When you start keto diet you would experience many flu like symptoms which are collectively called Keto flu. Below we have sum up what is ketu flu, why your body experiences it on a keto diet and what are some of the best ways to treat/manage it.
What is keto flu?
Carbohydrate is the primary source of energy for the human body. On a ketogenic diet, in which dietary carbohydrates are restricted, once your body has utilized all the stored sugar, it starts using ketones (break down products of fatty acids) as its energy source. This metabolic state of your body is called ketosis and the aim of ketogenic diet is to force your body to reach a state of ketosis. Ketosis is associated with numerous health benefits.
Research shows that sugars and carbohydrates activate the reward centers in your brain and release the feel good neurotransmitter dopamine. This process is quite similar to the action of addictive drugs such as cocaine and heroin. When you deprive your body of sugars and carbohydrates there is less production of dopamine. This causes your body to crave for more sugars and carbohydrates leading to withdrawal symptoms. In fact, sugar addiction is considered similar to drug addiction. People on ketogenic diet experience irritability, mood swings and several other symptoms when their body tries to adapt to the diet. This phase is called keto adaptation. During keto adaptation you experience flu like symptoms, which are collectively called induction flu or keto flu.
What happens during keto adaptation?
- During the initial stages of the ketogenic diet your body burns all the stored sugars/glucose. Ultimately, it has no more glucose left to burn for its energy needs and it has still not adapted to burning fats efficiently. During this transition phase your body gets into a hypoglycemic (low blood sugar) state and experiences energy deficits. This hypoglycemic state exists only for a short duration and disappears once your body adapts to utilizing fats as its primary energy source.
- When your body experiences hypoglycemia, there is increased production of the stress hormone cortisol in order to break down the glycogen stored in the body and increase blood glucose levels. This leads to HPA axis (Hypothalamus Pituitary Adrenal axis) dysfunction, which can lead to sleep disturbances and heart palpitations. This effect also occurs for a short duration and disappears once your body adapts to the ketogenic diet.
- Due to the drop in blood sugar levels your insulin levels drop. Decrease in insulin levels results in increased excretion of sodium and water from your body. This results in dehydration and electrolyte imbalance, which can be easily managed by consuming plenty of water and taking mineral supplements.
What are the symptoms of keto flu?
Some of the common symptoms of keto flu are:
- brain fog
- muscular cramps
- running nose
The symptoms of keto flu usually start 2-4 days after starting the ketogenic diet and last for a week. In some people the symptoms of keto flu can last for a month but it is very rare. Your symptoms can be severe if you are used to consuming a large amount of processed sugars and carbohydrates before starting the ketogenic diet. Some people have metabolic flexibility, wherein their body can shift to different metabolic states without any health problems. If you have metabolic flexibility you will not experience keto flu when your body adapts to the ketogenic diet.
How to manage keto flu?
Increase electrolyte intake
The major cause for the onset of keto flu is electrolyte deficiency when you start the ketogenic diet. Electrolytes are minerals that bear an electric charge on them and are essential for the normal functioning of your body. Electrolyte deficiency leads to fatigue, irritability, dizziness, confusion and muscle cramping. It occurs because you eat less quantity of starchy fruits and vegetables, which are a rich source of electrolytes. Moreover, the levels of insulin reduce while you are on keto diet, which leads to increased excretion of sodium from the body. People on a ketogenic diet are deficient in magnesium, calcium, sodium, phosphorus, chlorine and calcium.
An easy way to replenish the deficient electrolytes is by consuming an electrolyte supplement. While choosing the supplement make sure it does not contain processed sweeteners or sugars, which can spoil your ketogenic diet. Increasing your salt intake, consuming coconut water and consuming foods rich in minerals such as leafy greens, cucumber, garlic, celery and sea weeds also helps in replenishing electrolytes.
Drink lots of water
As you tend to lose a lot of water while following the ketogenic diet, it is essential that you stay sufficiently hydrated. Drinking lots of water (you can also add salt to the water) will help control the symptoms of keto flu. During the initial phase of ketogenic diet, the low insulin levels leads to loss of sodium and water. A water loss equivalent to 2% of your body weight leads to fatigue and decreased physical performance and a water loss equivalent to 2.8% of your body weight leads to impaired brain function causing confusion, irritability and brain fog.
Increase fat intake
You can control the symptoms of keto flu by increasing your fat intake. Ensure that you are consuming enough fat to make up for the carbohydrate restriction in your diet. Increasing your fat intake will make your body quickly adapt to using fats as the primary energy source. Increase your consumption of foods containing healthy fats such as egg yolk, butter, avocados, olive oil, coconut oil, grass fed butter etc.
Slowly reduce carbohydrates
You should decrease the carbohydrates in your diet gradually to control the symptoms of keto flu. Though, restricting the intake of carbohydrates suddenly will help you enter into the state of ketosis easily; however, the side effects that may occur will discourage you from continuing the diet. If you experience severe keto flu, reduce carbohydrates gradually from your diet instead of excluding them totally at once. You should begin by eliminating processed sugars and start consuming starchy fruits and vegetables (peas, pumpkins, green bananas and corn) as your carbohydrate source. Then, slowly reduce your carbohydrate intake such that it makes only 5% of your diet.
Performing gentle exercises such as walking, yoga or stretching will help relieve muscle pain and release endorphins. Endorphins are feel good chemicals produced by your body that can elevate your mood and help you remain motivated and stress free. Research shows that physical activity increases your body’s ability to switch from using carbohydrate to fat as energy source.
You may have difficulty in falling asleep when you are experiencing symptoms of keto flu due to increase in cortisol levels. The stress hormone cortisol can decrease your melatonin levels causing sleeping difficulties. Take measures to ensure that you sleep 7-9 hours every night. You can take an Epsom salt bath to relax your muscles so as to promote better sleep. You can drink tea containing chamomile and valerian to help you sleep. Switch off electronic devices at least 2 hours before your bed time. Make sure your bed room does not have bright lights and also take steps to prevent noise from outside from entering your room.
Stay motivated and avoid stressing over the keto flu symptoms. Understand that these symptoms are transient and will disappear once your body adapts to the new metabolic state. Too much stress can increase your cortisol levels making your keto flu more severe. Try including meditation and breathing exercises in your schedule to remain calm and stress free. Remember that keto flu is a small obstacle that you have to overcome for an entire lifetime of good health and well being.