Keto Basics and Tools

Electrolytes and The Keto Flu

You’ve heard people talk about the keto flu and wonder what they’re on about because apparently it makes them feel tired, sick and is one of the first reasons why people fall off the low carb and keto train.  There is mention of electrolytes but what are they?  I mean, isn’t that what athletes and sports people worry about?  But why would “I” need to worry about electrolytes when all I’m doing is eating differently, not sweating out buckets of perspiration after hours of physical exertion.  I am not a doctor or dietician but here is a lay persons simplified version of what electrolytes are, what the keto flu is, and tips that may assist you in avoiding keto flu-like symptoms.  As always, it is recommended that you consult your medical practitioner, doctor or registered dietician for further advice on electrolytes before embarking on a change of diet.

What are Electrolytes?

Electrolytes are elements and compounds that conduct electricity when mixed with water.   In the human body they are important for many crucial functions such as muscle contraction, nerve function, energy production, body temperature control, body water regulation, and blood pressure regulation to name but a few.  The 7 main electrolytes are magnesium, calcium, bicarbonate, phosphate, potassium, sodium and chloride  but the ones that seem to be most associated with low carb keto diets are:

  • magnesium 
  • potassium 
  • sodium 
  • calcium
Issues tend to arise when an imbalance of electrolytes occurs within in the body (too much, too little) that then results in malfunctions of their associated physiologic functions.  The symptoms can be wide and varied depending on which electrolytes are out of balance, but common symptoms can include:
  • fatigue and lethargy
  • headaches and dizziness
  • muscle cramps, muscle weakness, or twitching
  • nausea or vomiting
  • irregular heart rate (fast, jumpy)
  • abdominal cramping
  • numbness or tingling
  • blood pressure irregularities
  • brain fog or confusion
  • seizures
  • hot and cold flushes

Why do electrolyte imbalances occur?

There can be many reasons for electrolyte imbalances such as medical conditions, stomach bugs, prolonged vomiting or diarrhea, loss of electrolytes through heavy exercise sweating and so on.  

Embarking on a low carb ketogenic diet can also cause an electrolyte imbalance, predominantly from loss of body water.  On a standard high carb diet, the carbohydrate and glycogen stores in the body hold onto water.  When you reduce your carb intake and deplete glycogen stores and switch to burning fat for fuel, your body loses some of its ability to store/hang onto water and instead loses much of it through the urination process.  This in turn results in a loss of electrolytes in the body as they are excreted via urine.  Loss of electrolytes could be increased even more if you are also exercising regularly while on a low carb keto diet.

Low Carb or Keto Flu and What To Do About It

During the initial transition process of moving from a higher carbohydrate diet to a low carb keto diet, some people can become low in electrolytes and begin to suffer from flu-like symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, hot flushes, nausea and dizzy spells or light-headedness. Some may also get muscle cramps, body twitches or even a racing heartbeat and heart palpitations.  All of these symptoms can be disconcerting and debilitating.  

A reduction of magnesium, potassium, calcium and sodium are often thought to be the main culprits and can all be replenished by taking supplements, electrolyte replacement drinks and adding salt to the foods you eat.  However, you do not want to end up having an electrolyte imbalance from over-consumption of these nutrients either, as this can also affect bodily functions.  To be on the safe side, you can request a blood test from your doctor or medical practitioner to check your electrolyte balance and also rule out any other reasons for your symptoms.  

It is a good idea when first contemplating moving to a low carb keto diet to plan a slow transition so that you phase out your carbs at a controlled pace over an extended time period rather than moving to low carb eating overnight.  During this period you can also ensure adequate supplementation of electrolytes or other nutrients that you may not now be consuming in large enough quantities through your food.  This may enable you to avoid keto flu symptoms altogether or perhaps reduce the severity.  And remember, it is also important to stay well hydrated because electrolytes aside, you are still losing a lot of water each day from your reduction of carbs.

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