 days at some point in your life, and I haven’t so I would be the last one to talk about that, you can really give it a break to allow it to repair and to replenish itself, and get ready for the next, you know, long stretch of processing food.

Katie: Yeah, and I would actually, ironically, I’m in the middle of a seven-day water fast right now. But I want to say like definitely I’m under doctor supervision. I worked up to this. This is definitely not something to jump into. I didn’t want to like recommend it and have people try to do it. But it is really fascinating to see like my ketones getting higher, and after the first couple days the mental clarity from all the ketones is absolutely incredible. So I think there’s some tremendous benefits, and I know like you said, there’s research on it. And also it’s a very historical thing. We’ve fasted throughout history but yet we seem to be a little more afraid of it these days. So I’ll report back on the podcast at a later one with my results of all that. But, yeah, I love that you’re seeing that research as well.

Joe: And I wanna jump in here, and I want to second what you just said with the doctor supervision. I think that’s incredibly important, particularly if it’s something, you know, where this is, you know, we’re getting into a new year and people like to make resolutions and go and do things. You know, when it comes to your health, it’s always a great idea to be more safe than sorry, right? And go and get that extra evaluation and say, “Yeah, you are medically fit to try something that’s a little bit different, a little bit outside your comfort zone.” Yeah, very smart idea to get medical supervision particularly on that long fast.

Katie: Yeah, for sure, 100%. As we get in toward the end, I’d love for you just to kind of share what you guys hope to accomplish with LEVL. I’ve talked to some of your employees before, and there’s really like some really cool research and ways that you guys are kind of hoping to change the conversation on fat loss and fitness. So I love to just kind of end on that note of what you guys hope to accomplish by giving people the tools to measure this on a daily basis?

Joe: Well, you know, the goal of the company really is to change the whole idea of health and wellness and disease management, to understanding right now what’s going on inside your body. And to do that we need to make measurements, individual measurements of our metabolism and that’s what this measurement of acetone is. It’s a measurement of how your body is metabolizing fats, and so if you can provide that information real-time to people, they can make real-time changes. Now, the reason I keep saying real-time, is that with our current technology, we use a scale. And the scale is really a reflective of where we’ve been. So you get on the scale today and the scale, the measurement will change up and down throughout the week, and really it takes a couple weeks for that scale to move one way or another.

And so you’ve got two weeks of time over which if you’ve messed up for whatever reason, you can’t get that time back. So everyday measurement allows you to make real-time changes, and really understand where you’re going to. One of the things that’s fantastic about that study I talked about with Abbott, is what they demonstrated is if you can maintain a two-part per million of acetone in your breath. So two molecules of acetone in a million, that would be an elevation over what most people have of one. You can lose a half pound of fat mass per week. So the LEVL device is predictive of fat loss. So if you can just maintain it, it’s gonna tell you. It’s kinda a gold star, the North Star where to go, how to get there, directing you on your path.

So that’s one way. The other way too, we feel that it’s gonna be a fantastic device for helping people manage diseases. Whether that’s cancer therapy, whether that’s reversing type 2 diabetes, whether that’s brain function. Trying to elevate your ketone bodies to improve your brain function, or reducing inflammation, fat loss, epilepsy. All those things with that immediate feedback to understand how you’re doing day in and day out, and how your ketone bodies are responding, how your fat metabolism is responding. And it may not just be due to nutrition, it may due to external factors that are affecting your sleep, your stress, all these things. If you can integrate that. Get a single measurement to say, “Yeah, you know, yesterday I messed up but it today is a new day. I’m gonna get after it and make something happen.” As opposed to, “I’m two weeks down the road and now I’ve wasted those two weeks, and now I’ve got to start over.” We really feel this is going to be transformative.

Katie: Yeah, and its super fascinating and really awesome I think just to be able to have tool in your house, and to be able to get real-time data. Because for so long this has not been something that we as just consumers and patients could do, was get access to any really like quantitative health data in our own home. So I love that you guys are pioneering that. And like I said I’ve had fun experimenting with it. And, of course, the links will be in the show notes and they can find you guys at levl.com. But, yeah, any parting words you wanna leave with everybody as encouragement or about LEVL?

Joe: Yeah, you know, you hit on the point that I should have brought up, since I am the scientist, the clinical scientist here. Is what we’ve done with LEVL is we’ve taken a piece of laboratory equipment called a Mass Spectrometer to 50 to $100,000 piece of equipment, and we’ve put it into a device that you can have at home, that gives you the same accuracy as you would have in the laboratory, without all the headaches, the babysitting and the cost of training to understand it. So exactly, this has not been out there and the reason it hasn’t been out there because the technology was tough to kind of wrangle, and get it into a consumer device but that’s what makes it really exciting. And we really hope it can be transformative. We’ve heard some fantastic stories from people that have revolutionized their life as a result of using the device.

Katie: Awesome. And, of course, the links will be in the show notes. But Joe, thank you so much for your time. This has been super fascinating and I think it’s gonna help a lot of people, and I really appreciate you being here.

Joe: Yeah, absolutely. Thanks for having me on.

Katie: And thanks to all of you for listening, and I will see you next time on “The Healthy Moms Podcast.”

If you’re enjoying these interviews, would you please take two minutes to leave a rating or review on iTunes for me? Doing this helps more people to find the podcast, which means even more moms and families could benefit from the information. I really appreciate your time, and thanks as always for listening.

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This podcast is brought to you by Dry Farm Wines. This is the only wine I drink anymore. After researching and finding that many other wines contain added sugar, dyes (like ultra vita-mega purple), unsavory additives to improve taste and mouth feel (sawdust, egg whites, or fish parts, anyone?) as well as filtering agents, I needed a way to save my favorite drink! Dry Farms tests all of their wines for purity and they also only use non-irrigated grapes. Why is this important? Dry farmed grapes don’t get as big or as sweet, yielding higher nutrient and lower alcohol wines naturally. And they are all sourced from small family dry farm vineyards all over the world. I absolutely love their wines and I find them to be less expensive than other high-quality wines. Wellness Mama listeners can get an extra bottle of wine for a penny at wellnessmama.com/go/wine.

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Katie Wells Avatar

About Katie Wells

Katie Wells, CTNC, MCHC, Founder of Wellness Mama and Co-founder of Wellnesse, has a background in research, journalism, and nutrition. As a mom of six, she turned to research and took health into her own hands to find answers to her health problems. WellnessMama.com is the culmination of her thousands of hours of research and all posts are medically reviewed and verified by the Wellness Mama research team. Katie is also the author of the bestselling books The Wellness Mama Cookbook and The Wellness Mama 5-Step Lifestyle Detox.


2 responses to “144: Joe Armstrong on Breath Acetone, Fat Burning, Metabolism, & Inflammation”

  1. Jenny Avatar

    Sticker shock here, too! Katie, if I purchased all the wonderful but expensive devices you recommend for measuring various aspects of health, I wouldn’t be buying good organic food and supplements. That being said, I LOVE reading and implementing so much of your research. Grounding, fermenting, ketosis, and much else. Thanks so much for your writing. We are measurably healthier because of it.

  2. Debbie Avatar

    This is too expensive. I would consider this for $300. Was excited after podcast, but very disappointed when visited LEVL website.

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