The side effects of nutritional ketosis include weight loss, improved mental clarity, stabilized mood, improved PCOS symptoms, reduced acne, reduced appetite, higher levels of HDL (the good cholesterol), improved insulin sensitivity, and reduced blood pressure.
The side effects of transitioning to nutritional ketosis, on the other hand? An equally impressive list, but considerably more daunting: cravings, headache, nausea, mental fogginess, irritability, fatigue, trouble falling asleep, and dizziness. These symptoms are remarkably similar to withdrawal symptoms from many types of drugs--for good reason. Sugar is an easy--albeit problematic--source of energy that many of us rely on heavily. Take it away? Your body reveals its addiction and protests strongly.
While the transitional period from using carbohydrates for fuel to using fat for fuel, also known as the “keto flu” can be difficult, there’s good news:
First, the symptoms of the keto flu won’t last forever. For most people, the intense symptoms last between a few days and three weeks.
Second, there’s no need to grin and bear (or hide and bemoan) the symptoms as you transition to ketosis. The following are the most common side effects of keto transition, as well as five proven ways you can counteract the symptoms of keto transition--or avoid them altogether.
Side Effects of Keto Transition
The human body has a love-hate relationship with sugar. Although high blood sugar is incredibly dangerous to our nerves, muscles, and other tissues--which is why insulin kicks into gear so quickly to either use it or convert it to fat stores in the body--it’s also a very easy source of energy. The body’s other option for energy production is fat--which requires the liver to produce ketones. Unfortunately, the body will burn through all its stores of glycogen--while sending “distress signals” in the form of keto flu symptoms--before it begins producing ketones in the liver to burn fat (both stored and consumed) for energy. While some people interpret these “distress signals” as evidence that the keto diet isn’t a healthy choice, it’s important to remember that the body is reacting the same way it would if you took away cocaine or heroin. Sugar provides quick energy and a boost in dopamine--two things the body wants and needs. During this time period, many people experience the following:
- A general sense of fatigue Intense cravings for foods that are high in carbohydrates (brace yourself for some intense food fantasies)
- Dizziness Difficulty concentrating (also known as “brain fog”)
- Upset stomach and/or diarrhea
- Mood swings and general irritability
Fortunately, these symptoms can be counteracted or skirted altogether in the following ways:
1. Increase Salt and Electrolyte Intake
As you reduce your carbohydrate consumption, your insulin (also known as the “fat storage hormone”) levels will naturally decrease too. Long-term, this means drastically reduced rates of metabolic syndrome, type-two diabetes, and obesity. However, in the short term reduced insulin levels mean your body has a more difficult time maintaining sodium levels. This is one of the top causes of dizziness, tiredness, and fatigue during the transition period to a ketogenic diet.
While most of us have been taught to fear salt and sodium, it’s a vital part of our diet in healthy levels. And during keto flu, where sodium levels are naturally depressed, adding more salt and electrolytes to your diet will prevent or significantly improve many symptoms.
Try sipping keto lemonade (lemon juice, water, a pinch of salt, and a few drops of liquid stevia) throughout the day, or sip homemade bone broth. You’ll be amazed at the difference it makes!
2. Stay Hydrated
Just as reduced insulin levels mean more sodium and electrolytes are flushed from the body, you’re also likely to notice a diuretic effect, as the body lets go of water weight. The upside to this diuretic effect is decreased bloating, but it’s important to increase your water and fluid intake during this time. Dehydration can lead to headaches, nausea, and a general feeling of malaise during your transition to ketosis.
Sipping bone broth or keto lemonade will keep electrolyte levels strong, while hydrating. Keep a water bottle with you throughout the day, and consider setting hydration goals of how many times you will drain the water bottle throughout the day.
3. Eat More Fat (And Watch Your Calories)
While the phrase “watch your calories” typically means avoiding eating too much, many people find the opposite problem to be true during a transition to ketosis. Cutting out a lot of staple foods you used to depend on (including bread, tortillas, bananas, potatoes, and corn) can lead to consuming too few calories, simply because of the “what do I eat now?” dilemma.
As you stretch yourself to find new diet staples (and don’t worry, there is a whole world of delicious recipes waiting for you), make a concerted effort to make sure you’re getting enough calories during the day, particularly from foods that are high in fat and contain moderate amounts of protein (like avocados, nuts, coconut milk, eggs, meats, butter, and cream). Eating enough calories will help you avoid fatigue, irritability, and nausea. And by providing your body will fat for energy as your liver begins to produce ketones, you’ll find you have increasingly more energy as you adapt to keto. For many people, eating a lot of fat contradicts a lifetime of misguided information. Research all you can to debunk this misinformation and ease your transition.
4. Supplement With Exogenous Ketones
The bulk of the symptoms you may experience during the keto flu come about because the body hasn’t yet begun producing endogenous ketones (ketones produced by the body internally in the liver) to convert fat into energy. Supplementing with exogenous ketones (or ketones that come from a source outside the body) during this time can significantly ease the symptoms of keto flu, as the body is able to access consumed and stored fat for energy with a ready supply of ketones. Beta Hydroxybutyrate, which is a ketone body produced naturally in the liver, can also be taken in supplement form. In most cases, Beta Hydroxybutyrate (or BHB) comes in the form of a salt compound, and can be taken as a pill, in powder form, or ready-made drinks. With a ready supply of ketones and access to energy, the body stops “panicking” and can make the transition to ketosis more readily.
“Metabolic flexibility” means that your body can make the transition between using sugar for energy, to using fat for energy more easily--and without a lot of the fanfare of keto flu. And what’s one of the best ways to improve your metabolic flexibility? Exercise!
While exercise is the last thing most people in the throes of keto flu want to do, it can make a significant difference in how you feel. A light exercise session--a walk through the neighborhood, an easy jog, or even some yard work--can improve your metabolic flexibility, allowing your body to make the transition to using fat for energy more gracefully.
The benefits of a keto diet are waiting just around the corner of the unpleasant side effects of keto flu. And by incorporating these proven ways to beat the keto flu into your daily routine as you transition away from carbohydrates, it may even be possible to embrace--rather than simply endure--the journey to nutritional ketosis.