The very low-carb nature of a ketogenic diet can change the way your body handles electrolytes and water.
That means that it can be easy to experience electrolyte imbalances and dehydration when you’re first starting and throughout your ketogenic journey.
Don’t worry though — it’s any easy fix!
In this article you’ll learn:
- Why electrolyte deficiencies and/or dehydration are risks when starting a ketogenic diet.
- What electrolytes are.
- How you can address electrolyte imbalances and dehydration.
When you begin a ketogenic diet and drastically cut back on carbs, your body produces less insulin and glycogen stores are depleted. For every gram of glycogen (stored carbs) three grams of water are stored as well.
As those stores are depleted, our kidneys go from retaining water to excreting more of it. If you’ve done keto before, you may have noticed that you experienced a “whoosh” early on, where you lost a lot of weight and felt less bloated.
This is water weight resulting from the excretion of water.
The upside? Looking better.
The downside? With this flush of water, important minerals called electrolytes are excreted too.
Below we’ll cover what electrolytes actually are, why they’re important, and how to replenish them.
Electrolytes are specific nutrients in our bodies crucial for important functions like:
- Muscle contractions
- Heartbeat regulation
- Body temperature control
- Bladder control
- Energy production
- Neurological functions
Without electrolytes, you wouldn’t exist.
You must have enough of these in your body for processes to function correctly. If one or more of these electrolytes are deficient, you’re going to have some issues.
Symptoms of electrolyte deficiency include:
- Heart palpitations or racing heart
- Feeling shaky, dizzy or weak like you’re going to pass out
- Headaches or migraines
- Leg or other muscles cramps, such as getting Charlie horses at night
- Trouble with constipation and bloating
The keto flu really comes down to electrolyte imbalances. If you don’t understand these symptoms you may come to the conclusion that keto just isn’t right for you — but in reality, it’s just an adjustment period.
Electrolyte imbalances can happen to those who are new to the ketogenic diet — but thankfully there are some simple ways to address these imbalances.
Here are some ways to get a good dose of the electrolytes you need:
Electrolytes can be replenished through your nutrition.
There are four main vitamins and minerals that help rebalance your electrolytes and get you out of that dreaded keto flu.
Use more salt! Sodium gets a bad rap for causing health problems, but things are a little different on the ketogenic diet. When excess water is dumped from the kidneys, electrolytes like sodium go with it [*].
Sodium is an important mineral and electrolyte that helps retain water in the body and keeps a proper balance of other electrolytes. Sodium is also very important for muscle and nerve function.
You can replenish sodium by adding salt to your water and food or by regularly drinking bone broth (Kettle and Fire is a good brand if you don’t want to make your own).
Potassium is important for maintaining healthy blood pressure levels, regulating heart rate, and ensuring proper fluid balance in the body. Like sodium, we also need potassium for nerve and muscle function.
However, too much potassium is toxic so it’s advised to be careful with supplementation. Thankfully, there are great whole food sources out there that contain adequate amounts of potassium. These include salmon, nuts, avocados, leafy green veggies and mushrooms.
Calcium is another very important electrolyte that plays many different roles in the body including blood clotting, building strong bones, regulating nerve function and ensuring proper muscle contraction.
You can get calcium from dairy foods, leafy greens, broccoli, fish and even non-dairy unsweetened milks like almond and coconut milk. If supplementing with calcium, make sure it includes vitamin D to ensure adequate absorption.
Magnesium helps the body maintain a healthy immune system, normal heart rhythm, proper nerve and muscle function and many other biochemical reactions. Like calcium, it’s needed for building healthy and strong bones.
Leafy greens and nuts have magnesium but you may need to supplement as well (around 500 mg per day is sufficient for most people).
There are many more vitamins and minerals you need to consider when you’re on the keto diet, but a keto greens powder is usually the best way to cover all your vitamin and mineral bases.
Note: If you lead an overly stressful life or exercise often, you may need more of these minerals. Stress can affect hormone balance, leading to further fluid and electrolyte imbalances and hard exercise can deplete sodium levels to a greater degree.
Now that we’ve covered the importance of electrolyte balance on keto, the next section will address another complaint that is common for those who are first starting off — dehydration.
Dehydration on Keto
Water makes up more than 50% of your body and is probably the most important necessity in life.
Obviously, getting enough water is crucial for our ability to thrive.
Although everyone should be mindful of their body’s water requirements and stay hydrated, if you’re eating a ketogenic diet (at least in the beginning phase) you may have higher water needs.
The low-carb nature of this diet leads to more water loss as we discussed earlier. This can lead to at least mild dehydration, which can contribute to constipation and many of the other keto flu symptoms.
So, what can you do about this? The answer is pretty obvious (drink more water!) but here are some tips for staying hydrated:
How to Stay Hydrated
Since the main reason for electrolyte depletion on keto is excess water excretion and less water retention, increasing water and electrolyte intake is the best way to prevent issues with imbalances.
The amount of water that you need to consume daily depends on your activity levels, the climate you live in, the other foods and drinks you consume, and others.
You’ve surely heard the standard eight glasses a day, but there’s no scientific evidence to back this up.
But, the “eight glasses” rule may help you remember to drink water regularly.
One thing to note is that too much water intake can flush out electrolytes more quickly, which is counterintuitive.
This is why the best rule of thumb is to drink to thirst.
Listen to what your body tells you, eat whole foods like vegetables that are naturally high in water content and get really good at recognizing thirst so you can stay properly hydrated throughout the day.
Don’t Fall Victim to Electrolyte Imbalances and Dehydration
Starting a ketogenic diet can increase electrolyte and water loss so replenishing both is important for overall health and reducing uncomfortable side effects.
Focus on getting sufficient amounts of sodium, calcium, potassium and magnesium either from your diet or in supplement form (and talk to your doctor if in doubt).
Be mindful of drinking water throughout the day and definitely drink when you feel thirsty.
Dr. Anthony Gustin is a board-certified sports chiropractor, functional medicine practitioner, entrepreneur, podcast host, and founder of Perfect Keto.
After growing his sports rehab and functional medicine clinics to six locations in San Francisco, he shifted his mission to help as many people as possible achieve optimal health and well-being.