For a nontrivial number of people, the Keto diet comes with unwanted side effects. These headaches, cramps, energy drops, and GI problems are known collectively as Keto flu.
Because of Keto flu, many folks quit Keto before achieving their health goals.
If going Keto means I have to feel like THIS...no thanks! The weight loss and other benefits aren’t worth it.
It’s an understandable reaction, but fortunately, eating a Keto diet needn’t doom you to a lifetime of symptoms. Generally, the Keto flu is temporary, especially when you understand what might be causing it. Then you can apply the proper remedies.
That’s what today’s article is all about.
What Is Keto Flu?
The Keto flu isn’t a virus. It’s a constellation of symptoms linked to low-carb dieting, especially the early stages.
Keto flu symptoms include:
- Muscle cramps
These symptoms tend to occur in the first few days of Keto dieting, but often they persist weeks or months into the diet. At the most basic level, the symptoms are a product of carb restriction.
Hormonally and metabolically, a lot changes when you cut carbs. Blood sugar and insulin levels drop, fatty acids are broken apart and released from fat cells, and your liver starts burning fat and producing ketones.[*]
It takes time to adapt to these changes, and it’s not always a smooth transition. Especially when you don’t account for the downstream effects of these changes, like higher electrolyte excretion.[*]
With that in mind, let’s talk about what might be causing your Keto flu.
5 Keto Flu Causes
The typical explanation for Keto flu is something like…”Your body needs time to adapt to using fat for energy”.
This isn’t necessarily wrong, but it also doesn’t tell us much. Here are some more specific potential causes:
#1: The Brain Is Hungry
Normally, your brain runs 100% on glucose. But when you eliminate carbs, your glucose supply goes down, and your body starts making its backup brain fuel: Ketones.[*]
With ketones available, your brain needs much less glucose to meet its substantial energy demands. From an evolutionary perspective, ketones helped our ancestors stay energized and lucid during times of scarcity.
But going from glucose to ketones isn’t like flipping a switch. In the first three days of Keto dieting, reduced glucose to the brain may cause Keto flu symptoms like fatigue and headache.[*]
#2: Sugar Withdrawal
It’s not crazy to call sugar a drug. Some research, in fact, suggests an analogy between the addictive properties of sugar and those of—believe it or not—cocaine.[*]
The mechanism is interesting. By rapidly raising blood sugar and insulin levels, refined sugar stimulates the release of dopamine, a rewarding chemical that binds to your brain.[*] Every time someone eats a sweet, the reward pathway is triggered, and the addiction is strengthened.
And the stronger an addiction gets, the more likely the addict will experience withdrawal symptoms. This is well-documented for other dopamine-driven drugs of abuse.[*]
To be clear, there’s no published data linking sugar withdrawal to Keto flu symptoms. But if someone was eating a high-sugar diet before going Keto, sugar withdrawal could be a legitimate concern.
#3: Electrolyte Deficiency
Keto dieters must pay special attention to their electrolyte intake. Why? Two main reasons:
- Low-carb diets lower insulin levels, which increases excretion of electrolytes like sodium and potassium through urine.[*]
- The Keto diet restricts electrolyte-rich foods like fruits, potatoes, and salty snacks.
In other words: Less electrolytes in, more electrolytes out. It’s a recipe for deficiency.
And the symptoms of electrolyte deficiency (especially sodium deficiency) are eerily similar to what people call Keto flu.[*] Could these headaches, energy issues, cramps, confusion and insomnia be helped by eating more salt? In many cases, probably.
Along with losing more electrolytes, Keto dieters also lose more water. The mechanism is similar: Low insulin has a diuretic effect.[*]
The process of losing significant body water is called dehydration, and the symptoms of dehydration look a lot like Keto flu. We’re talking headaches, fatigue, cramps, etc.
We’ll return to dehydration later in the article, because many people take the wrong approach. It’s possible, in fact, to drink too much water, dilute blood sodium levels, and worsen the problem.
#5: Not Enough Fiber
Constipation and diarrhea are common Keto flu symptoms, and they probably can’t be explained by the causes above.
That’s where fiber comes in. Dietary fiber is a form of carbohydrate that moves food through the gut, keeps you regular, and feeds gut bacteria that aid in digestion.[*]
A lack of fiber may partly explain the GI issues linked to going Keto. When you eliminate fruit, whole grains, and starchy vegetables—you eliminate some of the best sources of fiber on the planet.
Keto Flu Remedies
Now that you’ve learned what causes Keto flu, the following remedies should make sense. If you’re low on sodium, for instance, the remedy is fairly obvious: Eat more salt.
Here’s a list of Keto flu prevention tips:
- Give it time. Transitioning your fuel system from sugar to fat may not happen overnight. Remember, your brain normally uses 100% glucose for energy, and it may take several days or more to comfortably switch to ketones. And if you’re dealing with sugar withdrawal symptoms, time is also your friend.
- Get enough electrolytes. To prevent electrolyte deficiency on keto, eat a diet rich in sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium. This can be accomplished by salting your food, drinking bone broth, and eating plenty of leafy vegetables. You might also consider a well-formulated electrolyte supplement.
- Drink to thirst. Thirst is a finely-tuned mechanism, honed over millions of years of evolution.[*] In most cases, drinking to thirst will prevent both dehydration and over-watering—both of which can cause symptoms.
- Eat low-carb veggies. If you’re having gut issues on Keto, play around with adding more spinach, kale, asparagus, lettuce, cauliflower and broccoli to your plate. These and other non-starchy veggies aren’t just good sources of electrolytes; they’re also high in dietary fiber.
- Mind your macros. Eating a high-fat low-carb Keto diet signals your cells to burn body fat and produce ketones. But if you eat too many carbs (or not enough fat), you’ll likely have trouble adapting to Keto. You may get stuck in an uncanny valley in which you’re eating too many carbs to enter ketosis, but not enough carbs to satisfy your brain’s raging appetite for glucose. That’s why it’s essential to mind your macros in the early stages of Keto dieting.
Macro tracking is easier than you think. Simply type out the foods you’ve eaten (3 eggs and 2 slices of bacon, for instance) and the Carb Manager app handles the rest. No tedious lookups or complex click-throughs.
In the app you’ll also find thousands of recipes, customizable meal plans, a supportive community, and a bona fide Keto Academy to help you hit your health goals while avoiding Keto flu. See you there.