The cells in the human body need energy to survive and do their jobs. When the cells cannot get the energy they need from the foods we eat, the body starts burning fat to provide energy.
Ketones are a toxic by-product produced when the body burns fat.
Normally when we eat our bodies convert foods such as carbohydrates into sugar which is also known as glucose. The cells in the body use glucose as their main source of energy.
The bloodstream carries glucose to all parts of the body. But the cells are not able to access the glucose they need without the hormone insulin.
Insulin acts like a key to unlock the cells so they can take in sugar.
Diabetes is the condition that results when excess sugar builds up in the blood.
When the body cannot produce enough insulin (type 1 diabetes) or when the cells become resistant to the work of insulin (type 2 diabetes) the cells cannot get to the sugar they need. This causes the sugar to accumulate in the bloodstream at the same time that the cells are starving for energy.
When the body turns to fat-burning to provide energy for the cells, ketones can build up to dangerous levels in the blood, which is a condition known as ketoacidosis.
At high levels, ketones act as a poison that can lead to a diabetic coma or even death. Ketoacidosis is more common in people with type 1 diabetes, but can happen to anyone with diabetes.
Ketoacidosis usually comes on slowly, but can be deadly if left untreated. These are the early warning symptoms that you may have ketones building up in your blood:
• Unusual thirst or dry mouth
• Urinating frequently
• High blood glucose (sugar) levels
• High ketones in urine
As ketone levels become higher, these symptoms may also develop:
• Constant tired feeling
• Skin feels dry or flushed
• Nausea, vomiting, or abdominal pain
• Difficulty breathing
• Fruity odor on your breath
• Confusion or difficulty paying attention
There is a simple, painless test you can do at home to test for ketones.
When ketone levels become high in the blood, ketones will also be present in your urine. You can test your ketone levels by using a urine test strip that changes colors when ketones are present.
Follow the test strip directions carefully to collect your urine and compare the test strip color to the color samples on the package to read your ketone levels. Test strips can be purchased without a prescription at most pharmacies and online.
Your health care professional will tell you when you need to test your urine for ketones. Often this is done if your blood sugar levels reach 240 mg/dl.
Be sure to talk to your doctor about what to do depending on what ketone reading you have. If your ketone level reads high and you have any of the symptoms of ketoacidosis, talk to your doctor right away or get emergency medical help.
American Diabetes Association. Living With Diabetes: Ketoacidosis (DKA). Web. August 28, 2012.
Medline Plus. Ketones – urine. Web. August 28, 2012.
Mayo Clinic. Ketoacidosis. Web. August 28, 2012.
About.com: Type 1 Diabetes. Ketone Testing – Making it Part of Your Diabetes Management Plan. Gary Gilles. Web. August 28, 2012.
Reviewed August 29, 2012
by MIchele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith