Electrolytes and Keto: Why They Matter for the Transition

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The one piece of advice all newcomers to the ketogenic diet receive is to “get enough electrolytes.” It doesn’t matter what flavor of keto diet you’re talking about—paleo, carnivore, Primal, standard, clinical, mainstream, salami-and-cream-cheese. They all mention the importance of getting your electrolytes, particularly during the transition from a higher-carb diet.

I’ve said it. I say it. It really is important. Heck, a major part of the much-maligned “keto flu” can be directly attributed to inadequate intake of sodium, potassium, and magnesium. Oftentimes, increasing your electrolytes stops the flu from happening in the first place.

Why, though?

Why Do Early Stages Of a Ketogenic Diet Trigger an Increase In electrolyte Requirements?

One of the first things that happens when you go keto is you lose a bunch of glycogen from almost everywhere. For one, depletion of liver glycogen—the storage form of carbohydrates in the body—is the trigger for the liver to begin producing ketone bodies. It can’t make ketones if it’s full of glycogen. And, two, since you’ve just removed virtually all the digestible carbohydrates from your diet and your body hasn’t adapted to burning fats directly, it’s going to burn through the stored muscle glycogen and ramp up ketone production to make up for the rest of your energy requirements.

If you’re going keto (and doing it right), you’ll be depleting your glycogen stores. It’s totally normal, but there’s a side effect: water loss.

Each gram of glycogen in the body is stored with four grams of water. Every time you lose a gram of glycogen, you lose four grams of water and a bunch of sodium, magnesium, and potassium. When sodium drops, your kidneys start shedding potassium to maintain the right sodium:potassium ratio. But even though the ratio might be “right,” the absolute amounts of sodium and potassium are inadequate for optimal function.

As you get better at burning fats directly and your body gets acclimated to utilizing them for energy, you won’t have to maintain empty liver glycogen to stimulate massive ketone production. You can use fats for the majority of your energy requirements and can begin storing more glycogen rather than shedding it instantly. As a result, you won’t shed as much water or lose as many electrolytes.

Another factor is that going keto lowers insulin, and low insulin levels reduce sodium retention. This is one reason why low-carb diets are so good for people with salt-sensitive high blood pressure—they help you get rid of excess sodium.

A Few Signs of Low Electrolytes During the Keto Transition

Headaches

When sodium gets too low, your body will reduce water stores to maintain proper sodium ratios. This creates a vicious cycle of dehydration that can trigger headaches. Luckily, salt repletion will fix most keto headaches.

Postural Hypotension

If you’ve ever felt dizzy and unsteady upon standing up from a seated position, you’ve experienced postural hypotension. Blood pools in the lower half of your body while sitting and the blood pressure is inadequate to adjust in time. Without enough blood in your brain, things don’t work so well. It only lasts for a second or two, but it’s no fun.

Sodium depletion—as occurs in the early stages of keto—is a major risk factor for postural hypotension. Eating more salt is a quick fix. This isn’t keto broscience, either. Standard medical treatment of postural hypotension is to have the patient consume up to a tablespoon and a half of extra salt per day.

Poor Physical Performance

When you go keto, you might notice a drop-off in your physical performance in the gym or on the field. Part of this is a transitory effect of your tissues adapting to a new energy source. But another explanation is that you have low potassium levels.

In the muscle tissue itself, potassium acts as an electrical conduit during muscle contractions—and muscle contractions are what make a muscle “go.”

Low Energy

To some extent, low energy is part and parcel of the keto transition. You’re not great at burning fat and ketones yet. You’re still missing carbs. That’s okay, that’s normal. It’s a necessary evil, and it will pass.

But low energy can also be a symptom of low electrolyte status, as potassium and magnesium are all important co-factors in the production of ATP, the body’s energy currency.

How To Re-establish Optimum Electrolyte Balance During Keto Transitions

The fix is simple. Eat more sodium, potassium, and magnesium.

For sodium:

  • Salt your food to taste (your salt appetite is a good barometer of your sodium requirements).
  • Drink salty broth (true bone broth is ideal, but good bouillon or store-bought is also acceptable).
  • Aim for 3-5 grams of sodium.

For potassium:

  • Eat zucchinis, avocados, leafy greens, and medium-rare steak with all the juices (the juice contains tons of potassium).
  • Use potassium citrate.
  • Aim for 3-5 grams of potassium.

For magnesium:

  • Eat leafy greens, halibut, dark chocolate, nuts.
  • Consider hemp seeds. They’re incredibly high in magnesium, low in phytate, and a little bit goes a long way.
  • Use magnesium supplements. The chelated magnesiums (those ending in “-ate,” like citrate, glycinate, or threonate) tend to be the best absorbed. Another option is to use topical magnesium chloride oil.
  • Aim for 500 mg of magnesium.

My favorite way to get a big dose of these electrolytes in one fell swoop is to pour a big glass of sparkling mineral water (I like Gerolsteiner) and add juice from 2 limes or lemons, a teaspoon of salt, and a scoop of magnesium powder. Great and incredibly refreshing. Sip on that twice a day, and you’ll be fine.

In my experience, electrolyte loss is the biggest stumbling block for people new to keto. It’s also one of the easiest to avoid. So get after it!

What’s your favorite way to get enough sodium, potassium, and magnesium? Got any great no-sugar electrolyte drink recipes you’d care to share?

Thanks for reading, everyone.

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