How to manage low carb & keto diet side effects

keto side effects

It may be a good idea to start low-carb before the weekend or when you don’t have tasks that require a lot of effort and concentration.

When starting on a low carb diet, in the first week or so, you may feel tired and lethargic. This is so, especially if you were previously eating a great deal of sugar. You might also be surprised by how much you miss sugar, but your sugar cravings will eventually become less and less as you carry on cutting carbs.

1. Keto flu: Headaches, fatigue, lethargy, nausea, confusion and brain fog

The reason we experience Keto flu symptoms is because, apart from your muscles and body needing energy to function, your brain also relies on carbohydrates for energy – close to 500 calories a day. Without them, your brain power will suffer and that midday crash might hit you hard. Or maybe you will find it hard to focus throughout the day.

Keto flu symptoms are most often experienced during the first week, often on days 2 to 4, but usually clear up after a week or so, when your body starts to adjust to the new way of burning fat for fuel.

During this transition period headaches are very common, as is feeling tired, lethargic and unmotivated. You may also experience nausea, confusion or “brain fog” (dullness).

Fortunately these symptoms usually disappear by themselves within a few days.

How to avoid the Keto flu

a. Drink salt water

The main cause is usually dehydration and/or salt deficiency, caused by a temporarily increased urine production. It is possible to avoid these symptoms altogether by getting enough water and salt into your system.

Stir half a teaspoon of salt into a large glass of water and drink. If this helps after 15 to 30 minutes, repeat once daily if needed during the first week. A tastier option is to drink chicken or bone broth, or bouillon.

b. Eat enough fat

If you aren’t getting enough fat on the low carb diet, you are literally starving yourself – and therefore feeling hungry and tired. You should never be hungry going on a low-carb diet. A proper low-carb diet contains enough fat to make you feel satisfied and full of energy.

There are many options for getting enough fat into your diet, but if in doubt, add butter to whatever you’re eating.

If after all this you are still experiencing symptoms, just hang in there until they go away by themselves. It’s worth it!

2. Mood swings and irritability

Because carbohydrates are critical for production of the mood balancing brain chemical serotonin, it’s also common to feel irritable and experience mood swings.

3. Leg cramps

Leg cramps are not uncommon when starting a strict low-carb diet. It’s usually a minor issue if it occurs, but it can sometimes be painful. It’s a side effect of the loss of minerals such as sodium, potassium, calcium and especially magnesium, due to increased urination. Here’s how to avoid it:

Drink plenty of salted water and fluids. This may reduce loss of magnesium and help prevent leg cramps.
Be sure to get these minerals from low-carb foods by eating plenty of dark leafy greens, nuts and seeds as well as salmon and tuna.
If necessary, supplement with magnesium tablets, such as Slow Mag.

4. Constipation

The most common causes of constipation on low carb are dehydration and a lack of fibre in our food. Dehydration makes the body absorb more water from the colon and thus the contents get dryer, harder and constipation can result. The Low carb diet lacks fibre because the only source of fibre is in the carbs.

How to treat constipation:

  • Drink plenty of water during the day – at least a litre or more – and get enough salt. Start your day with a glass of hot water with lemon and a pinch of sea salt to encourage a bowel movement. Make sure you get 2 to 2 ½ teaspoons of salt a day. Pink Himalayan salt or a high-quality sea salt are best as they contain dozens of trace minerals and are generally free of the heavy metals and pollutants found in commercial salt.
  • Eat plenty of low carb vegetables, especially the green leafy ones, and small amounts of low carb fruits (strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries), otherwise you are likely to develop a severe case of constipation.
  • Increase your intake of MCT (medium-chain triglycerides) oil. MCT oil is a saturated fatty acid that gives your body instant energy in the form of ketones. It can take a little bit of time for your digestive system to get used to MCT oils. It will help to loosen your bowels and gets things moving.
  • Psyllium seed husks are a carb free way to add fiber to your diet. It can also be taken by dissolving in water.
    Some people swear by milled linseeds added to plain yogurt.
  • Keep moving. Exercise is one of the best ways to keep you regular.
  • I take 1 teaspoon of baking soda dissolved in a half glass of water in the mornings. It works like a bomb! The added benefit is that it helps to regulate your body’s PH levels, as the low carb diet can lead to too much acidity if you aren’t eating enough plant based foods.

