7 Tips for Avoiding the Dreaded Keto Flu
Cut the carbs, burn fat, feel amazing – sounds pretty simple, right? Before you get to the promised land of the keto diet you have to pay your metabolic dues and shift from burning sugar to burning fat for energy. And the bad news is, your body is going to resist. Enter the keto flu.
The keto flu can last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks and occurs when your body is transitioning from using carbs as its primary fuel source to fat. It gets its name from the flu-like symptoms many experience which may include:
- Feeling sluggish
- Achy muscles
- Muscle cramps
- Sugar cravings
- Difficulty concentrating
As your body starts to burn fat for energy, it will also still be using some sugar (carbs) for energy. This in-between phase is where the magic of the keto flu exists. Not only are you experiencing a major metabolic shift but you are likely going through a withdrawal from starchy and sugary foods as well. The Standard American Diet (SAD)-yes that is a real acronym- is based on carbs like breads, pasta and ice cream. Not surprisingly, there is evidence that components of a high-carb diet like gluten and sugar can be addicting.
There is some individual variability in the duration and severity of the keto flu. In fact, some people don’t experience it at all. The good news is that with a little planning there are a number of things you can do to minimize symptoms or even avoid the keto flu altogether.
1. Start with a fast
Before you can get into ketosis, your body will need to burn through its stored carbs. That process of burning through the stored carbs can take anywhere from a few days to over week. By kicking off your keto diet with a fast, you can speed up this process and get into ketosis faster! A manageable time frame for your fast could be from your evening meal to your lunch the next day, which ends up being around 16 hours for most people. You can also choose to extend this fast to 24 hours until you have dinner that evening. However, if you’ve never fasted before, you may want to plan on the first option and see how you feel before attempting a 24-hour fast.
Whether you start your ketogenic diet with a fast or not you’ll definitely want to brush up on your fluid IQ which brings me to hydration….
2. Stay hydrated and include electrolytes
Many symptoms associated with the keto flu can be attributed to shifts in fluid and electrolyte balance. As carbohydrate stores in your muscles are depleted, fluid is lost. This happens very quickly and is often the cause of the celebrated drastic weight loss that occurs in the first week of ketosis. Loss of fluid as well as changes in blood sugar and insulin cause depletion of electrolytes (sodium, potassium and magnesium) as well. Electrolyte balance is vitally important to nervous system function, particularly running involuntary muscles like the heart and digestive tract.
Drinking enough fluids and incorporating supplemental or food sources of electrolytes will help you avoid this keto pitfall. A good starting point is 2 liters of caffeine free, unsweetened fluid. Larger people may need more.
Food sources of electrolytes include salt of all kinds (Himalayan, sea, kosher, etc.), broccoli, leafy greens, unsweetened coconut water, broth, avocados, nuts and seeds. You may still need supplemental electrolytes but thanks to the recent popularity of the keto diet there are a number of convenient, well designed products on the market that can be added to water and sipped throughout the day.
3. Add some low-intensity exercise
The health benefits of exercise are well documented. Endorphins aside, low-intensity exercise can also help nudge your body into ketosis faster by using up some of that same stored glycogen in the muscles you need to get rid of to enter ketosis. If you can get this exercise first thing in the morning before you’ve had anything to eat, the results will be even better!
4. Incorporate plenty of fiber
Your digestive tract may slow down after cutting out high-carb, high-fiber foods like beans and whole grains. Magnesium (also rich in beans and grains) depletion can make the problem worse. Fiber stimulates the contractions of the digestive tract that move food and waste products along (think of a conveyor belt). Keto-friendly, high-fiber choices include most non-starchy vegetables like leafy greens, broccoli and cauliflower as well as ground flax and chia seeds.
5. Eat good fats
When on a ketogenic diet, by definition the body is using fat for fuel. Without enough fat to use for energy, you may feel sluggish. A good rule of thumb is to incorporate 1-2 tablespoons of healthy fat with every meal – think avocados, olive oil, nut/seed butters etc. If energy is still an issue you may need more.
The fat superstar of the keto diet is medium chain triglycerides or MCT for short. MCT’s are digested and converted into ketone bodies quicker than longer chain fats because there is less work for the body to do to break them apart. This makes MCT oil an excellent source of quick keto fuel. While MCT oil comes from coconuts, it is liquid and flavorless making it extremely versatile to include in everything from coffee to nut butters.
6. Manage stress & get your ZZZ's
Your nervous system can only be going in one direction at a time – fight or flight (stress response) or rest and digest (relaxation response). The body prefers sugar for energy during times of stress and in the absence of carbs, the liver will literally make sugar in an effort to survive. This can slow down your transition into ketosis and prolong the keto flu.
The body is smart but unfortunately, not smart enough to tell the difference between running out of a burning building or sitting in traffic – the stress response is pretty similar in both of these situations. To keep your body chugging away at fat for fuel, manage your stress response. Getting adequate sleep, deep breathing, meditation and exercise are all excellent ways to keep that flight or fight response in check.
The keto flu can be avoided and remedied by implementing simple, consistent lifestyle changes. Set yourself up for success by designating a prep week before starting the keto diet. Jot down your first week’s plan from meals and snacks to sleep and exercise, this way you can structure your day accordingly and have all the supplies you need on hand. Coconut water in hand and fully rested, you’ll cruise into ketosis unscathed.