A low-carb or ketogenic diet comes with a lot of exciting physical and mental changes — from weight loss and body recomposition to better mental clarity. But these positive physiological benefits can also come with some interesting side effects — especially in the first few weeks of your low-carb or keto diet.
The most common side effect of keto is an electrolyte imbalance as your body begins to excrete more fluid and, therefore, more essential minerals like sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, and chloride. Knowing this, is it possible to avoid electrolyte imbalances and the common symptoms that come with it? Read on to find out.
What Are Electrolytes?
Electrolytes are essential minerals that are vital to most key functions in the body, from nerve transduction and communication to muscle contraction and relaxation, fluid volume regulation, balancing blood pressure, pH maintenance, and active transport of materials into and out of cells.
Common electrolyte minerals include:
Electrolytes work as individual nutrients and in tandem with one another to perform various functions. For example, sodium and potassium work together to keep fluid levels balanced, move nutrients inside and outside the cell, and transmit nerve signals.
Calcium and magnesium function alongside one another to regulate muscle contraction and relaxation and buffer the blood's pH. Calcium and potassium transmit nerve signals as well. That's why imbalances in one electrolyte tend to trigger imbalances in other minerals as they attempt to compensate.
Why Do I Need Electrolytes on Keto?
In the absence of carbohydrates from a low-carb or ketogenic diet, the body reduces its production of the hormone insulin. Insulin is usually released into your bloodstream when you eat sugar or other carbs. So, restricting carbohydrates naturally lowers your body's insulin production.
Insulin is known as the hormone that helps usher glucose into your cells, but it also makes your kidneys hold onto sodium. So, as insulin levels decrease, your kidneys begin to excrete more sodium. And if you aren't getting enough sodium through your diet, other electrolytes are thrown off as well.
Glycogen depletion may also play a role in electrolyte imbalance. Glycogen is your body's way of storing glucose (or blood sugar) in the muscles and liver for later use. And glycogen molecules are mostly water.[6,7]
When you restrict carbs, and insulin levels drop, your body goes straight to that stored glucose for fuel. And as your body uses up glycogen stores, you also lose that stored water and the electrolytes that go with it (mostly sodium).
This rapid loss of "water weight" is usually welcome, but the associated loss of electrolytes isn't and usually triggers symptoms related to electrolyte imbalances and the dreaded "keto flu."
What Happens When We Don't Have Enough Electrolytes?
When our electrolyte levels get noticeably low, we can become symptomatic due to the wide range of functions that these minerals are responsible for. Symptoms can range from minor to major depending on the degree of "deficiency." It also depends on which electrolytes you're low in, as a low-carb diet won't necessarily deplete all of them.
A deficiency in electrolytes can mean a disruption in nerve transduction, fluid balance, muscle contraction, nutrient absorption, energy production, blood pressure, and pH balance.
This can cumulatively look and feel like:
- Brain fog
- Water retention
- Muscle weakness
- Muscle twitching
Of course, you can have just one or a few of these symptoms with electrolyte imbalance, but the cluster of these symptoms has commonly been referred to as "keto flu."
Keto flu is relatively harmless and usually temporary. In fact, it should start to go away the moment you start to supplement with electrolytes and drink more water.
But, if electrolyte loss becomes severe enough from drinking too much water without replenishing minerals, diarrhea, or sweating excessively, seizures and more life-threatening conditions can result.
Sometimes, deficiency of one particular mineral is more prevalent than others while following a low-carb diet. Below are some mineral-specific signs to watch out for:
Lower levels of potassium (hypokalemia) are linked to constipation, dissension, nausea, vomiting, cramping, fatigue, water retention, numbness and tingling, depression, and GI distress.
Lower magnesium levels (hypomagnesemia) are linked more closely to anxiety, depression, muscle spasms, cramping, irritability, muscle weakness, poor coordination, heart palpitations, arrhythmias, and atrial fibrillation.
Although you've likely heard that Americans consume too much sodium on a low-carb diet, this mineral is absolutely essential. As previously mentioned, when your body produces less insulin, your kidneys will excrete more sodium, in addition to the loss of sodium you may experience as you burn through your glycogen stores.
Decreased sodium levels (hyponatremia) are often characterized by fatigue, restlessness, low blood pressure, headache, dizziness, and confusion.
