Ketogenic diets can be great for rapid weight loss, but while the diet does help you shed pounds, it also causes your body to shed water and electrolytes. Following a ketogenic diet can cause electrolyte imbalances that will leave you feeling less than your best and can even be dangerous in some cases. If you’re wondering why electrolytes are important on the keto diet, you’ll find all of the answers you need, plus some great options for keto-friendly electrolyte supplements. If you’re considering trying a ketogenic diet, you’re in good company.
What is a ketogenic diet?
The ketogenic diet, or “keto” for short, is a diet that is very low in carbohydrates and high in fat. The diet was first developed in the 1920s as a treatment for epilepsy that was resistant to treatment with medications. However, the diet fell out of use as a treatment for epilepsy when new anticonvulsant medications were developed in the 1990s. Since then, the ketogenic diet has primarily been promoted for its weight loss benefits. In addition to helping people lose weight, the keto diet may also have other positive impacts on health, including a reduced risk of suffering from serious health conditions like epilepsy, certain types of cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease.
What is ketosis?
Ketogenic diets strictly limit carbohydrate intake and replace carbohydrates with very high levels of fat, which puts the body in a metabolic state called ketosis. When the body enters ketosis, it must rely on fat stores for energy instead of carbohydrates, which is the preferred energy source of the body. Limited carbohydrate intake on a ketogenic diet means that there are very low levels of glucose in the blood. However, not all low carbohydrate diets will cause ketosis. Most people need to eat less than 50 grams of carbohydrates each day to put their bodies into ketosis, while some people may need to eat as little as 20 grams of carbohydrates per day. Adherents to a ketogenic diet strictly limit foods that are high in carbohydrates, including grains, beans, sugar, candy, bread, fruit, potatoes, and sugary soft drinks, as even one serving of these foods often has more carbohydrates in it than is recommended for the entire day on a ketogenic diet. Instead, people following a keto diet get their limited carbohydrates primarily from vegetables. Because the amount of glucose in the blood is so low, insulin levels drop in response, which causes the body to release fatty acids from fat stores. In order to provide energy for the body to function, the liver converts the fatty acids into ketones, which are then used for energy. People who enter ketosis often lose weight rapidly, which is due in part to the quick shedding of water from the body.
Does the ketogenic diet cause electrolyte imbalances?
The ketogenic diet causes the body to rapidly eliminate water from the body, which can cause dehydration. Dehydration is related to an imbalance of electrolytes in the body; electrolytes are minerals that help the body maintain the proper balance of fluids and prevent dehydration. Sodium, potassium, and magnesium are the electrolytes that are most likely to become imbalanced as the result of adhering to a ketogenic diet. The “keto flu,” a group of symptoms commonly experienced by people when they first start the ketogenic diet, is thought to be caused at least in part by an imbalance of electrolytes.
What are the symptoms of the “keto flu?”
Most people start to experience symptoms of the keto flu within a few days of starting the diet. Symptoms range in severity from person to person, and some people may not experience any symptoms at all. Common symptoms of the keto flu include:
- Stomach pain
- Difficulty sleeping
- Poor concentration
- Muscle soreness
- Muscle cramps
- Sugar cravings
The symptoms of keto flu typically resolve within a week, but some people experience symptoms for longer. One of the best ways to minimize the side effects of a ketogenic diet is by promptly replacing electrolytes when you start the diet.
Which electrolytes are most commonly impacted by a ketogenic diet?
There are seven electrolytes that are naturally found in the body, including sodium, potassium, magnesium, phosphate, calcium, chloride, and bicarbonate. Sodium, potassium, and magnesium are present in the body in the largest quantities and are the electrolytes most frequently impacted by starting a ketogenic diet.
The biggest impacts to electrolytes from a ketogenic diet occur in regards to sodium. As noted previously, consuming very low levels of carbohydrates causes the levels of insulin in the blood to plummet as well. As a result, the body receives the signal to excrete more sodium through the urine. This phenomenon is called “natriuresis of fasting” and commonly occurs in people who are starving, but it also occurs in response to a ketogenic diet. The pancreas secretes insulin in order to direct the body to begin to absorb glucose from the blood and bring it into the cells. However, when the body consumes very low levels of carbohydrates, the pancreas produces less insulin in response. Although we commonly associate insulin with control of blood sugar levels in diabetics, the hormone also has an indirect effect on the retention of sodium by the cells. When insulin levels drop, the cells release sodium, which is then removed from the body by the kidneys via urine. Therefore, switching to a ketogenic diet sometimes requires people to consume more sodium in order to make up for the sodium being flushed from the body. While most people need to be concerned with eating less sodium, people observing a ketogenic diet may need to consume more. Symptoms of sodium deficiency include weakness, fatigue, headaches, and difficulty concentrating.
Potassium imbalances caused by the adoption of a ketogenic diet are closely related to the removal of large amounts of sodium from the body. Sodium and potassium must remain in balance with each other in order to properly balance the fluids in the body, so the body responds to the flushing of sodium by also eliminating additional potassium through the urine and directing the kidneys to reabsorb some sodium. The adrenal glands are responsible for this reaction, which is caused by the increased production of a hormone called aldosterone that is created in response to low sodium levels. Aldosterone directs the kidneys to eliminate potassium from the body and conserve as much sodium as possible in order to maintain a balance between the two electrolytes. Potassium deficiency can cause unpleasant symptoms like muscle twitching, muscle cramps, heart palpitations, and increased awareness of the heartbeat.
Unlike sodium and potassium, which are directly affected by the impact of the ketogenic diet on the body’s functions, magnesium deficiency in people adhering to a very low carbohydrate diet is an indirect effect. Most foods that are considered good sources of magnesium are high in carbohydrates, so adhering to a ketogenic diet is not compatible with obtaining sufficient magnesium through diet alone. An estimated 50 percent of the population does not consume the recommended daily amount of magnesium, and removing carbohydrates from the diet makes it even more difficult to get adequate amounts of the electrolyte. Magnesium deficiencies can cause twitching or cramping muscles, particularly at night or after exercise.
Why are electrolytes important on the keto diet?
The ketogenic diet commonly causes electrolyte imbalances as part of the body’s response to not receiving an adequate supply of carbohydrates. Electrolyte imbalances, combined with the lag the body may experience as it becomes accustomed to using fat for energy instead of carbohydrates, may cause adherents to the ketogenic diet to experience the keto flu. Becoming dehydrated as a result of electrolyte imbalances can be very dangerous, as can symptoms caused by deficiencies in sodium, potassium, and magnesium. Therefore, it is especially important to not only meet the daily recommended intake requirements for sodium, potassium, and magnesium, but actually to exceed these requirements in order to meet your body’s increased need for electrolytes. Electrolyte supplements offer a quick way to replenish electrolytes and keep your body feeling its best, but only if they are keto-friendly.
What are the best keto-friendly electrolyte supplements?
Commercial sports drinks, which are the most well known electrolyte supplements, are packed with carbohydrates and sugar that make these drinks the opposite of keto-friendly. Keto-friendly electrolyte supplements do exist, but you’ll need to look for options that do not include carbohydrates or sugar, such as Total Hydration’s KetoLyte Electrolyte Concentrate. Keto-friendly electrolyte supplements should also be specially formulated to address the unique electrolyte imbalances that occur as a result of the ketogenic diet. Keto Electrolyte Capsules are an excellent carb- and sugar-free option that contains the right ratio of electrolytes for keto dieters and comes in a convenient package.