5. Keto diarrhea

Activated Charcoal

Take activated charcoal. Activated charcoal binds to toxins and chemicals in the gut, stopping your body from absorbing them. But don’t take too much as it can have the opposite effect – constipation. Start with 1 or 2 capsules and adapt as needed.

Too much MCT oil?

Start slowly with MCT oils. If you recently introduced MCT oils into your diet and are experiencing diarrhea, try reducing them, as you may be taking too much too soon. Start with 1 tsp at a time and work your way up from there.

Digestive enzymes

Try digestive enzymes if you are not properly digesting fats. If you used to eat a low fat diet it’s possible that your gallbladder may take a little time to adapt.

Try these supplements:

  • Lipase: This enzyme digests fat in the body.
  • Hydrochloric acid (HCL): HCL is the same acid you produce in your stomach. An HCL supplement will help increase stomach acid, which aids digestion.

6. Bad breath

When you start a low carb diet, your body starts burning fat as fuel, producing ketones – including acetone – causing a characteristic fruity smell of the breath that often reminds people of nail polish remover. This is a sign that your body is burning lots of fat; and even converting fat to ketones to fuel the brain.

This smell can sometimes manifest as body odor, especially if sweating while working out.

Not everyone on a keto low-carb diet experiences bad breath. For most people who do, it’s a temporary thing that goes away after a week or so.

For the few who can’t get rid of the bad breath, here are the possible solutions:

  • Drink plenty of water and fluids – and get enough salt.
  • Maintain good oral hygiene. Brushing your teeth twice a day won’t get rid of the smell coming from the lungs, but it will help.
  • Use a breath freshener regularly to mask the bad breath. Chew on mint.
  • Reduce the degree of ketosis by eating a few more carbs, 50 to 70 grams per day is usually enough to get out of ketosis. This means you won’t lose weight as quickly, but you can compensate with intermittent fasting – without the smell.

7. Heart palpitations

It’s common to experience a slightly elevated heart rate during the first few weeks on low carb.

There are two possible causes and remedies:

  1. One common cause is dehydration and a lack of salt, causing the heart to pump blood harder or faster to maintain blood pressure. The quick solution to this problem is to drink enough fluids and make sure to get enough salt.
  2. If drinking salt water does not reduce the problem it may be due to stress hormones released to maintain blood sugar levels which is a temporary problem as the body adapts to a lower carb diet and will subside within a week or two.
    In the unlikely case the problem persists try to slightly increase the carb intake.
    Supplementing with magnesium may help to decrease palpitations.

For those with diabetes

You need to monitor your blood sugar frequently when starting this diet and adapt (lower) your medication. This should ideally be done with the assistance of a knowledgeable physician.

For those with high blood pressure

High blood pressure tends to normalize on a low carb diet. This reduces the need for medication and your dosage may become too strong, leading to low blood pressure and heart palpitations. Contact your doctor to discuss possibly reducing or discontinuing your blood pressure medication.

8. Temporary hair loss

This rarely happens but when it does, it usually starts 3 to 6 months after starting a new diet. Fortunately, it is only a temporary phenomenon and it won’t be very visible to others. After a few months your hair will start growing back again to the way it was before.

Temporary hair loss can occur for many different reasons, including severe dietary changes and or living through stressful situations.

How to minimize the risk of hair loss when starting low carb

  • Don’t restrict calories, i.e. don’t do a low-carb as well as low-fat diet. That is starving yourself and dangerous. Instead, eat as much fat as you need to feel satisfied and not hungry.
  • Reduce stress as much as possible during your first few weeks on low carb. Sleep well, be kind to yourself in general, and preferably don’t start an intense exercise program at the same time (wait at least a couple of weeks).

It gets better

As you see, most problems can be sorted out by increasing your water and salt intake and riding things out till your body has adapted itself to the new Low Carb Lifestyle.

Eventually you are going to notice good things. Most of you will come back and say that you are feeling so much better than before, with so much more mental clarity and energy, that you get bored in the evening and start going for walks and becoming much more active in general!

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