Ketones are compounds that have a specific chemical structure. The figure below (from: Wikipedia) shows the chemical structure of various types of ketones. As you can see, all ketones share a carbonyl group; that is the “O=” part of their chemical structure. A carbonyl group is an oxygen atom double-bonded to a carbon atom.
Technically speaking, many substances can be classified as ketones. Not all of these are involved in the same metabolic processes in humans. For example, fructose is technically a ketone, but it is not one of the three main ketones produced by humans from dietary macronutrients (discussed below), and is not metabolized in the same way as are those three main ketones.
Humans, as well as most other vertebrates, produce three main ketones (also known as ketone bodies) from dietary macronutrients. These are acetone, acetoacetate and beta-hydroxybutyrate. Low carbohydrate diets tend to promote glycogen depletion, which in turn leads to increased production of these ketones. Glycogen is stored in the liver and muscles. Liver glycogen is used by the body to maintain blood glucose levels within a narrow range in the fasted state. Examples of diets that tend to promote glycogen depletion are the Atkins Diet and Kwaśniewski’s Optimal Diet.
A search for articles on ketosis in scientific databases usually returns a large number of articles dealing with ketosis in cows. Why? The reason is that ketosis reduces milk production, by both reducing the amount of fat and glucose available for milk synthesis. In fact, ketosis is referred to as a “disease” in cows.
In humans, most articles on ketosis refer to pathological ketosis (a.k.a. ketoacidosis), especially in the context of uncontrolled diabetes. One notable exception is an article by Williamson (2005), from which the table below was taken. The table shows ketone concentrations in the blood under various circumstances, in mmol/l.
As you can see, relatively high concentrations of ketones occur in newborn babies (neonate), in adults post-exercise, and in adults fed a high fat diet. Generally speaking, a high fat diet is a low carbohydrate diet, and a high carbohydrate diet is a low fat diet. (One occasionally sees diets that are high in both carbohydrates and fat; which seem excellent at increasing body fat and thus reducing life span. This diet is apparently popular among sumo wrestlers, where genetics and vigorous exercise usually counter the negative diet effects.)
Situations in which ketosis occurs in newborn babies (neonate), in adults post-exercise, and in adults fed a high fat diet are all examples of physiological, or benign, ketosis. Ketones are also found in low concentrations in adults fed a standard American diet.
Ketones are found in very high concentrations in adults with untreated diabetes. This is an example of pathological ketosis, even though ketones are produced as part of a protective compensatory mechanism to spare glucose for the brain and red blood cells (which need glucose to function properly). Pathological ketosis leads to serum ketone levels that can be as much as 80 times (or more) those found in physiological ketosis.
Serum ketone concentrations increase proportionally to decreases in stored glycogen and, when glycogen is low or absent, correlate strongly (and inversely) with blood glucose levels. In some individuals glycogen is practically absent due to a genetic condition that leads to hepatic glycogen synthase deficiency. This is a deficiency of the enzyme that promotes glycogen synthesis by the liver. The figure below (also from Williamson, 2005) shows the variations in glucose and ketone levels in a child with glycogen synthase deficiency.
What happened with this child? Williamson answers this question: “It is of interest that this particular child suffered no ill effects from the daily exposure to high concentrations of ketone bodies, underlining their role as normal substrates for the brain when available.”
Unlike glucose and lipoprotein-bound fats (in VLDL, for example), unused ketones cannot be converted back to substances that can be stored by the body. Thus excess ketones are eliminated in the urine; leading to their detection by various tests, e.g., Ketostix tests. This elimination of unused ketones in the urine is one of the reasons why low carbohydrate diets are believed to lead to enhanced body fat loss.
In summary, ketones are present in the blood most of the time, in most people, whether they are on a ketogenic diet or not. If they do not show up in the urine, it does not mean that they are not present in the blood; although it usually means that their concentration in the blood is not that high. Like glucose, ketones are soluble in water, and thus circulate in the blood without the need for carriers (e.g., albumin, which is needed for the transport of free fatty acids; and VLDL, needed for the transport of triglycerides). Like glucose, they are used as sources of energy by the brain and by muscle tissues.
It has been speculated that ketosis leads to accelerated aging, through the formation of advanced glycation endproducts (AGEs), a speculation that seems to be largely unfounded (see this post). It is difficult to believe that a metabolic process that is universally found in babies and adults post-exercise would have been favored by evolution if it led to accelerated aging.
Williamson, D.H. (2005). Ketosis. Encyclopedia of Human Nutrition, 91-98.