Insufficient calcium intake (hypocalcemia) can present as muscle spasms, cramps, numbness, water retention, constipation, cognitive impairment, and mood changes.
While phosphorus and chloride are essential electrolytes, they're less commonly associated with "keto flu."
Common Symptoms of Electrolyte Imbalance On a Low-Carb Diet
An electrolyte imbalance can present in many different ways, but a handful of symptoms are especially common for low-carb dieters. Signs and symptoms of electrolyte imbalance to watch out for include:
- Sleep issues, including insomnia
- Muscle cramps or weakness
- Confusion, difficulty concentrating, or brain fog
- Stomach cramps, gas, and bloating
- Moodiness or anxiety
For most people, these symptoms will resolve within a week or two once your body gets used to low-carb dieting. However, in the meantime, it can be helpful to get ahead of an electrolyte imbalance or at least reduce your symptoms by making sure you're getting these nutrients in your diet.
Let's explore some ways to keep your electrolytes in balance while transitioning into a low-carb diet.
How to Avoid Electrolyte Imbalances on The Keto Diet
Add High-Quality Salt to Your Diet
You're likely already adding salt to your meals, but you can really go for it on a keto diet. Of course, you don't want to overdo it and throw off the flavor of your food, but you certainly don't need to hold back.
However, it's also essential to choose a high-quality salt, like Himalayan pink salt or any other sea salt that displays a variety of colors. When you see plain old white salt, the only mineral present is sodium. When you see speckles of pinks and red, your salt has a more balanced mineral composition.
Sprinkling sea salt on your meals is a simple way to add much-needed electrolytes to your diet effortlessly.
Add More Mineral-Rich Foods
In addition to salt, many foods are naturally rich in electrolyte minerals. Working these foods into your diet is a fantastic way to increase your electrolyte intake while nourishing your body. Here are some low-carb, electrolyte-rich options:
Foods rich in potassium:
Foods rich in magnesium:
- Pumpkin seeds
- Chia seeds
Foods rich in calcium:
- Dairy (cheese, milk, yogurt, cottage cheese)
Take an Electrolyte Supplement
In addition to including more mineral-rich foods, if you really want to get ahead of an electrolyte imbalance, the most effective thing you can do is to take an electrolyte supplement.
There are a lot of brands out there that make electrolyte supplements, so be sure that you're choosing a high-quality product. Some things to look out for include:
- Sweeteners: Many companies will add sugar or alternative sweeteners like sucralose or aspartame. Be sure to check the ingredient label for carbohydrates and stick to products that only use natural sweeteners like stevia or monk fruit.
- Artificial colors: Electrolyte sports drinks like Gatorade are known for adding all kinds of artificial ingredients. While you may find electrolytes with added colors, make sure that they are "natural coloring" instead of dyes.
- Well-rounded electrolytes: When choosing your electrolyte supplement, be sure that it includes the main four electrolytes that you need to watch out for on a keto diet; potassium, sodium, calcium, and magnesium.
Electrolyte supplements can come in a variety of forms. You can find electrolyte capsules, drinks, dissolvable tablets, and powders. Choose whichever one works best for you and will offer the most convenience. You may find that it's helpful to have more than one option in your pantry, depending on what your day looks like. For instance, you may like to keep a couple of small powder packets in your bag when you're on the go and have a bottle of capsules for when you're at home.
Increase Your Water Intake
While increasing your water intake won't necessarily help you deplete your electrolytes, it's an essential piece of the puzzle when it comes to feeling your best. As mentioned, a major contributor to electrolyte imbalance for low-carb dieters is water loss. Therefore, if your electrolytes are low, it's also very likely that your water stores are depleted as well.
Increasing your water intake will help to replenish your water and make it possible for your electrolytes to do their job.
Many people think that by just salting their food with table salt (sodium chloride), they'll be able to overcome "keto flu". While this is helpful, it only helps to support a percentage of the problem.
Electrolyte supplements can be an excellent and healthy adjunct to ensure you're getting enough electrolytes throughout the day. While food should be your first go-to electrolyte supplement, consuming enough of your essential electrolytes can be challenging while trying to stay within your carbohydrate limits. This is especially true if you're physically active and sweating a lot.
For best practices, incorporate electrolyte-rich foods into your diet, along with a high-quality electrolyte supplement.